Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Cool clear water

I was thinking a couple of days ago that it'd been a while since I dealt with a new crazy alt-med cure, and that maybe the woo-woos had run out of ideas.

Optimism, sometimes, is a losing proposition.

As it so often happens, I found out how wrong I was at the hands of a loyal reader of Skeptophilia.  She sent me a link with the text, "I guess this is kind of homeopathic Nirvana, isn't it?  As dilute as you can possibly get."  And the link took me to a site that claims that all human diseases can be cured...

... by drinking distilled water.

Distilled water, as I probably don't need to mention, is water that has been put through the process of steam distillation to remove any trace impurities.  It's useful in sensitive medical and scientific applications where even small amounts of dissolved minerals might interfere with the results.

What these people are claiming, though, is that ordinary tap water isn't... watery enough, or something.  Here are a couple of quotes from the site, so you can get the flavor of it:
When one drinks impure, dirty water, the body acts as a filter, trapping a percentage of the solids suspended in the water.  A filter eventually becomes clogged and useless – fit only to be thrown away. The human body might well face the same fate. 
But the basic point – that only distilled water avoids mineral buildups in the body – is an inarguable one.  The deposits, which build up in a teakettle from repeated use, are traces of minerals left behind as the water evaporates.  Distilled water leaves no such traces – in a teakettle or in the human body.  It is true that in most hospitals distilled water is used for newborn infants; distilled water is prescribed for heart patients in many cardiac wards.  And it is true that kidney stones and other mineral-like buildups in the body are much more common in the areas where the drinking water has high levels in inorganic minerals – and distilled water has none of those at all.
Thinking that minerals build up in the body the same way boiler scale forms on a teakettle is patently ridiculous.  The minerals collect on a teakettle because you've boiled the water away; you would only be at risk for similar buildup if someone boiled your blood plasma, which would be problematic in other respects.  Your kidneys are perfectly capable of coping with tiny fluctuations in mineral content in your food and drink, which is fortunate, because you get a great deal more in the way of minerals from the vegetables you eat than from your water.  According to a study in 2004, average tap water in the US provided greater than one percent of the recommended daily intake for only four minerals -- copper, calcium, magnesium, and sodium.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

And as far as minerals in water causing kidney stones, a 1997 study suggests that calcium and magnesium enriched "mineral water" actually reduces the incidence of kidney stones in individuals who are prone to them.

Then we have this:
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of drinking distilled water for cleansing the blood stream, for reducing arthritic pain and lowering blood pressure.  It has also been known to reduce cholesterol and triglycerides. In fact, the only effect on the body is health. 
There are rules of thumb on how much water to drink.  The rule of thumb on a normal day is one half your body weight in ounces per day.  If you are sweating and exerting yourself you should drink more, not less.  We have a tendency to grab pop, coffee, Kool-Aid and juices, but we need to get back to the habit of grabbing distilled water.
Okay, how much water, now?  The phrase "one half your body weight in ounces per day" can be interpreted two different ways.  For example, I weigh 160 pounds, so if I drank half my body weight every day, that'd be 80 pounds, that's 9.6 gallons of water.  (The recommendation, by the way, is about a half-gallon for a typical adult.)   It's possible, though, that what it means is the number from half my body weight, but in ounces -- so 80 ounces of water.  This is closer to the mark but still seems like a lot to me.  And, of course, you'd get a different answer if you calculated my weight in kilograms, slugs, pennyweights, grains, carats, or solar masses.

If that's not enough, try this:
Now as to the argument that distilled water leaches out minerals.  This is true, and this is exactly what we want it to do.  The minerals it leaches out are of the unusable, ionic form and we want these to leave the body rather than be deposited and cause disease.  Distilled water does not leach out significant amounts of biologically available minerals because these are quickly taken up by the body on an as needed basis.  If they are present in excess then they are filtered through the kidneys and this is exactly what needs to happen with all things which are in excess in the circulation.  Distilled water cleanses the body through promoting healthy kidney function.
Um... no.  You do not want to leach minerals from your body, whether or not they're in "ionic form."  (And some of 'em damn well better be in ionic form.  Such as sodium.  The alternative is elemental sodium, which is a soft, malleable metal that explodes when it touches water.  So consuming non-ionic sodium would be about as advisable as boiling your blood plasma.)  As far as leaching minerals away being good, that's also a nope.  Getting rid of sodium too fast can put you in hyponatremic shock, which can cause dizziness, disorientation, nausea, and severe headaches.  And leaching calcium from your body is what causes, for instance, osteoporosis.

Also not recommended.

And let me reiterate how little in the way of minerals we're talking about, here.  A 2002 study that surveyed the municipal water of a hundred cities in the United States found that Baton Rouge, Louisiana -- the city that was in first place for quantity of minerals -- had a total of a little over eighty parts per million for all the minerals measured combined.

In scientific terms, that's called "ain't much."  And for the other cities, it was all down from there.

Worse still, the "distilled water is wonderful" link she sent me is not one isolated site.  I did a quick search and found dozens of sites touting the health benefits of drinking distilled water, including curing arthritis, chronic headaches, high blood pressure, and (of course) cancer.

After all, what would be the use of a quack cure if it didn't cure cancer?

Oh, and if this isn't sufficient, I also found sites claiming that drinking distilled water would kill you because it leaches out all the minerals in your cells.  Thus proving a sort of Newton's Third Law of Idiocy, that every moronic idea has an equal and opposite moronic idea.

(Incidentally, if you don't believe me -- being a layperson at all -- check out what they say at the site Drinking Water Resources -- neatly debunks both the claims that distilled water is wonderful and that it's deadly.)

So the loyal reader who sent me the link is right; these people are out-homeopathing the homeopaths.  We've gone from serially diluting a chemical past Avogadro's limit to suggesting we drink water that has everything removed from it but the water ahead of time.  At least it's cheaper than most homeopathic "remedies;" last I checked, a gallon of distilled water at my local grocery store was about a buck and a half.

Of course, it's sold in plastic bottles, which I'm sure has to be relevant somehow.

In any case, don't bother with the distilled water.  Plain old tap water is just fine.  Don't count on it to provide your daily mineral needs, though.  The usual advice -- eat well, exercise, don't smoke, don't drink alcohol to excess -- is still the best thing around for optimizing your health.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a brilliant look at two opposing worldviews; Charles Mann's The Wizard and the Prophet.  Mann sees today's ecologists, environmental scientists, and even your average concerned citizens as falling into two broad classes -- wizards (who think that whatever ecological problems we face, human ingenuity will prevail over them) and prophets (who think that our present course is unsustainable, and if we don't change our ways we're doomed).

Mann looks at a representative member from each of the camps.  He selected Norman Borlaug, Nobel laureate and driving force behind the Green Revolution, to be the front man for the Wizards, and William Vogt, who was a strong voice for population control and conversation, as his prototypical Prophet.  He takes a close and personal look at each of their lives, and along the way outlines the thorny problems that gave rise to this disagreement -- problems we're going to have to solve regardless which worldview is correct.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]

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