How to prevent cellular water loss

“If I could choose only one test to determine the overall health of a patient, I would measure their intracellular water.” – Dr. Howard Murad

As a dermatologist I can assure you that, while aging is a fact of life, looking and feeling your age is not. My 50 years as a practicing physician have convinced me that the #1 thing you can do to stay healthy and vibrant well into your 80s and beyond is to protect your skin—and, indeed, all of your cells—from water loss.

It was Hungarian researcher Dr. Imre Zs.-Nagy who first proposed the membrane hypothesis of aging (MHA), which argues that with time, stress, and free radical damage, cell membranes become weak and can no longer retain the moisture cells need to function properly. This has many disease-related consequences.

We can see the effects as we age; cells become brittle, dry out, and die. We often succumb to disease before our bodies fully dry out. This is why I believe cellular water loss is the unifying factor underlying all theories of aging.

How can we prevent water loss from happening?

Although we can’t prevent cellular water loss entirely throughout our (hopefully long!) lives, we can minimize it. Here are the steps I recommend (and follow myself):

Rule #1: Take care of your skin. Your skin is your body’s primary moisture barrier, keeping your wet interior from drying out. Your skin accomplishes this task thanks to its comparatively tough outer layer, the stratum corneum, which is made of dead skin cells mortared together with your skin’s natural oils, the lipid barrier. Together, this layer prevents your skin (and your entire body) from drying out.

But sometimes, your skin needs a little help. Cold, dry temperatures and wind can wick moisture out of your skin. Sweat, swimming, and frequent showers wash your skin’s natural oils away, drying you out during summer. Harsh soaps, detergents, and chemicals can also over-dry the skin, while rough sponges, washcloths, brushes, or exfoliating products can rub skin the wrong way. Finally, time spent outdoors can trigger eczema or other skin allergies, which dry and damage the lipid barrier. What to do?

What to do?

Moisturize! Topical products that help the skin conserve water include:

                Humectants like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), glycerin, hyaluronic acid, propylene glycol, and aloe vera gel. These pull moisture from the air and the deeper layers of skin into the stratum corneum and hold it there.

               Occlusives like lanolin, cocoa butter, petrolatum, ceramides, and beeswax, which form a barrier that prevents moisture from evaporating.

                Emollients like coconut oil, cocoa and shea butter, jojoba, olive, and other oils, squalene, and colloidal oatmeal that add softness to the skin.

(There is a lot of overlap between all three types of ingredients, but the basic idea is that humectants draw moisture into the skin, emollients add back moisturizing oils, and occlusives help seal in moisture to prevent water loss.)

Rule #2: Eat your water!

Even with the strongest lipid barrier in the world, your body would eventually dry out if you didn’t hydrate from the inside, as well. Respiration, urination, and sweat all draw down your cellular water levels, so it’s important to replenish them. The most common advice is to drink eight glasses of water (64 ounces) a day, but my recommendation is to eat your water as well. That’s because the water you drink tends to run right through you as urine, whereas water you eat is released more slowly, allowing your body to integrate it into thirsty cells. In addition, when you eat moisture-rich foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, “embryonic” foods such as eggs, seeds, and nuts, and lean proteins from plants, chicken, and fish, your body gets all of the other nutrients these foods contain, in addition to the all-important water.

Some of these nutrients are essential for building strong membranes, as well, which leads us to:

Rule #3: Build strong membranes!

It’s not enough to ingest a lot of water; we need to keep that water within the cell where it belongs. That means we need to constantly fortify our cell membranes. Cell membrane health is critically important to your rate of aging, cellular and overall structural integrity, proper metabolism, cardiovascular health, and ability to restore inflammatory wear and tear.

Cell membranes are made up of two layers, composed of fatty acids held together by phospholipids. Phospholipids make possible a cell membrane’s elasticity, fluidity, and electrical potentials, enabling other compounds and nutrients to move in and out of the cell in a healthy way.

The kinds of fatty acids you feed your cell membranes are really important. Essential fatty acids like DHA and GLA have been shown to contribute to cell membrane health, while trans-fats and many vegetable oils are actually hard on cell membranes. Other good cell membrane nutrients include lecithin, which is found in the cell membranes of all living things, calcium AEP, phosphatidyl serine, and fat-soluble antioxidants like tocotrienols, Q10, and lipoic acid.

OK, but what does that mean in terms of actual food?


  • High-quality fats such as coconut oil, olive oil, and avocado oil
  • Wild fish (cod, salmon, mackerel, halibut)
  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts)
  • Root vegetables (yams, carrots, turnips)
  • Red, orange, yellow, green, and blue fruits and vegetables
  • Egg yolks (good source of lecithin, as are wild fish and whole grains)
  • Whole grains (wheat, brown rice, oats, quinoa, spelt, emmer, kasha, rye)

Rule #4: Exercise

Exercise relieves stress (See Rule #5 below) and maintains heart and respiratory health, joint flexibility, and strength. Exercise (particularly weight-bearing exercise) also builds muscle, and muscle helps maintain hydration. How? Because muscle is 70% water, while fat is only 10% water. The more muscle you’re made of, the more hydrated you are.

Rule #5: Manage your Cultural Stress

Cultural stress is the constant, pervasive, ever-increasing stress of modern living. It’s the 24-hour news cycle, the 24/7 digital connectivity, the long commute, longer hours in front of screens, the sedentary lifestyle, the financial insecurity, social isolation, the sense that one can never keep up. It’s the world we’re living in and, while we can’t change the world, we can change our participation in it. We can call a break; we can say “Stop!” Even if it’s only for an hour each morning, or an unplugged day each week.

What does managing stress have to do with cellular water loss? Plenty.

Chronic stress results in chronic inflammation, which is now recognized as perhaps the primary factor in degenerative diseases including cardiovascular disease, arthritis, dementia, cataracts, osteoporosis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. Although the body struggles valiantly to repair the damage caused by constant stress, it can never repair it 100% and, over time, the losses mount up. As Zs.-Nagy pointed out, the cell membranes become damaged, cellular water is lost, the cells cannot function properly, and degenerative diseases result.

That’s why I’ve become such an advocate for managing Cultural Stress. Managing stress is not a luxury; it’s essential to slowing the progression of degenerative diseases we associate with aging. It’s not your age; it’s your hydration!

How do YOU manage stress?

I believe that effective stress management is really as personal as you are. I can suggest things that work for me and others—like exercising, journaling, reading daily affirmations or my free daily Inspirations, spending time in nature, taking a candlelit bubble bath, socializing in person with family and friends, practicing breath work, yoga, or meditation, or unplugging from your device one day a week—but the key is to find the stress management program that works for you—and then to follow it.

One simple program that might help you discover your own strategy is this: Try reading and thinking about the daily affirmations on my 11 free Insight cards and see what ideas for relieving and managing stress come to you. This approach has worked for others!

Whatever method you choose, keep in mind that results are cumulative. Little by little, you’ll lower your stress quotient. You’ll feel calmer, more at ease, less pressured, and more secure. Then, by caring for your skin, eating your water, building strong membranes, and exercising, you’ll reduce the cellular water loss that leads to the diseases of aging.

That’s Modern Wellness!

P.S. The website has a new subsection under Blogs, featuring Dr. Murad’s podcasts! Check it out!

DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider, who should also be consulted with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.


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