Frigid, dripping glasses of water with ice tinkling against the sides may be the ubiquitous image of water in American homes and restaurants, but in my home, it’s blue-on-white porcelain cups filled with vigorously steaming hot water that I sip away on. Whether I’m coughing my lungs out, shivering from arctic blasts, feeling thirsty or even suffering in 90-degree heat, my mother’s go-to answer is always: “Drink more hot water.”
For those who grew up in the United States and are used to finger-numbing half-frozen water, drinking hot water to quench thirst is an alien concept. But in China and for those that grew up with Chinese parents, hot water is the miracle, drink-more-or-you-will-get-sick holy grail of liquids.
Accordingly, most restaurants, train stations, schools and work break rooms in China offer only two options for water: room temperature or just under boiling. You won’t see cold water anywhere unless you go to a store where they have coolers with bottled drinks for sale. Personally, I’m never more than five feet away from my thermos, which is always brimming with scalding water, ready for steeping tea or for drinking plain.
The Origins of Drinking Hot Water
So, what’s with this love for hot water over refreshingly frosty water? Westerners might see it as odd, but it’s a common practice in China; the custom stems from public safety, fighting disease and traditional medicine from thousands of years ago.
The preference for hot water in Southern China was thought to be the reason why the region was relatively untouched by the 1862 cholera epidemic in the country, and the myth persisted throughout the decades. This story eventually formed the basis for the 1952 nationwide Patriotic Health Campaign, with posters hung in schools declaring that “Children should cultivate the habit of drinking boiled water three times a day!”
As a traditional Chinese remedy, drinking hot water can be traced back to ancient Chinese texts, the earliest being the “Huangdi Neijing,” which was written over 2,000 years ago. This text prescribes warm water as an effective regulator of health, for balancing the “yang” or life-force of your body.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, every human body is made up of “yin” (hot) elements and “yang” (cold) elements. Too much “yang,” from either poor dietary choices or physical health, can make the body become unbalanced and lead to an increased risk of illness. Hot water, as a “yin” beverage, can restore this balance and, with it, a person’s health. Supposedly, hot water can also detoxify the body and promote blood circulation and, as a result, can relieve everything from indigestion and sore throats to muscle stiffness and cramps.
Although there isn’t a solid scientific basis for hot water as the sole provider of these health benefits, mostly due to a lack of research on the subject by Western medicine, there are significant benefits to drinking hot water for general physical relief.
1. Soothing Congestion
Obviously, a cup of hot water releases steam. As you slowly sip away at it, the steam helps loosen clogged sinuses or relieve headaches caused by congestion. It’s an easier and more accessible method than covering your face with hot towels or using a Neti pot. Drinking hot water helps warm the sinuses and soothes sore throats caused by mucus buildup.
According to a 2008 study, a hot drink provided quick, lasting relief from a runny nose, coughing, sore throat and tiredness more effectively than the same drink at room temperature.
2. Alleviating Cramps
Whenever I had cramps, I always finished a mug or two of freshly boiled water and, by that time, I would feel good enough to crawl out of my nest of blankets and get on with my day. According to Women’s Health Magazine, hot water can help with period cramps by increasing blood flow throughout your body and relaxing your abdominal muscles from the inside.
3. Promoting Digestion
Water is a necessary component of the digestive system, breaking down solids and eliminating waste. As everyone knows, drinking enough water is necessary for a comfortable time on the toilet, and hot water may be especially helpful in this regard. A 2016 medical study showed that warm water had favorable effects on intestinal movements and gas release after surgery.
4. Keeping Warm
Just like the comforting warmth a cup of hot chocolate emits on a cold winter’s day, a cup of hot water provides the same toastiness but without the added sugar and fat. Of course, when you feel like drinking hot chocolate, go for it! But there are only so many cups of hot cocoa you can drink without getting sick of it and increasing your risk of diabetes.
With hot water, however, you can drink it as often as you want and throughout the day — the more the better, actually. A 2017 study found that drinking warm fluids can help reduce shivering in near-freezing conditions and decrease the energy needed to maintain body temperature.
5. Staying Healthy
Drinking hot water may be better than drinking tea or coffee, especially for those who are unable to handle large volumes of caffeine or want to avoid staining their teeth. It’s also more readily accessible — every restaurant can provide a cup of hot water for free just as it can with cold water. There’s no need to pay $4 for a cheap tea bag or get the jitters. Further, adding a slice of lemon, a little honey and/or ginger to hot water can provide added antioxidants and a vitamin C boost as well.
As with all hot beverages, take caution when consuming! The optimal temperature should be between 130 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit (54 and 71 degrees Celsius), as consuming anything above this temperature can cause burns or scalds.
Whether you are now a hot water convert or an ice-cold water guzzler, the bottom line is that drinking any water will always have health benefits and keep you hydrated, focused and feeling your best. Research from 2019 demonstrated that drinking water can boost brain function, reduce anxiety and improve your overall mood. And a 2020 study found that drinking more water can help protect your kidneys, which deal with your body’s toxic waste, as well as lower blood pressure and increase body temperature.
So, what are you waiting for? Go fill up your reusable water bottle and heat the kettle. I raise my glass of — what else? — hot water to you and your continued health.