Lemons and other citrus fruits are well known for their colourful pitted skins and tart, refreshing taste. Lemons contain citric acid and have a high vitamin C content. The peel of a lemon consists of two layers: the outer zest and a white inner layer, the pith. Surprisingly, it’s this zest and pith which contain significant levels of valuable antioxidants, more in fact, than lemon juice itself. The zest also contains essential oils – the most common of which is called limonene.
Lemons have been used for centuries and have been highly regarded in the past for treating scurvy, a now rare condition that can develop through lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Vitamin C is often claimed to support the immune system, however, studies have been inconclusive. One study found that although vitamin C did not prevent otherwise healthy people from catching the common cold, it may shorten the duration of symptoms, and halved the common cold risk in people exposed to short periods of extreme physical stress (e.g. marathon runners). Lemons also contain protective antioxidants called flavanoids. They are low in calories but high in flavour.
Headlines have linked drinking lemon water to many other health claims, including weight loss, improved digestion, ‘alkalising’ effects on the body, improved skin and detoxification. The research, especially human studies, to support these health claims is minimal.
Some evidence has linked vitamin C (or ascorbic acid) and flavonoids to improvements in skin. Vitamin C is known to help the body produce collagen, which contributes to the integrity of skin.
If you are someone who finds it difficult to drink water, or doesn’t really like the taste, then adding lemon to hot or cold water can make it more palatable. Drinking adequate water will benefit your health. It’s possible to mistake thirst for hunger, so if you have been advised to lose weight, try having a glass of lemon water first when you feel hungry to see if you’re really just thirsty. If you usually opt for fizzy or sugary drinks, lemon water would be a lower-calorie and lower-sugar alternative.
Dehydration is common and can present with headaches, dizziness and tiredness – it’s important to make sure that you consume enough fluid while exercising or in hot weather. The NHS advises drinking 6-8 glasses of fluid, ideally water, a day.
Indigestion, characterised by symptoms of heartburn and bloating, can be uncomfortable. Some people find drinking a glass of lemon water, particularly first thing in the morning, aids digestion. This is mainly subjective and reports are anecdotal.
Should I drink lemon water first thing in the morning?
The effects of lemon water will not change regardless of whether you drink it first thing in the morning or last thing at night. If you like the taste of lemon water, it could be a good choice for first thing in the morning as we often wake up a little dehydrated – especially if you’ve had alcohol or salty food the night before.
There is currently no evidence to suggest that lemon water has an alkalising or detoxing effect on the body. The liver is responsible for eliminating toxins from everything we eat, drink and are exposed to in our environment, so no amount of lemon water is going to ‘detox’ our bodies. There is also no truth to the claims that lemon water balances pH levels.
Effects on teeth
Fruit juices and acidic liquids can impact the enamel of teeth, so it is best to dilute concentrated lemon juice with water or drink through a straw.
How to make lemon water
Lemon water is simply that; the juice and/or slices of lemon including the peel in water. Warm or cold water is up to you. You can add other ingredients and flavours such as orange or mint if desired. The lemons can be juiced (in advance if convienient) and even stored in ice cube trays for freezing. Rolling a lemon between your hands or on a work surface before juicing is said to yield more juice. Unwaxed lemons make the ideal choice if you want to use the lemon zest or add lemon slices to water. If only waxed lemons are available, gently scrub the peel before use.
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This article was updated on 4 July 2018 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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