Can Too Much Water Kill You? Here’s What Researchers Have to Say

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With football practices coming up in colleges around the country, you’ll often hear coaches advising their players to stay hydrated during the hot summer weather.

The University of Texas has been a huge advocate of hydration, so much so that it has devised a ‘hydration shaming practice’ with a urine chart that labels players who don’t drink enough water as selfish or bad teammates.

Exercise-associated Hyponatremia can occur due to water retention in kidneys after overhydration

Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia

While the benefits of drinking water are touted in various studies, there isn’t much research done on the implications of overhydration – a deadly, but suppressed reality that caused the death of one football player named Walker Wilbanks in August 2014 who passed away from drinking too much water. The doctors said that they were shocked by the cause of death with was previously seen as an impossible occurrence.

Two weeks before Wilbanks’ death, a Georgia-based football player downed two gallons of Gatorade and water to relieve muscle cramps after football practice but died within 24 hours.

This amounts to two deaths of young athletes in the past four years – and doctors have now named this strange medical condition ‘exercise-associated hyponatremia’. On the other hand, not a single football player has died from dehydration. There have been cases of heart attacks and strokes which may have a link to not drinking enough water, although, that isn’t always the case.

Sodium Imbalance Due to Overhydration

Our body has its own neuroendocrine thirst circuit which activates part of the brain that gives us cues when we’re hungry or need to pee.

But having this ‘drink every hour or die’ mentality is like saying that if we don’t go to the toilet every hour we could die of bladder explosion. Our bodies’ neural and molecular circuits which control water intake are pretty self-sufficient and don’t need urine charts or fancy water bottles to stay hydrated. Other animals are able to survive without them, and we can too.

Hyponatremia occurs when excess water consumption dilutes sodium levels in our body. This mineral imbalance leads to reverse osmosis, causing cells to soak up water and swell.

When the swelling occurs in neural cells, it leads to headaches, vomiting and cramping. In a more frightening scenario, it can shut down organs, resulting in immediate death. What’s really scary about this condition is that its symptoms can resemble those of dehydration and are difficult to diagnose at medical facilities.

Overhydration vs. Dehydration: What’s Worse?

There is no doubt that dehydration is bad for your health, there are plenty of cases where wrestlers and bodybuilders have passed away from trying extreme dehydration practices to gain mass.

A recent study has also shown that extreme dehydration can cause cognitive impairment and raise the body’s core temperature. The American College of Sports Medicine has also stressed on the importance of hydration, saying that not drinking enough water can reduce athletic performance. But to achieve this level to dehydration, individuals need to go without water for 24 hours or more.

Hyponatremia causes sodium imbalance in neural cells which can lead to symptoms like headache, cramping and vomiting

When Should You Drink Water?

Experts who specialize in fluid balance disorders say that water balance mechanism in land mammals (including humans) is tightly regulated which means that we don’t really need to drink water until we’re thirsty. Our thirst mechanism is hardwired to protect us against scarcity.

So does that mean you need eight glasses of water to stay healthy? There isn’t any concrete evidence to support this claim. We are highly individualized creatures with different hydration and nutrition needs. Our brains will send out the thirst signal to maintain the body’s critical salt-water balance depending on your size, the environment you’re in and your physical activity level.

As far as the color of our urine is concerned, there is definitely evidence that suggests that dehydration can cause the urine to have a darker color, but the same is true for water conservation in the kidney due to overhydration.

To help players stay adequately hydrated on the field, they should be provided with a variety of fluids and given the freedom to drink whenever they feel thirsty during the game. If their body temperature increases, they should be given cold water to pour over their heads than drink it since it has a faster cooling effect and doesn’t increase the risk of sodium dilution.


5 Comments

  1. Too much of everything, even the healthy ones, is always dangerous. Yikes! I pity these players for losing their lives for something like this.

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