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Water Intoxication: Can Drinking Too Much Water Actually Kill You?

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When I was little, I actually thought people drowned because they drank way too much water and their bellies exploded afterward. Well, we all asked silly questions and believed impossible things as kids, and one question that bothered me was about water. Yeah, what if I drank too much, what would happen? I decided to put this to test to get my answers, but all I got was a bladder that filled up every 10 minutes, and… I didn’t die, surprise! But the very question on your mind right now, the very reason you’re here reading this is that you also want to know, can drinking too much water actually kill you? If true, how much water would you have to consume?

Water intoxication, also known as water poisoning or hyperhydration, is perhaps not something you would normally consider to be a serious problem (so no exploding stomachs). Like how could something as innocent-looking as water intoxicate? Well, actually it does. Water intoxication is a potentially fatal disturbance in brain functions that results when the normal balance of electrolytes in the body is pushed outside safe limits by overhydration.

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You must have heard people say too much of everything isn’t good for you, and that includes water. Under normal conditions, accidentally consuming too much water almost never happens because no one goes about drinking too much water for fun. But in a hydration-obsessed culture where people have erroneous beliefs that drinking water would miraculously flush toxins out of their bodies or keep them looking 30 years younger, people can/do drink themselves to death. It may sound funny but nearly all deaths related to water intoxication have resulted either from water-drinking contests, whereby people attempt to consume large amounts of water (thanks to the friends they keep) or from long bouts of exercise during which excessive amounts of fluid were consumed. In addition, I heard drinking a lot of water when suffering from Urinary Tract Infection helps the “healing process”, but this also could lead to Water Intoxication.

WHAT IS WATER INTOXICATION?

how much water can kill you in a day

Water is essential for life making up about 66 percent of the human body and it runs through the blood, inhabits the cells, and lurks in the spaces between the cells. But this water doesn’t just remain stagnant. At every moment, water escapes the body through sweat, urination, defecation, or exhaled breath, among other routes. Replacing these lost stores is essential for maintaining balance but re-hydration can sometimes be overdone.

Hyponatremia is a condition that occurs when the level of sodium in your blood is abnormally low. Sodium is an electrolyte, and it helps regulate the amount of water that’s in and around your cells. Quantitatively speaking, it means having a blood sodium concentration below 135 millimoles per liter with the normal concentration lying somewhere between 135 and 145 millimoles per liter. Severe cases of hyponatremia can lead to water intoxication, an illness whose symptoms include headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, frequent urination, and mental disorientation.

Causes of Water Intoxication

The kidneys control the amount of water, salts, and other solutes leaving the body by sieving blood through their twisted tubules. When a person drinks too much water in a short period of time, the kidneys cannot flush it out fast enough and the blood becomes waterlogged. Excess water leaves the blood and is drawn to regions where the concentration of salt and other dissolved substances is higher, and ultimately enters the cells, which swell like balloons to accommodate it. Most cells have room to stretch because they are embedded in flexible tissues such as fat and muscle, but this is not the case for neurons. Brain cells are tightly packaged inside a rigid bony cage, the skull, and they have to share this space with blood and cerebrospinal fluid. The major player in water intoxication is sodium. One of sodium’s jobs is to balance the fluids in and around your cells. Drinking too much water causes an imbalance, and the liquid moves from your blood into your cells, making them swell. Swelling in the brain is a serious problem that requires immediate medical attention.

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Babies easily have issues with water intoxication because their bodies are so tiny that they can’t handle lots of water. That’s why doctors say infants should drink only milk or formula. Water Intoxication is more likely to occur in: Infants because of their low body mass, Marathon runners if they drink too much while running, and in people who perform activities that promote heavy sweating when water is consumed to replace lost fluids.

Water Intoxication Symptoms

Because the concentration of solutes and other electrolytes in the fluid outside the cells is extremely low compared to the fluid inside the cells, the fluid outside moves into the cells to balance its concentration. This consequently causes the cells to swell. In the brain, this swelling increases intracranial pressure (ICP) which leads to the first observable symptoms of water intoxication: headache, personality changes, changes in behavior, confusion, irritability, and drowsiness.  These are sometimes followed by difficulty breathing during exertion, muscle weakness and pain, twitching, or cramping, nausea, vomiting, thirst, and a dulled ability to perceive and interpret sensory information.

As the condition persists, other symptoms may result including bradycardia (abnormally slow heart action) and widened pulse pressure. The cells in the brain may swell to the point where blood flow is interrupted resulting in cerebral edema. Swollen brain cells may also apply pressure to the brain stem causing central nervous system dysfunction. Both cerebral edema and interference with the central nervous system are dangerous and could result in seizures, brain damage, coma, or death.

If you notice the first set of symptoms, get help right away because the condition can quickly lead to swelling in the brain, seizures, and coma. Get to an emergency room as soon as you can. Doctors there can inject concentrated saltwater to ease swelling and reverse problems.

Water Intoxication Prevention

Can Drinking Too Much Water Actually Kill You?

As dreadful as those symptoms may seem, water intoxication can actually be prevented if a person’s intake of water does not grossly exceed their losses. The primary aim is to achieve balance. Healthy kidneys are able to excrete approximately 800 milliliters to 1 liter of water (0.21 – 0.26 gallons) per hour. However, stress (from prolonged physical exertion), as well as disease states, can greatly reduce this amount.

Just drink as much water as required and don’t let your friends challenge you into drinking more water than you can normally take, no matter the amount of money you stand to win from the challenge. Sometimes, it helps to have sports drinks instead of plain water if you know you’ll be working hard. Sports drinks have sodium and other electrolytes. But too much liquid of any kind too fast will always cause problems. We’ve always been told to stay hydrated while exercising, Bergquist says. But there’s a fine line. It’s important to listen to your body. If you’re pushing fluids beyond the point it’s comfortable, it’s a sign it’s time to stop drinking.

Water Intoxication Cure or Treatment

Mild water intoxication may require only fluid restriction to restore health. In more severe cases, treatment consists of:

  • Diuretics to increase urination: which are most effective for excess blood volume. A diuretic is any substance that promotes diuresis. That is the increased production of urine and this includes forced diuresis.
  • Vasopressin receptor antagonists: A vasopressin receptor antagonist (VRA) is an agent that interferes with action at the vasopressin receptors. Most commonly VRAs are used in the treatment of hyponatremia.
There you have it, everything there is to know about water intoxication and how you can avoid it altogether. There is also a practice I heard of called Water Therapy. One form of Water therapy is the consumption of a gutful of water first thing in the morning in order to “cleanse the bowel”. But hold on a second,  just because every Tv commercial and health book claim that Water Therapy works wonders doesn’t mean you should take it to extreme levels. Water Intoxication is real!
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