What is water intoxication?
The internet is saturated with articles from writers riding the hydration train. We support the notion that the majority of people should drink more water, but there are those who advocate for over-consumption which can only do harm.
By now it is general knowledge that water is vital for our health, well-being and especially the effective functioning of our organs. However, too much of a good thing can have serious, and in some cases fatal, consequences. Look at the kidneys for example: they carry an enormous responsibility of balancing the fluids and electrolytes in our bodies - sodium being the most relevant electrolyte for the purposes of this article. Water intoxication occurs when the concentration of sodium in the blood becomes dangerously low due the over-consumption of water. This causes the liquid to move from your blood into your cells, causing them to swell.
We are not known to be fear mongers so, just to set the record straight, water intoxication (or hyponatremia as it’s called by medical professionals) is not a common occurrence. According to Sharon Bergquist, MD., an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, cases of hyponatremia are extremely rare. However, she also states that "more people by far and away are dehydrated, [rather] than having a problem with over-hydration." So it remains important to drink adequate amounts of water for optimum health.
There are 5 main water intoxication symptoms:
· Nausea and bloating due to the stomach not being able to hold the excess water
· Weakness and fatigue, restlessness and cramps, especially in the case of athletes
· Slurred speech – it is easy to mistake someone with water intoxication as being drunk
· Disorientation can occur in serious cases where the brain is affected
· Brain swelling, seizures, respiratory arrest and even death could occur in rare and severe cases
It’s also not as much the quantity as it’s the time-frame in which you consume large amounts of water that causes the problem. You have to drink litres and litres of water in a short period of time for this to happen.
Athletes especially need to be very aware of how much they drink and at which intervals, as excessive water intake during endurance activities, coupled with the sodium lost through sweating, can make them more susceptible to water intoxication. It’s often marathon runners who crash and fade from ingesting too much H2O, leaving them unable to finish the event due to low blood sodium levels.