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Is Drinking Too Much Water Bad For You?

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Is Drinking Too Much Water Bad for You?

Overhydration can be as bad or even worse than not drinking enough! It tends to upset the body's careful balance of salts and minerals, including sodium and can bring on headaches, fatigue, brain herniation, and elevated blood pressure levels. Since the risks could be potentially fatal for those with renal diseases, it is best to stick to the recommendation of 8 glasses/day.

We’re always told to drink enough water. Proper intake is needed to keep your body moving and grooving. Otherwise, dehydration can cause a ton of problems. But did you know that drinking too much can be just as bad? Yes, it’s possible. You might be at risk for overhydration if you’re an endurance athlete, have kidney problems, or indulge in drugs like ecstasy.1 Yet, even if you don’t fall into one of these categories, excessive water intake can still send you over the edge. Here’s how.

Side Effects Of Excessive Water Consumption

Dehydration can have some unpleasant side effects, but overhydration is no different. The latter can cause confusion and irritability. You might experience headaches, convulsions, muscle cramps, spasms, and general muscle weakness. Needless to say, it isn’t that fun. You might also feel restless or fatigued. Nausea, loss of appetite, and vomiting can occur. If things get really bad, you could even lose consciousness, hallucinate, or develop a brain herniation. Blood pressure can also skyrocket. Lastly, a coma and death are possibilities.2 So, don’t take this lightly!

This Is What Sodium Imbalance Does To Your Body

Water intoxication or overhydration occurs when you drink way too much of water. This upsets your body’s careful balance of minerals and salts, including sodium. This critical mineral should hover between 135 and 145 mEq/L. But when it drops below 135 mEq/L, a condition called hyponatremia develops. This can cause cells to take in excess water and swell up. It’s especially dangerous when this happens in the brain, since your skull restricts this swelling.3

Dilutional hyponatremia results from too much water intake. Runners and athletes tend to get acute hyponatremia due to constant replacement of fluids lost through sweat and physical activity. And when the balance of salts and water is thrown off, dilutional hyponatremia is the outcome. This can happen from an excessively high water intake or when water is chosen over a sodium-water mix (like a sports drink).

Since the risks can be potentially fatal, immediate treatment is needed. Guidelines call for administration of 100 ml of 3 percent NaCl through the IV over a 10-minute window. After this, doses can be repeated up to 3 times until all the acute symptoms disappear.4

Go Easy On Your Kidneys

What about your kidneys? These bean-shaped organs are at risk, too. Those with kidney problems are more likely to have issues from overhydration, as the kidneys are unable to manage the load. Even worse, researchers suggest that it can actually cause chronic kidney disease progression. It may also spark an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.5 So, if you have a kidney problem, you may need a dialysis to reduce the water content in your body. Sodium-retaining medicines or an IV with sodium solution may also be used.6

How Much Is Too Much?

The answer to this question is an elusive one. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that there is a huge variability in the amount each body needs. Things like activity levels, metabolism, and environmental conditions can impact these variations.7 The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also cautions that water intake depends on your body weight, age, gender, and activity levels, along with medication.8

The National Health Services, UK, recommends limiting intake to 6 to 8 glasses of water, totaling about 1.2 liters a day, to function normally and avoid dehydration.9

If you’re trying to prevent hyponatremia, aim to balance salts and water. You can do this by drinking a hydration solution with sodium rather than plain old water. Do not aim for full fluid replacement, though. This could cause gastrointestinal distress and other unpleasant symptoms of excessive intake.10

Instead, listen to your body. Drink water when you feel thirsty. If you’re craving more than 8 glasses a day, don’t ignore it. This could be a sign of an underlying problem like diabetes or an issue with your kidneys.

How Fast You Drink Water Might Also Matter

If you’ve had too much water, you’ll start to notice mild symptoms as sodium levels dip below 120 mmol/liter. Typically, they will be more visible under 110 mmol/liter. Such symptoms include confusion or muscle cramps. But when levels drop to 90 to 105 mmol/liter, your symptoms will probably become more severe. At first, you might feel drowsy, but it may result in a coma. Now, if you’ve had a lot of water in a very short time, the progression from mild to severe may happen pretty fast. In one scenario, a woman drank between 30 and 40 glasses of water in just one evening, and this ultimately resulted in fatal water intoxication.11

At best, your kidneys can help flush out just half a liter of water each hour. So when you drink liters of water within an hour, your kidneys get overwhelmed. Drinking up to 800 to 1000 ml of water in an hour should be fine if you’re in otherwise normal health.12

References   [ + ]

1, 12. Strange but True: Drinking Too Much Water Can Kill. The Scientific American.
2. Low sodium level. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
3, 6. Hyponatremia. National Kidney Foundation.
4. Sahay, Manisha, and Rakesh Sahay. “Hyponatremia: a practical approach.” Indian journal of endocrinology and metabolism 18, no. 6 (2014): 760.
5. Hung, Szu‐Chun, Yi‐Shin Lai, Ko‐Lin Kuo, and Der‐Cherng Tarng. “Volume overload and adverse outcomes in chronic kidney disease: clinical observational and animal studies.” Journal of the American Heart Association 4, no. 5 (2015): e001918.
7. Water Requirements, Impinging Factors, and Recommended Intakes. WHO.
8. Water in diet. U.S. National Library of Medicine, NIH.
9. Six to eight glasses of water still best. NHS.
10. Whitfield, Angus HN. “Too much of a good thing?.” Br J Gen Pract 56, no. 528 (2006): 542-545.
11. Farrell, D. J., and L. Bower. “Fatal water intoxication.” Journal of clinical pathology 56, no. 10 (2003): 803-804.