Food poisoning1 – that’s a common term. We all have heard it many times. But, water poisoning??
When I first heard about it, I thought the person was playing with my curiosities. My second thoughts were that he is talking about the adulterated water, which can definitely poison. But, as I sat to research, water poisoning, from the clear, potable2, harmless water, well, that exists. No kidding!
I could not believe what I was reading, and so I went on to read a few studies, and scientific investigations. And hence, this article.
Let me first brief you what you are about to know through this article:
- What does water mean to a human life?
- Can water really poison us? If yes, then how?
- Is it common? Who are more prone to water intoxication?
- Is there a treatment for water poisoning?
- How much water does one need?
- How to determine that quantity? (including the myth about thirst)
- Are juices, alcoholic, and caffeinated drinks included in fluid consumption, or is it just water?
Role of water
With water making up 70% of our body, its undoubtedly, the most important molecule for our survival. From transportation of nutrients to elimination of waste, and from regulating body temperature to prevention of DNA damage, it is water that facilitates all the major bodily functions.
And that’s why, one can survive without food for weeks, but without water, one might lose conscious within a few hours (if physically exerted), or wont last longer than five days (if lucky).
Now, that you know, how water gives us a breath of life, its time to know, how it can take it away. And no, I’m not referring to drowning!
What is water intoxication?
Consuming too much water in a short span of time can lead to water intoxication. It’s basically an overdose of water. Everything in excess is bad, even if it is water. Now, what’s happening inside your body in such a condition?
Due to overload, kidneys are over burdened and unable to keep up with the pace of consumption. So, water moves into interstitial3 spaces, swelling the body, and brain. And that’s when the terror strikes.
Excess of water, without optimum amount of nutrients to balance, leads to increased intra-cranial pressure4, a medical condition called Hyponatremia, which can be fatal too (Here, I must tell you that, over-consumption of water is not the only cause of Hyponatremia).
It is the most common kind of electrolyte disorder, with more than 15-20% of hospital incidence. The majority including elderly and mental disorder patients, sportsperson (runners), participants of water drinking contests and infants.
This brings me to the next section:
How much water do I need?
I assume, you are aware of the 8 by 8 rule, which advises to “drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.” This is approximately 1.9 liters, not very different what medical institutes recommend. However, in my research, I found a flaw with this rule. The flaw was, that it talks of 8 by 8 consumption of water, when it should instead be “8 by 8 consumption of fluid”. Yeah, that’s right, fluid.
This rule is popular, and easy to remember, so just make a minor modification here, and you are good to go.
Another question now: We take in fluid in so many different forms, so how do I know, if I’ve consumed the daily requisite? Plus, what about caffeinated or fizzy drinks? Worse, alcohol! Is that counted too?
One word: Yes.
But, a fact to keep in mind is, that caffeinated drinks and alcohol have quite a concentration of diuretics, so they dehydrate your body. And you’d need to drink more later to suffice for the loss they induced.
So, how do I know how much to drink?
I’d love to say, get a gadget or a buy this software, fill in your details and it’ll you just how much do you need. But, no. There is no better machine than a human body. And your mind knows what’s best for it. So, my advise would be to “Trust Your Thirst.”
Thirst is the best indicator of amount of one’s fluid levels. Science tells us, that thirst is controlled by the negative feedback mechanism, which means whenever the body fluid levels will fall below normal, you’ll begin to feel thirsty. This clearly implies we do not need to kill ourselves through constant reminders for hydration. Because, no matter what geographical region you may live in, or what you are eating, your body will let you know when it needs you to bring fluid levels back up.
So, keep a bottle always by your side. Whenever you feel thirsty, take a few sips. Do not delay.
There is however, still an exception to this thirst mechanism. A time, when in spite of dehydration, we do not feel thirsty. That time is old age.
As age progresses, some people lose their sense of thirst due to dampening of neural pathways5. Then, how to know if one is dehydrated?
Actually, there are two indicators of water quantity being low in body – thirst and urination.
If in old age, the elderly do not feel thirsty, water scarcity can be judged by reduced urination. This happens as a secondary mechanism, where brain sends out signal to kidneys, in form of an anti-diuretic hormone, vasopressin6 in order to conserve the present water level.
So, if you do not feel thirsty, and haven’t peed for 4 hours or so, then quickly hydrate yourself, and consult your physician.
Common cases of water intoxication
Marathon runners are quite susceptible to poisoning from water, if they consume too much water while running.
A study conducted on Boston marathoners found, that almost 13% finished race with hyponatremia, with weight gain as a common sign. Another important observation made here was that, choosing to have a sports drink over plain water, made no significant contribution.
I however, strongly feel, that if it is about electrolyte imbalance, then, having an isotonic drink should be better than plain water. But, the research says otherwise. I cannot argue much with that.
A similar condition is also observed in people who work in heat and stress, and might avoid continual rehydration.
People who use drugs like MDMA (commonly known as the “ecstasy”) might also be prone to drinking lots of water and die from it.
Another condition might be psychological, where people feel ‘compelled’ to drink water. If you think you, or any of your acquaintances display such symptoms, I think you should really consult your physician.
Infants have low BMI, and this raises their risk of getting intoxicated by water to quite an extent.
Prevention and Treatment
Now, if this disorder is because of overdose of water, then the obvious method of treatment would be to eliminate the excess amount. This is done by administration of diuretics like thiazide, which promote urination.
As for the prevention part, I think now you are intelligent enough to know when to consume, when not to consume water, and in what quantity.
I’d love to hear your opinions on this. And do mention if have any queries regarding this. I’ll look it up in research papers and let you know.
Till then, stay hydrated. 🙂
1 Food Poisoning – A set of symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, aches, fever, etc. caused by consumption of contaminated food. ^Back to Top^
2 Potable water – Water considered safe for drinking. ^Back to Top^
3 Interstitial spaces – Spaces between adjacent cells. A.k.a inter-cellular space. ^Back to Top^
4 Intra-cranial Pressure – Pressure inside skull (between skull and brain tissue). ^Back to Top^
5 Neural Pathway – Single or bundle of nerve cells which connect one part of nervous system to another. ^Back to Top^
6 Vasopressin – Anti-diuretic hormone. It promotes re-absorption of water from kidneys, and reduces frequency of urination. ^Back to Top^
Other helpful links:
References:  Farrell DJ, Bower L. Fatal water intoxication. J Clin Pathol. 2003 Oct;56(10):803-4. PubMed PMID: 14514793; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC1770067. ^Back to Top^  Noakes TD, Wilson G, Gray DA, Lambert MI, Dennis SC. Peak rates of diuresis in healthy humans during oral fluid overload. S Afr Med J. 2001 Oct;91(10):852-7. PubMed PMID: 11732457. ^Back to Top^  Reynolds RM, Padfield PL, Seckl JR. Disorders of sodium balance. BMJ. 2006 Mar 25;332(7543):702-5. Review. PubMed PMID: 16565125; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC1410848. ^Back to Top^  Heinz Valtin. “Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.” Really? Is there scientific evidence for “8 × 8”? American Journal of Physiology - Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative PhysiologyNov 2002,283(5)R993-R1004. DOI: 10.1152/ajpregu.00365.2002. ^Back to Top^  Almond CS, Shin AY, Fortescue EB, Mannix RC, Wypij D, Binstadt BA, Duncan CN, Olson DP, Salerno AE, Newburger JW, Greenes DS. Hyponatremia among runners in the Boston Marathon. N Engl J Med. 2005 Apr 14;352(15):1550-6. PubMed PMID: 15829535. ^Back to Top^  Dugas J. Sodium ingestion and hyponatraemia: sports drinks do not prevent a fall in serum sodium concentration during exercise. Br J Sports Med. 2006 Apr;40(4):372. PubMed PMID: 16556798; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2577547. ^Back to Top^