Drinking too much water can kill, experts warn

Athletes are particularly at risk, and according to sports medicine experts, the deaths of 14 marathon runners, football players, and other athletes have already been attributed to drinking too much water or sports drinks during a physical activity.

The condition is known as exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH), in which the kidneys become overwhelmed by the large quantity of liquid they are forced to process. The body’s naturally occurring sodium can’t keep up with the amount of water, leading to swelling in the cells and sometimes death.

In response to this danger, a panel of 17 experts from around the world compiled guidelines outlining the safest way to drink water without going overboard.

The new guidelines were accompanied by warnings, published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, and announced at the International Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia Consensus Development Conference in Carlsbad, California.

“Our major goal was to re-educate the public on the hazards of drinking beyond thirst during exercise,” the guideline’s lead author Dr Tamara Hew-Butler, an exercise science professor at Oakland University, said in a statement.

“Every single EAH death is tragic and preventable, if we just listen to our bodies and let go of the pervasive advice that if a little is good, then more must be better.” 

The panel recommends preventing hyponatremia by being in tune with your body and drinking when you’re thirsty — no more, no less.

“Using the innate thirst mechanism to guide fluid consumption is a strategy that should limit drinking in excess and developing hyponatremia while providing sufficient fluid to prevent excessive dehydration,” according to the guidelines.

Common symptoms of EAH include lightheadedness, dizziness, nausea, puffiness, and weight gain during a physical activity. In severe cases, vomiting, headaches, confusion, agitation, delirium, seizures, and comas may occur, which can be life-threatening.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the human body loses water every day through breathing, sweating, urinating, and having a bowel movement.

In order to replenish the body with enough water without overwhelming the cells, the Institute of Medicine determined the ideal amount is approximately 16 8-ounce cups (3.7 litres) for men and 11 8-ounce cups (2.7 litres) for women.

For athletes or anyone about to engage in a physical activity that will make them sweat, an additional 1.5 to 2.5 extra cups of water are recommended to compensate for the fluid loss.

Because sodium is lost through sweat, drinking a sports drink that contains sodium will help replace and balance out the increased water intake while reducing the chances of developing hyponatremia.

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