Ask Stew: How Drinking Too Much Water Can Become Dangerous

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A senior airman stays hydrated after a 3K run.
Senior Airman Charles Still, 911th Communication Squadron cyber system specialist, drinks water after finishing a Sexual Assault Prevention & Response 3K run at the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania, April 10, 2021. (Senior Airman Brandon Shuman/U.S. Air Force photo)

In light of a recent incident, in which a radio-show contestant died from water intoxication after taking part in a contest to see how much water one could drink without going to the bathroom, I thought there should be clarity on what happened. Drinking water is essential to living, but there are ways that you can die from drinking too much water. 

A concerned reader wrote:

"Perhaps you might consider updating your excellent article about drinking water in light of the death today of a young mother of three who induced hyponatremia by drinking water for a radio-station contest."

I have written several articles about the importance of drinking water, including the following:

Weight-Loss Myths: Discusses the importance of adding water to your diet for weight loss. Burning fat requires water and oxygen.

Can You Die from Drinking Too Much Water? Discusses how an athlete can die from profuse water intake, a hot sweaty environment, a long period of exertion or a lack of sodium/potassium replacement.

What the mother of three died from on the radio show was a condition called hyponatremia -- a potentially fatal disturbance in brain function that results when the normal balance of electrolytes (salt, potassium) in the body is pushed outside of safe limits by a very rapid intake of water. She drank nearly two gallons of water -- without using the restroom -- in a short period of time. 

It is safe to sip water throughout the day and drink water with every meal, but you must add food that contains a healthy amount of salt and potassium. Having one banana or kiwi can make a difference in your electrolyte balances. You will notice that you must use the restroom every 1-2 hours. This, too, keeps the balance of water and salts in check.

The difference between a healthy amount of water intake and doing the above is that you stretch that amount of water over the course of 24 hours, 4-5 meals (containing some potassium and sodium) and use the restroom as needed. 

Important note:

If a person who is on a restricted sodium diet and drinks a half-gallon (1.8 liters) in one sitting without using the restroom, they could die from hyponatremia, or water intoxication. However, the same holds true for a normal diet of sodium intake, but the limit increases to more than three liters of water in a single sitting.

The safe thing to do regarding water consumption is to drink just before you are thirsty. Do not try to fit universally recommended amounts of water into a short period of time. Water consumption should be done throughout the day, not in a chugging effort to play catch-up because you missed the daily recommended amount.

Remember: Everything in moderation.

I hope this clears up any confusion about the importance of water and the danger for us all to abuse water and hurt ourselves without even knowing it.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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