We’re all told to keep our fluids up, to keep our bodies hydrated during and after spending time in the sun or exercising. But how much of a good thing is too much? It’s true that drinking too much water (known as hyponatremia) can deplete your system of vital nutrients which, in extreme cases, can lead to death. And overdosing on water is much more common than you think!
What exactly is hyponatremia?
Hyponatremia occurs when the sodium level in your blood drops way too low. It happens when you drink too much water during or after intense sport (such as marathons and triathlons), or if you have certain medical conditions or develop a habit to increase your fluid intake.
Sodium is an electrolyte that helps to regulate the amount of water in and around your cells, as well as maintain normal blood pressure and the operation of your nerves and muscles. But when you take in too much fluid, this sodium becomes diluted. As a result, your body’s water levels rise, and your cells start to swell. This can cause a stack of health problems that can become life threatening.
A normal sodium level in the body is 135-145 milliequivalents per litre (mEq/L) of sodium. If the sodium in your blood falls below this, then hyponatremia occurs.
In some cases you can simply treat hyponatremia by drinking less, however if it’s more severe, you might need intravenous fluids and medications.
How do I know if I’m drinking too much water?
These signs may be red flags…
You’re trying to drink 8-10 glasses of water a day – There is actually no scientific evidence to support the theory we need to drink at least eight glasses of water each day. Health experts believe that men need about 2.6 litres and women 2.1 litres of fluids, which equates to about 8 glasses. Note that we said ‘fluids’ and not straight water, and you can get this from other drinks (such as tea, coffee and milk) as well as foods such as watermelon, vegetables and yoghurt. In fact, you generally get about four glasses of fluid a day from the food you eat, so maybe ease off the H2O-loading.
You’re drinking until your urine runs clear – Healthy urine is actually pale yellow or straw coloured, despite the belief that clear urine is better. If it’s dark yellow, you will need to drink more, but if it’s clear, you could be overdoing the water.
You’re thirsty all the time – If you’re constantly carrying around a water bottle and refilling it all day, then this could be indicate a bigger issue. Increased thirst can be caused by uncontrolled diabetes. Psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia, can also cause compulsive water drinking, as can taking drugs such as ecstasy.
You’re getting headaches – You get headaches when you are dehydrated, but also when you are overhydrated. When your body receives too much water, the salt level in your blood drops, causing the cells in your body’s organs to swell up. Your brain actually grows and presses against your skull, which can cause a throbbing headache and even more serious health problems such as brain impairment and trouble breathing.
You’re feeling nauseous or vomiting – When you drink to much, your kidneys are unable to get rid of the excess liquid and so water starts to collect in your body’s cells. This can lead to nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhoea.
You’re getting cramps – This could be a sign that your electrolyte levels have fallen due to over-saturation and your healthy, functioning body is out of balance.
What are the symptoms of overhydration?
During the early stages of overhydration, you may experience the following.
- nausea and vomiting
- confusion or disorientation
- loss of energy and fatigue
- restlessness and irritability
If your overhydration goes untreated, and you keep adding fluids to your system, this can cause more severe symptoms such as the following.
- muscle weakness, spasms and/or cramps
How do I prevent overhydration?
These tips might help…
- If you’re an endurance athlete, try weighing yourself before and after you train or compete. This will help you work out how much fluid you have lost and what you will need to replenish.
- To be on the safer side, avoid drinking more than a litre of fluid per hour. Instead, keep your water drinks to about 4-6 standard (250ml) glasses a day– taking into account your height, weight and the climate. Or, if you’re exercising heavily and losing fluid in sweat, opt for a sports drink. Find out more about their benefits here.
- If you have a medical condition, such as diabetes, heart issues, kidney problems or a mental illness, please talk to your GP about the level of fluids you should be drinking to cater for excessive thirst and your level of activity.
- Reach for coconut water during hot weather and times of moderate exercise instead of the H2O; it’s packed full of electrolytes.
Do you know of anyone who has suffered from hyponatremia? Or has your own health suffered from over-hydration? Let us know in the comments below.