Monday, December 31, 2007

Too much water can kill you

Earlier this year, a 28-year-old California woman died after competing in a radio station's on-air water-drinking contest. After downing some six liters of water in three hours in the "Hold Your Wee for a Wii" (Nintendo game console) contest, Jennifer Strange vomited, went home with a splitting headache, and died from so-called water intoxication....

, a word cobbled together from Latin and Greek roots, translates as "insufficient salt in the blood." Quantitatively speaking, it means having a blood sodium concentration below 135 millimoles per liter, or approximately 0.4 ounces per gallon, the normal concentration lying somewhere between 135 and 145 millimoles per liter. Severe cases of hyponatremia can lead to water intoxication, an illness whose symptoms include headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, frequent urination and mental disorientation.

In humans the kidneys control the amount of water, salts and other solutes leaving the body by sieving blood through their millions of twisted tubules. When a person drinks too much water in a short period of time, the kidneys cannot flush it out fast enough and the blood becomes waterlogged. Drawn to regions where the concentration of salt and other dissolved substances is higher, excess water leaves the blood and ultimately enters the cells, which swell like balloons to accommodate it.

Where did people get the idea that guzzling enormous quantities of water is healthful? A few years ago Heinz Valtin, a kidney specialist from Dartmouth Medical School, decided to determine if the common advice to drink eight, eight-ounce glasses of water per day could hold up to scientific scrutiny. After scouring the peer-reviewed literature, Valtin concluded that no scientific studies support the "eight x eight" dictum (for healthy adults living in temperate climates and doing mild exercise). In fact, drinking this much or more "could be harmful, both in precipitating potentially dangerous hyponatremia and exposure to pollutants, and also in making many people feel guilty for not drinking enough," he wrote in his 2002 review for the American Journal of Physiology—Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. And since he published his findings, Valtin says, "not a single scientific report published in a peer-reviewed publication has proven the contrary."

-Strange but True: Drinking Too Much Water Can Kill

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