Water is essential to life. It is possible to go without food for several weeks. But no one can last more than a week without taking water. The human body inevitably loses water every minute. Every breath, sweat, bowel movement and urination leads to loss of body water. Surely, you need to replenish this regularly.
Nevertheless, the volume of water you need to maintain a healthy balance constantly changes from day to day. This poses a challenge for many because how they respond to the body’s dynamic need for water determines how hydrated they are. Because drinking water is harmless, doctors usually recommend taking ‘plenty of water’ when people fall ill.
However, before you take this recommendation literally, consider this case report published in the British Medical Journal.
In 2016, a 59 year old woman decided to ‘flush’ urinary tract infection from her system by drinking several liters of water. According to her, she was acting on the age-long advice to drink ‘lots of water’ when ill. However, she fell seriously ill and was admitted to King’s College Hospital with low levels of salt in her blood. According to the doctors, ‘She was progressively shaky and muddled. She vomited several times, was tremulous and exhibited significant speech difficulties. ’ The doctors had to restrict water intake to about 1 liter over 24 hours to get her well.
This case report highlights the need for more evidence to support the well-known ‘drink plenty of fluids’ advice and suggest that too much water can be dangerous in some cases of infective illness.
Is it really possible to drink too much water?
Yes. If you have a major health condition like heart failure, you should consult your doctor before deciding to drink 8-10 glasses of water daily as recommend by medical experts. This is because additional problems may arise if you take too much in certain health conditions. Some chronic medical conditions limit the kidney’s capacity to process water.
Even in healthy persons with normal kidney functioning, taking too much water may be dangerous. For instance, in 2015, about 14 sports-persons died from drinking too much water. Consumption of large quantities of water over a short period of time resulted in sudden decreases in the body’s salt levels. This is known as ‘exercise induced hyponatremia’. This prompted a panel of experts to provide guidelines for how much water should be consumed before, during and after exercise. According to Dr Tamara Hew-Butler, the lead author of the guidelines, ‘we should listen to our bodies and let go of the pervasive advice that if a little is good, and then more is better’.
Some experts suggest that listening to your body is all you need to know if you are taking enough water. Others have recommended taking at least 8-10 glasses of water daily.
Clearly, more evidence is needed to determine what is exactly required for a healthy water balance.
No doubt, water remains the most important drink worldwide. In terms of health benefits, no beverage comes close to it. Nevertheless, drinking ‘plenty of water’ over a short period may overwhelm the body’s system and result in serious illness or death.
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