Q&A: Can you drink too much water?

The other day one of the CrossFit Catonsville members asked me if it was possible to drink too much water. All the major fitness resources – books, websites, etc. – tell you to hydrate and drink as much water as possible while you’re working out. You need to top off the tank frequently, so to speak.

If you’ve never really looked into it, you might say “of course you can’t drink too much water! We’re like 70% water or something crazy. It’s not like water can ever be bad for you.”

And I would say to you, “How about drowning?” but that’s not relevant. What matters is that there is a such thing as “hydro poisoning” which occurs when you’ve had so much water go through your digestive track that you “water down” or dilute the natural concentrations of essential stuff in your system. Our bodies need to maintain Homeostasis to function, which is where all the systems and stuff inside us are in just the right balance so that we don’t, ya know, die.

The scientific term for what happens when you get hydro poisoning is “Hyponatremia”. In this case, the stuff coming out of homeostasis is Sodium (Na). The most common form you’re probably familiar with is as half the make-up of common table salt: sodium chloride or NaCl.

Two things that should always remain in balance are your Sodium levels and your Potassium levels. This dynamic duo is responsible for a whole host of important bodily functions, so if you become hyponatremic by drinking too much water, you’re gonna have a bad time.

What are some of the symptoms of hyponatremia / water poisoning?

Lets start with muscle cramps. Something that is mildly amusing, potentially confusing, and just not fair is that you can experience muscle cramps both when you drink too much water AND when you don’t drink enough water! Now there’s a big spectrum of water consumption to work with where cramping isn’t an issue, but it does mean that when cramps set in, you need to think about the cause.

Not only that, but your nerves – the electrical system responsible for making sure all the signals get where they need to go, so that everything moves, stays still, starts, and stops the way you need them to…stop firing correctly!

This delicious combination of muscle cramping and nerve misfires will lead to some pleasant side effects like nausea, dizziness, muscle weakness, seizures, and at the extreme end you can fall into a coma (and die, if no one gets to you in time).

Hyponatremia is not a fun condition and poses a very serious risk if you’re not paying attention to your water consumption. A full-grown adult should not have more than about a gallon or maybe a gallon and a half of water every day.

“But…?” you start. Yes, even when exercising.

“How about…?” you cry. Yes, even in the heat.

“No, seriously…?” you lament. Yes, seriously, even when you’re sweating.

Drinking more than 1.5 gallons of agua per day can lead to Hyponatremia and possible death. You won’t even get to pretend like it was a cool water-related death either. No one is going to write “wrestled shark to save orphans and drowned from the weight of Awesomeness holding them down” on your tombstone (or Facebook memorial page).

Nope, it’ll be more like: “Here lies Jeff. He drank a LOT of water.”

So make sure you do some basic tracking of water intake each day. You don’t need to be crazy and keep a Hydro Diary…

Although I may market that. “Hydro Diary” is copyright this blog, today, don’t steal it.

…Anyway! Just pay attention to how often you’re drinking and if it feels like you’re hitting the equivalent of 4 or more 2-liter bottles per day, dial it back a notch! Technically an adult body can process up to 15 liters of water per day without ill effects, but half that’s probably enough! Don’t overload your kidneys, kids!