Most people don't drink enough water in their daily lives. Ask any doctor about a condition you are experiencing, and in most cases, the response you get will include instructions to "drink plenty of fluids. " Since water makes up more than half of your entire body, it makes sense why you need to consume a lot of it. In fact, you can live for a few weeks without food, but you will die within only a few days if you don't have access to water. Scientists disagree exactly how much water intake is recommended per day, but it's generally in the range of 8-12 cups. But what happens if you exceed that amount of water? Does drinking too much water start to become bad for you at some point?
The answer may surprise you. In the unlikely scenario that you drink more water than your body is physically able to process, it can lead to a condition called "water intoxication." The problem, however, has less to do with drinking too much water and much more to do with not balancing your water intake with electrolytes. Luckily, the only people who are usually at risk from water intoxication are infants and athletes. Still, it is important for everyone to understand the risks so that you don't turn water into "too much of a good thing." Water intoxication is caused by a condition known as "hyponatremia." The sodium in your body becomes diluted by too much water, which causes your tissues to swell. The swelling can cause an irregular heartbeat, fluid in your lungs, and pressure on your brain. If not treated immediately, it can become fatal.
The real problem, however, is almost never that you drink too much water, but rather that you drink a lot of water too quickly. Healthy adult kidneys can process about 15 liters of water on any given day, which you are unlikely to every actually drink. Since that amount of water has to be processed over time, however, most people who suffer from water intoxication are those who consume huge amounts of water all at once. Babies are likely to have ill effects if they drink too many full bottles of water or drink formula that has been too diluted. Infants usually drink an entire bottle in one go, and their kidneys can't process water nearly as fast as those of adults. The reason that adult athletes are the ones most likely to suffer from water intoxication is because when you sweat, you lose both water and electrolytes. If you only replenish the water, you are likely to suffer from an electrolyte imbalance, which can cause intoxication. This risk is amplified because many athletes drink entire water bottles very quickly in an attempt to replenish during short breaks. To prevent the problem, therefore, athletes should opt for sports drinks with electrolytes in them to keep you in balance.
In all likelihood, you will never be in a situation in which you are highly at risk for water intoxication. Still, the next time you find yourself feeling parched and wanting to chug your water as fast as you can, you might be much better off pacing yourself. In order for the water to actually make you less thirsty, after all, it needs to be absorbed properly. Perhaps the old adage oft quoted by doctors should be revised a little: "drink plenty of fluids—but not too quickly."