There are serious risks when you overhydrate, including water poisoning. (Graphic by Ryan Haak/Martlet)

VICTORIA (CUP) — I always believed water was the best thing to be drinking, because it has no sugar or calories and is often linked with healthy weight loss.

Although the Canadian Food Guide does not specify a certain quantity, it does recommend water to help with metabolism, stating that it can help ease food cravings. The reason they don’t recommend a specific amount is because each individual has specific fluid needs.

Fitness magazines and speed diets often promote water as a crucial factor in weight loss. As both a fitness enthusiast and an insecure university student, I clung to this idea that water would help me avoid weight gain.

Overhydration occurs when there is a disruption of electrolyte levels in the body due to overconsumption of water. In today’s society, with most new diets and weight loss plans recommending drinking large amounts of water, more and more people are unknowingly putting themselves at risk of water poisoning. I am one of those people.

I was given direct orders: I was only allowed to drink 500 ml of water a day, which included any coffee or tea. Everything else had to have salt in it, but I was mainly to drink Gatorade to replenish my electrolytes.

According to Brian Christie, an associate professor of medical sciences at the University of Victoria, drinking too much water causes the fluid outside of the cells to be very low in sodium and electrolytes. When this happens, it causes the water to shift into the cell, causing the cell to swell. This results in a leaking or damaged cell.

Although this is bad for any organ, it can be particularly detrimental to the brain, because the swelling causes a build-up of intracranial pressure.

During the doctor’s appointment, Smith asked me if I ever got headaches.

I nodded. “All the time.”

Apparently, these were some of the minor symptoms of overhydration. It could also cause muscle weakness, intense thirst, fatigue and changes in behaviour. It seemed like everything I had simply attributed to school stress or PMS had actually been warning flags of an unexpected and dangerous condition.

While reading up on overhydration, I discovered a long list of cases where people died from drinking too much water. I felt connected to the victims, and couldn’t help feeling that it could have been me.

Jacqueline Henson’s death in 2008 hit particularly close to home. She was a 40-year-old woman, who was trying to lose weight using the Lighter Life Diet Plan. The diet suggested drinking four litres of water throughout the day. Jacqueline drank that entire allotment during less than two hours, while she sat watching TV.

A healthy kidney can excrete a maximum of one litre of water a day. Since her body was unable to excrete the fluid, it led to a build-up of intracranial pressure. She died the next day of internal bleeding.

Athletes are also highly susceptible to overhydration, because the combination of prolonged strenuous exercise and excessive fluid can create a life-threatening situation.

Even before seeing the doctor, I knew that something was wrong. My skin was pale and lifeless, and I was losing weight without trying to. I was constantly thirsty, and often had to go to the bathroom four or even five times a night.

In the weeks following the diagnosis, I fell into a routine. Every morning I would have one cup of tea with breakfast, and one glass of water with dinner. Apart from that I mainly relied on Gatorade to get me by.

Most of my friends found the whole situation funny, and for my mother it became a conversation starter: “The MacDougalls cannot believe that you can’t drink any water. I told Kim at work, and she can’t believe it either,” she recounted on the phone one night.

I have always been somewhat of an extremist, often overcommitting to certain goals or aspects of my life. The results had always been harmless (cue the time I watched the entire six seasons of Dawson’s Creek in less than a month).

Countless online quizzes have categorized me as having an addictive personality, but I never paid much attention to it. That personality trait is probably what led to my overhydration — I thought the more water I drank, the healthier I would be.

***

My experience with water is far from the norm. In fact, most Canadians do not drink enough water. Water is crucial for carrying oxygen and nutrients to the cells through blood, and plays a large part in digestion and metabolism.

According to Christie, moderation is key when it comes to water intake.

“You do need water, just don’t go pounding back eight-ounce glasses every hour of the day,” he said..

“Just remember that with water, like anything, there can still be too much of a good thing.”

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