Though dietitians constantly remind us that hydration is vital for our metabolism, and drinking an adequate amount of water helps our bodies to function properly, over-hydration can be as dangerous as under-hydration.
Drinking water excessively can have a number of side-effects, including muscle cramps, headaches, nausea, swollen lips, hands or feet from an electrolyte imbalance, and an increase in urine frequency. In extreme cases, drinking too much water can lead to fatal water intoxication, also known as water poisoning or hyper-hydration.
The right amount of water varies depending on age, sex, the weather, activity level and overall health. Yet, common situations such as feeling thirsty, having dark yellow urine, extreme heat, significant activity, or illness with fever all require more fluid intake than average.
There are two main types of over-hydration: increased water intake, which happens when you drink more water that your kidneys can remove in your urine and causing too much water to collect in the bloodstream, and retaining water, which occurs when your body cannot get rid of water properly.
The effects of drinking too much water are usually not severe, but they can be worrying. Moderating your water intake and keeping an eye on your urine colour are two helpful ways to avoid the unwanted side-effects of excess fluid consumption. If after drinking a lot of water, you begin to experience confusion or delirium, you should seek immediate medical attention.
Here are some signs that you could be drinking too much water:
Your urine is clear:
Dark yellow urine is a bad sign, but so is completely colourless urine. Ideally, your urine should be pale yellow in colour. According to experts at UC San Diego Health in the US, colourless urine might suggest you are over-hydrated and therefore diluting crucial electrolytes in the body. If your urine is dark yellow, however, you might want to consider drinking more water.
You have headaches:
Headaches can be both a sign of over-hydration and dehydration. When you drink too much water, the salt concentration in your blood reduces, causing the cells in the organs throughout your body to swell. When the salt concentration is low, your cells grow. When you drink too much water, your brain thus grows in size and presses against the skull. This added pressure can cause a throbbing headache and more serious health problems such as brain impairment and trouble breathing.
Swelling or discolouration:
Drinking too much water can lead to low levels of sodium, and fluids may rush to correct this, leading to swelling or discolouration of your hands, lips or feet. This can cause the body’s cells to swell and retain fluid. When the cells throughout your body swell, your skin will start to visibly swell as well. Those who drink too much water may also gain weight suddenly due to swelling and excess water in the bloodstream. If you’re drinking more than ten cups of water each day and notice swelling or discolouration in your hands, lips or feet, consider cutting back on your water intake and see if your symptoms subside.
Drinking when you’re not thirsty:
A study published in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that our swallow reflex diminishes once we’ve had enough to drink. So, a lack of thirst could mean you are already hydrated enough. Doctors recommend women to drink 2.07 litres of water a day and men to drink 3.7 litres daily.
You feel tired or fatigued:
Your kidneys are responsible for filtering the water you drink in your body and making sure the fluid levels in your bloodstream stay balanced. When you drink too much water, your kidneys have to work harder, creating a stressful reaction from your hormones that can leave the body stressed and fatigued. This kind of imbalance may just mean cutting back on water consumptuion, or having certain medications adjusted. It’s always worth talking to your doctor if you have fatigue that’s not normal for you.
You get up during the night to urinate:
Most people urinate six or seven times every 24 hours, according to the US Medical News Today. If you find yourself urinating more frequently than usual, especially at night, you may be drinking too much water. Other conditions such as urinary tract infections, diabetes, prostate problems and pelvic-floor weakness can also cause frequent urination.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly