When a person drinks too much water in a short period of time, the kidneys cannot flush it out fast enough and the blood becomes waterlogged. Drawn to regions where the concentration of salt and other dissolved substances is higher, excess water leaves the blood and ultimately enters the cells, which swell like balloons to accommodate it.
Most cells have room to stretch because they are embedded in flexible tissues such as fat and muscle, but this is not the case for neurons. Brain cells are tightly packaged inside a rigid boney cage, the skull, and they have to share this space with blood and cerebrospinal fluid, explains Wolfgang Liedtke, a clinical neuroscientist at Duke University Medical Center. “Inside the skull there is almost zero room to expand and swell,” he says.
Where did people get the idea that guzzling enormous quantities of water is healthful? A few years ago Heinz Valtin, a kidney specialist from Dartmouth Medical School, decided to determine if the common advice to drink eight, eight-ounce glasses of water per day could hold up to scientific scrutiny. After scouring the peer-reviewed literature, Valtin concluded that no scientific studies support the “eight x eight” dictum (for healthy adults living in temperate climates and doing mild exercise). In fact, drinking this much or more “could be harmful, both in precipitating potentially dangerous hyponatremia and exposure to pollutants, and also in making many people feel guilty for not drinking enough.
Most cases of water poisoning do not result from simply drinking too much water. It is usually a combination of excessive fluid intake and increased secretion of vasopression (also called antidiuretic hormone). Produced by the hypothalamus and secreted into the bloodstream by the posterior pituitary gland, vasopressin instructs the kidneys to conserve water. Its secretion increases in periods of physical stress—during a marathon, for example—and may cause the body to conserve water even if a person is drinking excessive quantities.
Every hour, a healthy kidney at rest can excrete 800 to 1,000 milliliters, or 0.21 to 0.26 gallon, of water and therefore a person can drink water at a rate of 800 to 1,000 milliliters per hour without experiencing a net gain in water, Verbalis explains. If that same person is running a marathon, however, the stress of the situation will increase vasopressin levels, reducing the kidney’s excretion capacity to as low as 100 milliliters per hour. Drinking 800 to 1,000 milliliters of water per hour under these conditions can potentially lead a net gain in water, even with considerable sweating.
But measuring sweat output is not easy. How can a marathon runner, or any person, determine how much water to consume? As long as you are healthy and equipped with a thirst barometer unimpaired by old age or mind-altering drugs, follow Verbalis’s advice, “drink to your thirst. It’s the best indicator.”