Like most people, I was taught to drink my eight glasses of water a day, especially on a hot summer day or at the gym. But what I didn’t know, until recently, was that it is possible to drink too much water when you’re dehydrated.
My story goes that I was sweaty, thirsty and hot after running on the treadmill at the gym, so I took a big gulp from my water bottle and headed to the locker room to grab my towel. But after wiping the sweat from my face, I felt feverish and could feel and hear my heart beating in my ears. Within minutes, my stomach felt sick. I was dizzy and on the verge of blacking out. It turns out that what I needed, instead of just plain water, was electrolytes. After gulping down a bottle of Gatorade, I was fine but only because I had previously been hospitalized twice for this condition and had learned to recognize the signs and symptoms and respond accordingly.
The condition is called “hyponatremia” and is defined as “a condition that occurs when the level of sodium in your blood is abnormally low.” The condition is common enough that about 1 in 10 runners in the Boston Marathon was found to have it after running the race.
As for what sodium does, it’s one of the most important electrolytes in our body. Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electrical charge that helps regulate our bodily functions, including our heartbeat. It, combined with potassium, are often found in sports beverages like Gatorade. Therefore, over-hydration, most often occurs when someone is losing bodily fluids (i.e. through excessive sweating, vomiting or diarrhea) and is replacing them with water alone.
When we drink an excess of water, this dilutes the sodium in our body and causes our cells to swell, which can lead to symptoms like those I described above, among others, including upset stomach (nausea or vomiting), headache, confusion, loss of energy of fatigue, muscle weakness, spasms or cramps and, in serious cases, seizures.
I can attest to the fact that it isn’t a pleasant experience and that the relief I felt after drinking Gatorade instead of water was almost instant. Of course, Gatorade isn’t the only way to get electrolytes. Many sports and nutrition stores now sell electrolyte powders (like Emergen-C) which can be mixed into your water and taken throughout the day.
Your diet can also play an important role in helping your body regulate electrolytes. Sodium especially, has gotten a bad rap for contributing to high blood pressure and heart disease, but cutting out sodium all together isn’t a good idea either if you generally eat pretty healthy otherwise. Some runners even recommend drinking pickle juice to get a quick dose of sodium into your body before a long run.
Of course, your best bet if you experience any of the symptoms I’ve described above is to consult your doctor. They could be caused by dehydration, but they could also be symptoms of another condition, and so it’s better to seek medical advice that is specific to your needs.