What Happens When You Drink Too Much Water?

As John Mayer might say, your body is a water-land. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, water makes up about 73% of human brains and hearts, 83% of human lungs, 79% of muscles and kidneys, and up to 60% of the human body overall. So much of you is made of water that just drinking the stuff should probably count as liquid cannibalism. You are what you eat? More like you drink what you are.

And drink you must. Water is essential to cell-building, temperature regulation, respiration, digestion, and other vital bodily processes. It even provides a protective buffer for your brain. Everyone knows that drinking the right amount of water — not too little, not too much — is an important part of staying healthy, especially for those that lead a more active lifestyle. But how much H2O should you drink on a day-to-day basis? And what happens if you drink too much?

The importance of healthy hydration

To answer those questions, it's important to establish what "too much" means in this context. According to U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the average man needs to take in around 3.7 liters (about 125 ounces) of water each day, while the average woman needs slightly less, with a recommended intake of 2.7 liters (about 91 ounces) per day. These numbers account for total water, which includes water in beverages as well as the water that comes from foods. However, according to the The Water Quality & Health Council, the danger of overhydrating doesn't come from how much water you drink in a day, but rather how fast you drink. That's why they recommend that the way to maintain a healthy hydration level is to simply drink whenever you feel thirsty.

Another factor in hydration is how much sodium there is in the blood. Not having enough fluids to account for the amount of sodium in your blood can lead to dehydration. Conversely, drinking too much water and overwhelming the sodium levels resulting in overhydration, or hyponatremia. According to Business Standard, this condition is even more serious — and potentially dangerous — than dehydration.

The effects of overhydration

If you drink loads of water in a short period of time, it can result in an electrolyte imbalance that causes your body to mimic the symptoms of alcohol intoxication. That's right — you'll get drunk on water. At first blush that sounds like an economical replacement for beer pong, but The Water Quality & Health Council explains that "causes an imbalance in sodium and other electrolytes, and water moves from your blood to inside your cells, making them swell." They also mention that such a situation requires immediate medical attention.

Tissue swelling could exert so much force on your brain that you might become comatose or even die. This isn't just theoretical. CBS reported that in 2014, a pair of high school football players died of overhydration. One of them consumed 2 gallons of water and an additional 2 gallons of Gatorade after a single practice.

The issue of overhydration is further complicated by the role of exercise, which, according to Scientific American, can drastically limit your kidneys' ability to excrete excess water because of the body's stress response to physical exertion. So while the average healthy kidney might expel 800 to 1,000 milliliters of water an hour, that capacity might drop all the way down to 100 milliliters while you're running a marathon. Even if you seem to be sweating buckets, it's possible to dangerously overhydrate.

Have there been any cases of overhydration?

Arguably the most infamous case of overhydration happened back in 2007. Jennifer Strange was a mother of three who appeared on a Sacramento, California radio station in 2007 to take part in an on-air water drinking competition.

At the time, the Nintendo Wii was one of the most sought-after gaming systems on the market, and they were sometimes so difficult to find that people would do just about anything for them. This prompted radio station KDND-FM 107.9 to put together a competition called "Hold Your Wee For A Wii." According to NBC News, the rules were pretty simple: Contestants needed to drink as much water as they could pour down their gullet without making a mad dash to the bathroom, and the Wii was the prize for the winner. According to NBC Bay Area, the contestants were given 8 ounces of water every 15 minutes.

According to Insider Exclusive,this went on for three hours and Strange gulped 1.5 gallons of liquid, but came in second place, failing to win the gaming system but instead earning a pair of concert tickets. However, upon leaving the station she reportedly felt like she was drunk and told co-workers that her head hurt. Not long after, Strange was found in her home, dead, from what was eventually determined to be water intoxication.

What was aftermath of the 'Hold Your Wee for a Wii' incident?

In the immediate aftermath of the Strange's death, police investigating her death determined it could be classified as homicide (via NBC Bay Area). It was also reported by CBS News that the station fired 10 employees over the incident. Several years later, the court made its ruling on a wrongful death lawsuit that Strange's family had filed against the radio station and its ownership.

During the trial an expert testified to inform the jury about the dangers of consuming so much water so fast, something that this case actually put in the spotlight (via Insider Exclusive). Clips from the broadcast were also played in the courtroom; they featured Strange commenting that her head hurt while on-air. The hosts made jokes about that and commented on how Strange's stomach had become distended due to the large quantity of water she had ingested. According to CBS News, the jury ruled against the radio station and its ownership, forcing them to pay $16.5 million in damages to Strange's surviving family.