Can You Drown by Drinking Too Much Water?

Can we drown by drinking too much water? Do we finally have an excuse to tell our parents when they nag us about drinking more water? Today we’re going to learn about how yes, it’s technically possible to drown by drinking too much water. I know it sounds a little crazy – how could we possibly drown when our heads are not submerged? Well, you’re right. It’s not drowning by inhaling water, in the traditional sense of the word. It actually is a little more complicated than that and all about our cells. It’s pretty fascinating, so I hope you’re ready to learn!

This is a bit more complex of a topic since we have to talk a little bit about our cells and certain processes, so I’m going to try to keep it as basic and short as possible.

To start, we’re going to take it back to a contest that took place in 2007. Fair warning – this is pretty upsetting. Twelve years ago, a radio station in Sacramento County hosted a promotional contest called, “Hold Your Wee for a Wii”. The rules of the contest were simple: the contestants all continuously drank as much bottled water as they could, but they were not allowed to urinate. 17 to 20 people took part in the contest, and it lasted several hours. Eventually, a 28-year-old woman by the name of Jennifer Strange won the contest. It was unknown exactly how much water she had consumed, but let’s just go with that it was waaaay more than she needed.

Shortly after the contest ended, Jennifer made some comments about how she was feeling. There is audio footage out there from after she won, if you’d like to go listen, of her talking about how her head was hurting her and that she felt very weird. There are also accounts of friends saying that she was crying about the pain.

Jennifer then drove home, and hours later she was found dead in her house.

So, what actually happened in this tragic story?

It all has to do with our cells. For those of you who might not know, a cell is a fundamental unit of life. We’re actually composed of trillions of cells. And about 70% of a cell is water, which is why most of our bodies are comprised of water.

Here’s the thing: everything in our bodies is carefully regulated, and this is how we survive. Our temperature is regulated, our blood pressure is regulated, etc. Basically, our bodies are constantly trying to get everything to be equalized. When it comes to our cells, molecules move in and out of them to maintain this regulation.

Scenario example: You have one classroom of 20 kids with 15 chairs and one classroom of 10 kids with 15 chairs. 5 kids are going to have to move from the 20 kid classroom to the 10 kid classroom so that both rooms evenly have 15 kids and 15 chairs. This is sort of what happens in our cells. Diffusion is what this random movement of molecules from a high to a low concentration is called. Now, when this movement happens with water, the process is called osmosis.

The water (a solvent) moves in and out of our cells based on the concentration of dissolved particles (or solutes). In our example, the solute was the chairs and the solvent was the kids. In our cells, our solute is salt and our solvent is the water.

A hypertonic solution means there is a higher salt concentration and a lower water concentration. A hypotonic solution means that there is a lower salt concentration and a higher water concentration. For example, ocean water with its high salt concentration would be a hypertonic solution, and bottled water with its low salt concentration would be a hypotonic solution.

What our cells want is an equal concentration of solutes inside and outside of the cell. In our example, this was 15 chairs in each room. It was easier for the 5 kids to just move to the room that had chairs for them, rather than causing a hassle by going and bringing the chairs over. It’s the same in our cells. The water is going to be moving instead of the salt. So, through the process of osmosis, water will move in and out of the cells to try to maintain that balance. However, if too much water leaves, the cells shrivel and dehydrate. If too much water enters, the cells swell and burst.

This is why they tell you that if you’re trapped at sea and dehydrated, do not drink the sea water. Drinking sea water will dehydrate us even further, because the salt concentration in sea water is higher than the salt concentration in our cells, so whatever water we have will leave our cells to try to even out the solute concentrations, and our cells will dehydrate and shrivel into nothing.

This is the opposite of what happened to Jennifer Strange. Bottled water actually has a lower solute concentration than the water in our cells, so when Jennifer flooded her body with this water, it entered her cells to try to even out that concentration. This excess water in her cells filled and drowned them and quite literally caused them to burst. When Jennifer’s head was hurting, it was because her brain cells were bursting one by one. Well, many at a time, really. It’s like overfilling a water balloon with water until it bursts. All of her cells were water balloons in that moment. I know, scary.

What could have been a solution? If the contestants of the contest had been made to drink something that was isotonic (AKA a solution that already has an equal concentration of solutes), the situation could have been avoided. Sports drinks like Gatorade, for example, are isotonic solutions that have a similar concentration of solutes as our blood (and cells) does. If Jennifer had eaten a spoonful of table salt each time she drank a bottle of water, a death might have been avoided.

In conclusion, drowning our cells with water (which, technically, is drowning us) is possible. Our bodies are seriously skilled at keeping us regulated at all times, so we really shouldn’t mess with it and its processes. Of course you don’t need to be afraid of drinking water regularly – it’s good for you. But if someone ever asks you to participate in a water drinking contest, perhaps say no. It’s really not worth it.

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