Over-hydration and Headaches?

from here

from here

As a kid, CAT scans discovered that the terrifying head aches I was getting were really just hemiplegic migraines; migraines that cause facial and body paralysis. Migraines are absolutely awful, but fortunately now, as a young adult, I can sense when they are about to hit and can take precautions to make the migraine less painful. However, as a kid, whenever I felt a headache coming on, I would immediately panic and become terrified that it would develop into a migraine. My doctor told my family that many headaches are caused by dehydration, and this made sense to me because I lived in Cairo, Egypt at the time and didn’t drink much water on a day-to-day basis. I made the immediate connection that drinking lots of water could prevent headaches, which could decrease my  migraine frequency.

Now, I drink as much water as I can. I am constantly drinking water; when I am bored, hungry, tired, literally whenever I can. In today’s health culture craze, water is something that we just can’t get enough of. We are constantly encouraged to drink as much water as we possible by movements like The Drink More Water Campaign . Curiously enough, I had just as many headaches as when I was dehydrated. To me, this meant that I just wasn’t drinking enough water, and I reached for the tap again. With this in mind, I kept drinking bottle after bottle and ended up with a splitting headache. Thankfully it did not grow into a migraine, but it made me wonder: was I drinking too much water? Is drinking too much water even a possibility? Are these headaches caused by drinking too much water?

from here

from here

We have been told contradictory statements our whole lives many regarding how much water we should drink a day. Most health classes teach that we should be drinking 2 liters of water a day by drinking eight 8 ounce glasses. Fitness instructors, like my mom, say that we should drink out body weight in ounces. For example, if I weigh 155 pounds, I should drink at least 155 ounces of water a day. I found a journal, titled, “Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.” Really? Is there scientific evidence for “8  8”? that concluded there was little evidence that all of us healthy adults need to be drinking that much water a day. They came to this conclusion by rejecting the null hypothesis; that drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day was mandatory for our health. In this randomized, double blind experiment, participants were randomly allocated different water drinking regimes. When compared to the control, the paper concluded  that there was no scientific evidence that the eight-8 ounce glasses rule was applicable to the American population. Everyone has a different body type with different body needs, and such a general statement, such as the “8 by eight rule” is not applicable to everyone. Saying that everyone needs to drink 8 eight ounce glasses of water is like saying that everyone needs 50 grams of protein in their diet a day; it is a rule/standard that doesn’t fit the entire population accurately! This serves as a contrast to the study we looked at in class regarding soda consumption and weight gain in children in the Netherlands. The results of that study are applicable to nearly everyone as drinking the extra sugar and calories led to weight gain where-as the eight by 8 rule is not universally applicable.

This study was conclusive in nature, and even warned that drinking too much water can lead to a potentially dangerous situation called hyponatremia. My first search on hyponatremia brought me to Men’s Health, and a page titled, Are You Overhydrated? This internet magazine also introduced the concept of “hyponatremia” and after encountering this condition twice, I figured I would take to Google Scholar again to find some more reliable information.  This journal, titled, HYPONATREMIA, explains this condition more scientifically as the situation where your body’s sodium levels are unusually, and sometimes dangerously low. According to The Medical Dictionary, hyponatremia is when the sodium levels in our plasma drop to 135 mEq per each liter of water. This can be extremely serious, and increases the risk of coma and seizures. It is triggered by the consumption of too much water in relation to the amount of sodium in your body. Sodium, as an electrolyte, is important to our body’s function because it regulates the amount of water in our cells. When the water to sodium ratio is too high, our cells swell, causing a myriad of health problems such as brain swelling. One of these problems, if you didn’t guess it, is headache!  Apparently, hyponatremia is very prevalent in emergency situations, such as in ambulance rides, and in is extremely common in nursing homes. But, who else can hyponatremia affect?

Hyponatremia is also extremely common among long distance runners and tri-athletes. This study, Hyponatremia in ultradistance triathletes. discuses the danger of consuming too much water, especially in the case of athletes. Because an experiment would be unethical, an observational study was conducted. The participants were 605 athletes competing in the New Zealand Iron Man triathlon. The Iron Man triathlon is a race that includes a 42 kilometer run, a 180 kilometer cycle, and a 4 kilometer swim. The participants were weighed before and after the race, their beginning weight serving as the control. After the race, a blood sample was drawn from the athletes to determine the sodium plasma levels in the athlete’s blood streams. Although complete data was only available for 330 finishers, researchers discovered a strong, positive correlation between sodium concentration levels and amount of water consumed post race. 18% of the male finishers were deemed hyponatremic, and 11 athletes overall were severely hyponatremic- in danger of stroke, seizure, and more.  The researchers concluded that mild hyponatremia was associated with too much fluids in too short a period of time. Observational studies, such as this one, can only show correlations- not explain them. So, it is important that we take this study with a grain of salt. The correlation between over-hydration and hypotremia seems very prevalent, but, this was only one study, and who knows what other third variables may be lurking! Maybe triathletes have lower sodium concentration levels than the average human being in general, or that people that aren’t as in shape have higher sodium levels than these “iron men”. It is also important to note that only 330 participants made up this final conclusion and that 330 people is not a large population. Scientists can not make sweeping conclusions for large populations with generalizations developed from small, specialized populations.

Drinking too much water is dangerous, and in my experiences, it can lead to painful headaches because of the lack of sodium balance. Dehydration is not the only cause of headache, as I’ve learned that over-hydration can lead to serious health issues. Although it is important to drink enough water, scientists have not been able to discover what the “right amount” of water is for the average person’s daily consumption. Now, I will be much more conscious about how much water I drink on a day-to-day basis and not immediately blame my headache on dehydration. There is danger in drinking too much water, and also in drinking too little- it’s all about balance!

3 thoughts on “Over-hydration and Headaches?

  1. Daniel J Lehecka

    I don’t have issues with headaches, but I instinctively drink a lot of water anyway. If I have my bottle with me, I can’t help but compulsively sip. I probably drink 5 24oz bottles full of water a day, so if there is a negative health risk associated with over hydration I feel lucky to have not encountered it. I have heard stories of people dying from drinking too much water, something called Water Intoxication. This link https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/strange-but-true-drinking-too-much-water-can-kill/ explains how water can be dangerous, as it causes the brain to swell if you aren’t doing something to expel the water. This can lead to a multitude of health issues like strokes, cardiac arrest, and even death. But if you are exercising or making sure that you pace out the water so your body can flush it out, it shouldn’t be a major health issue.

  2. Alexandra Nicole Iaccino

    I found this post really helpful and informational because my mom has suffered from terrible migraines since she was a young child. Her migraines are usually caused by dehydration, however, because she hates water and rarely drinks it. I decided to look up some ways to help prevent headaches and migraines and found this article (http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20789184,00.html#eat-small-frequent-meals-2). It gives many suggestions on quick and easy ways to reduce the chance of getting headaches.

  3. Delaney Ann Flynn

    Lately, I have been suffering from severe headaches and I immediately assumed it was because I was dehydrated. Just like you, I started consuming double my usual intake of water, and I found little to no results. Water boasts being the best thing for your body, yet here is another example of everything in moderation. The cliche old phrase “too much of a good thing” is definitely applicable in this situation. However, the recommended amount of water for healthy living varies depending who you ask. So who do we believe? The Mayo Clinic gives responses specific to a person’s height, weight, and physical activity levels.
    Mayo Clinic

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