Is Drinking 8 Glasses of Water a Day Dangerous?

There are no benefits to current water recommendations, says physician

You dutifully tote your refillable BPA-free water bottle with you everywhere you go, and swig from it proactively to head off thirst. Your bathroom breaks prove how hydrated you are, as your stream is as crystal clear as the mountain spring your water was harvested from. If there were a gold medal for staying hydrated, you’d be the undisputed champion (and in your head, you already are).

Not to stomp on your accomplishments or rob you of your hard-earned glory, but a new article in the British Medical Journal suggests not only is your effort for naught, but drinking too much could possibly be doing damage.

Despite all the messages that claim drinking a lot of water can lead to a host of health benefits, like weight loss, improved concentration, clear skin and fewer urinary tract infections, according to the study’s author, Margaret McCartney, M.D., a general practitioner in Glasgow, the message to drink eight glasses of water a day is “not only nonsense, but is thoroughly debunked nonsense.” The evidence that it can do any of these things is just not substantiated, she claims. What’s more, drinking beyond comfort, says McCartney, could be bad for the kidneys, and drinking to excess can kill.

It’s true that OD-ing on water is just as dangerous as dehydration. Too much water can dilute the blood and lead to brain swelling, coma and death. Inexperienced marathoners, in an effort to stay hydrated, sometimes fall victim to this fate. People on ecstasy (MDMA), believing they have to drink enormous amounts of water to prevent dehydration, have also died from water intoxication (otherwise known as hyponatremia). And then there was the woman who died in 2007 while competing in a radio station contest called “Hold Your Wee for a Wii.”

But is the average water-swigging American going to wear out her kidneys or drink herself to death by drinking 64 ounces of H2O a day? Not by a longshot.

The truth is, water recommendations depend on several different factors, including one’s health, activity level and geographic location. If you’re exercising or working outdoors, especially when it’s hot and humid, you’ll likely need more than eight glasses of water that day. Even mild dehydration can cause a lack of focus and fatigue -- and if you’re thirsty, you’re already on your way to becoming dehydrated. According to the Mayo Clinic, even though the eight glasses of water a day is not backed up by scientific evidence, it is a good guideline to follow. Meanwhile, the Institute of Medicine, the independent advisory committee that helps establish the government’s nutritional guidelines, recommends 13 glasses of water a day for men and nine glasses a day for women.

With all this conflicting information, how do you figure out what's right for you? Use this tried and true method: Assess the color of your urine; if it’s clear to pale yellow, consider yourself optimally hydrated. And, yes, you can go ahead and give yourself a medal for that.

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