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In Celebration of Life: Water May Be Too Much a Good Thing

Water….. replete with symbolism in the fields of psychology, spirituality, and anthropology. Change, life, death, murkiness, fear, sadness and freedom, to name just a few of the multitude and often-contradictory representations is that of water. Drinking clean water often represents the taking in of life, restoration, healing and celebration. How could something so good go so wrong?

Irony.

What I thought was a profound stomach virus, the likes of vomiting and dizziness I had never experienced in my life, or hope to ever again, on a Monday afternoon, turned out to be the benchmark of an acute illness that could have killed me by Friday had I not been admitted to the hospital on that Thursday evening. I was told in the emergency room that I was being admitted to the hospital for what I thought was dehydration due to profound vomiting. Turns out, it was NOT dehydration, but acute OVER hydration I had drunk myself to a condition known as Hyponatremia. The dizziness and profound nausea were the symptoms that the cells around my brain were water filled. Furthermore, the attempts to re-hydrate when I was vomiting so profusely earlier in the week (a reasonable thought that vomiting causes dehydration) was actually as if I was taking poison.

“Hyponatremia is a condition that occurs when the level of sodium in your blood is abnormally low.Sodium is an electrolyte, and it helps regulate the amount of water that’s in and around your cells. In hyponatremia, one or more factors — ranging from an underlying medical condition to drinking too much water during endurance sports — causes the sodium in your body to become diluted. When this happens, your body’s water levels rise, and your cells begin to swell. This swelling can cause many health problems, from mild to severe. Hyponatremia treatment is aimed at resolving the underlying condition. Depending on the cause of hyponatremia, you may simply need to cut back on how much you drink. In other cases of hyponatremia, you may need intravenous fluids and medications.” (Mayo Clinic)

Long and short of it, I nearly drank myself to death with water. I have been athletic and a serious runner since childhood. I was made to run and LOVE it to this day. I eat most people under the table, drink limited amounts of alcohol and keep myself current on all routine health examinations and do not hesitate to seek medical care when I don’t feel well or have a health concern. I also drank (past tense) water for many reasons that other folks perhaps would solve with caffeine or a pill or even…nothing. I was tired; I drank water. My head hurt; I drank water. My sinuses were congested; I drank water. I took an airplane trip; I drank water to compensate for the bad air. I rode in a car for more than an hour; I drank water to deal with the potential for dehydration from heat or air-conditioning. I sweat heavily after running or bicycling; I drank mostly water to rehydrate.

Interestingly enough, just two months prior to this traumatic event I went for my annual physical and received a call a day later from my internist telling me that all my lab results were “perfect.” This included, CBC, lipid panel, thyroid functioning, urinalysis AND blood chemistry, which showed my blood sodium as NORMAL.

After relief set in that I was going to be ok (and a sodium IV drip in the hospital for nearly two days,) lots of jokes ensued, especially from a very close family member who has been in recovery from alcohol for more than 20 years. His comment, “How ironic that you nearly drank yourself to death with water.” Who knew? Or perhaps, should I have known? It never entered my mind that this could happen….to me.

Since you are reading this on an Eating Disorder Blog, one can reasonable assume that I know that the condition exists. I have treated numerous individuals for whom the risk of sodium depletion is great due to Bulimic symptoms. I have also treated many individuals who use “water loading” as a technique to add weight to their bodies before they are weighed by their physician or nutritionist. In all my years practicing, I have never encountered an individual who was suffering from hyponatremia due to excessive amounts of water in the body causing the sodium drop.

I am fully cured. The only prescription…drink significantly less water. I can do that. I am finding myself watching how other people drink water. How people drink alcohol is sometimes what recovering alcoholics are drawn to observe. They can often size up the alcoholics in a room in a flash. Odd, that this behavior may be really valuable for me.

I decided to share this publicly for a couple of reasons. Top among them is the wish to convey the seriousness of this condition to anyone in a similar state who can benefit from my experience so they can correct their own behavior. (Something good should come out of this event and how fitting that I have an opportunity to do it on an international level.) I also feel compelled to share this with the many, many people with eating disorders who cannot understand the severity of a sodium crash; it nearly killed me for a non-eating disorder issue.

Often, people with eating disorders cultivate the belief that if you cannot see it, it does not exist or is even real. This distorted thinking applies to a sense of self-esteem, which for many sufferers is determined by how they look or perhaps weigh, rather than based on an internal sense of who they are and why they are valuable. Many sufferers also deny the need for proper nutrition – that is, eating well and normally. The thinking typically for eating disorder sufferers is that if you cannot see how the body uses food then what can go wrong? The internal breakdown that can occur with restriction and purging therefore must not exist.

The difficult piece to convey to patients is that even though their blood chemistry may be normal on one day the next day may not have an equally favorable outcome. The unfortunate reinforcement of patients negative thinking about nutrition is that many times insurance companies will not admit patients for eating disorder treatment solely based on blood results. Blood chemistry may be normal at the moment it was drawn despite the fact that the person is engaging regularly in eating disorder behaviors. Insurance reimbursement for eating disorders remains a goal for the professional eating disorder community.

I remain still somewhat shocked by this recent event in my life, but mostly I am grateful for my physicians who knew how to treat and care for me. I am grateful for my life and live this regularly; these days I am living it even more deeply. Best, Judy Scheel

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