Drinking too much fluid as deadly as dehydration, warns Gettysburg College prof

Drinking too much fluid can be every bit as deadly as dehydration, warns a Gettysburg College professor who is working with an international team of scientists to prevent deaths from hyponatremia, or “water intoxication.”

Numerous marathon runners, soldiers in training, and others have died in recent years from drinking too much liquid, said Dr. Kristin Stuempfle, a physiologist who chairs Gettysburg College’s Department of Health Sciences.

Whether water or a sports drink, excessive fluid can dilute blood sodium to a dangerously low level, which is the definition of hyponatremia.

Kristin Stuempfle with students“These are preventable deaths,” said Stuempfle. “The best way to avoid hyponatremia is to drink to your thirst, because the human body is very good at sensing how much fluid it needs. The idea that you should drink eight glasses of water a day is a myth with no scientific backing.”

Nonetheless, marketing by sports-beverage and bottled-water companies plays on concerns about dehydration. For example, Stuempfle said, the norm at big marathons in the United States -- where hyponatremia is a serious problem -- is one hydration station every mile. In other countries, where hyponatremia is less common, the norm is one every three miles.

Educating athletes and others is the most important means of preventing hyponatremia deaths, Stuempfle said. Other ways include involving medical directors in all aspects of planning races and making use of technology that can identify hyponatremia. Officials at many marathons and at the Grand Canyon now use the equipment to test the blood of runners or hikers in distress, she said.

Stuempfle and 17 other scientists from around the world have posted extensive information and recommendations at www.overhydration.org.

Stuempfle, who holds a Ph. D. from the Penn State University College of Medicine, was the first researcher to document the problem in cold conditions. She concentrated on a 100-mile ultra-marathon in Alaska, where competitors have overreacted to the fact that dehydration can worsen frostbite and hypothermia.

Students have joined her in research. Stuempfle (right in photo) worked closely with two 2009 graduates: Carolyn Perrotti (left), whose senior project focused on the cold-weather problem; and Erika Clark (center), who provided hyponatremia training to student facilitators in Gettysburg College’s experiential education program.

Stuempfle, who also advises students preparing for careers in the health professions, is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and a certified athletic trainer.

Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences. With a student body of approximately 2,500, it is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. The college was founded in 1832.

Contact: Jim Hale, online content editor

Photo by Alexander Armster-Wikoff, Class of 2003

Posted: Tue, 4 Aug 2009

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