The Dangers Of Drinking Too Much Water When You Have An Eating Disorder

So in last week’s blog, I talked about a recent lesson I had learnt about the importance of familiar surroundings when you struggle with OCD, and funnily enough I have learnt something else in the past week too.
I am learning a lot of things lately. It is like being back in pre-school only Daniel Jones hasn’t stolen my green crayon (if you are reading this Daniel then yes I know it was you and I still want it back), and the topics of these recent lessons have been far more focused on mental health and less on how messy one can get whilst finger painting/what noise a cow makes (hint: it is moo).

In life, we are constantly being told to drink more water. If you have ever sat in a doctors’ waiting room you will have no doubt seen several posters about how drinking a lot of water is very important, how kidneys love the stuff, how dangerous it is to get dehydrated, and from all of these posters and health warnings you may assume that the more water you drink the healthier you are, which…well… isn’t exactly true, especially if you are someone who is struggling with an eating disorder.

Drinking too much fluid is by no means something common to all people with eating disorders however, and in my years of experience getting to know fellow sufferers, there seem to be three camps of people and how their disorders manage fluids.
In one camp we have the people with eating disorders who struggle to drink enough water and end up extremely dehydrated, then there is a second camp of people who could drink a whole swimming pool if they had a big enough straw, and then finally in the third camp there are the people with eating disorders who do not have a problem with maintaining safe fluid levels and would therefore like to leave the camp I have just put them in and go back home to a habitat that is slightly less tent like.

As it happens, I am in the second aforementioned camp (ours has a lovely log fire and on Saturdays we roast marshmallows), and I struggle with drinking too much water even if I am not at all thirsty.
It is odd because I have always known that drinking too much liquid isn’t good for you, but when it comes down to it, me gulping down glass after glass of water is like some uncontrollable compulsion, a kind of outer body experience.
Many a time I have been pouring myself another litre and in my head have been thinking “NO. STOP! THIS IS DANGEROUS NOW” but my body won’t listen and carries on filling up my glass anyway. It doesn’t matter how ill I feel, drinking the water feels like an urgent and necessary task as if I need to dowse a fireball that is burning somewhere in my stomach, no matter how much water it takes.

Even in the camp of people with eating disorders who struggle with drinking too much water, it is likely that everyone will do so for a variety of reasons and it is rare for two sufferers with the same disordered behaviours to have the same reasons for carrying them out.
When it comes to me though, my compulsion to drink a lot of fluid is partly because of posters I used to see at my local gym telling me that if I didn’t drink enough my body would hold onto water (leading me to fear that the number on the scales would go higher), but mainly it is because no matter how many doctors or dieticians talk to me about the science of the intestine, I am convinced that if I do not drink ridiculous amounts, any food I eat will get stuck in me forever.

Technically I know all about stomach acids and the body’s ability to break down solid foods via various muscle contractions and other clever things that go on behind one’s belly button, but in my head, eating anything solid conjures up an image of that solid thing getting stuck in a tube. Say for example I eat an apple, it doesn’t matter how much I chew it, when it is in my stomach I still picture it as a big red cartoon like shiny apple with the stalk attached, a lump that will stay there unless I am able to create enough waves to erode and wash it away.

For this reason, to try and keep my drinking under some form of control, I have been on a fluid chart for years where I write down everything I drink to try and keep an eye on things so that it doesn’t get out of hand. If I don’t write my fluids down my brain tends to trick me and convince me that I haven’t had a mouthful of water in days (even if I am surrounded by empty bottles of Evian and have been peeing every five seconds), so it is safer for me to keep a record of it so that when the compulsion to drink a lot comes, I can remind myself that I have already drunk more than enough and need to distract myself elsewhere. Last week however, this fluid chart thing went a little bit off plan with the disappearance of my parents on holiday.

I have had several people message me asking what on earth happened after the mass break down described last week, whether my parents ended up cancelling the holiday or whether we gave it a go despite plan A being a rather sizeable fail.

Well, after people had realised that I couldn’t stay at my parents’ friends’ house for the duration of the holiday, the immediate conclusion was that the holiday would be cancelled, but eventually we managed to come up with an alternative plan wherein mum and dad would go off to Malaysia as planned and I would stay at home with my sister and my most legendary friend of all time alternating sleeping over to try and help me stay safe.

It was going rather well for the first few days (or at least better than the disaster that had been plan A), but as time went on I started to get more and more anxious about my parents being away and consequently the urge to drink increased in order to wash all of that anxiety and stress away. I know it sounds pathetic but without my mum there to verify how much I was drinking and suddenly in total control of my fluid intake myself, things started to get out of hand. People who stayed over would be able to support me in the day time but when up late at night I couldn’t help but manically gulp glass after glass of water over the sink. All the people who write those “yay kidneys like water, stay hydrated” posters would probably be thinking that is great but as with most things in life, moderation is key and you can have too much of a “good thing”.
Drinking too much water can cause problems for anyone who has been hitting it hard on the old H20 because your kidneys cannot process it and consequently the water stays in you where it can dilute the salt/sodium level in your blood and cause a condition called hyponatremia, which doesn’t sound particularly exciting but in general language this is known as water intoxication, and I am pretty sure that phrases containing the word “toxic” are never good phrases to hear describe someones physical health.

In healthy adults eating and maintaining a healthy diet, a few extra glasses of water will not cause this kind of thing, but the risks when it comes to people with eating disorders is often greater purely because they may not have been consuming enough salt/sodium in the first place, and essentially there is a risk of drowning your cells on the inside. This then leads to things like heart problems, fainting, water on the brain, seizures, psychotic episodes, death, and basically a lot of things that mean you “aren’t very well” which is exactly what happened to me a few days after my parents flew off to Malaysia and is exactly why my poor sleepy friend had to call an ambulance at 2am on a Saturday morning having been woken by me banging around, generally delirious and spouting nonsense (and a little bit of water. I was like a living water feature. Delightful).

The reason I stayed in hospital for so long however is a slightly more complicated story which I will have to get around to next week, just so that we are all up to date and clear as to why I was so rude as miss a blog post two Mondays ago (Oh the shame. And I was raised in a house with such good manners!), but as an initial explanation, the problem was that I was hospitalised for drinking too much water, and it is now after some severe tellings off from several health professionals that I feel the need to write this post about it so that people realise just how dangerous drinking too much water can be when you have an eating disorder, in case it is something other people struggle with themselves and seriously need to seek support for. If you are one of those people who struggles with drinking too much water I know you are probably doing what I used to do upon hearing these kind of things, the whole “surely it can’t be that bad” and “it would never happen to me” but trust me when I say that water intoxication is extremely dangerous and potentially fatal so if you struggle with it, even if your head tells you “you will be fine”, it is vital you get regular blood tests to check your sodium balance.

Luckily after a few days of being on a water restriction in hospital (good lord was I thirsty), my sodium levels returned to a more acceptable level…it is just that other things started to go wrong after that but again, patience dear friends! All in good time!

Now what I don’t want is for someone who already struggles with drinking enough to read this blog and suddenly panic and start restricting their fluids more than they already were because that is NOT what I am saying you should do and that is dangerous for a different bunch of reasons all on their own. I am just saying it is dangerous to go ridiculously overboard when it comes to fluid consumption even if your eating disorder tries to force you in that direction, and that instead of not drinking anything, just do it all in moderation. Water isn’t dangerous, everyone loves a good paddle or dip in the swimming pool, you just have to keep it at a safe level and be careful not to drown.

Take care everyone x

Kidney

P.s I am sorry if this blog is a little bit all over the place. Physically I am still not in the best place right now and my ability to write is somewhat affected but please bear with me! I am sure recovery will hurry up soon!