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Study: Dangerous Salt Loss Linked to Drinking Too Many Fluids

April 13, 2005 -- One in three marathon runners drinks more fluids than she or he needs, a study of Boston Marathon runners shows.

In the 2002 Boston Marathon, one female runner died because her body lost too much salt, a condition known as hyponatremia. Many of her race mates risked the same fate, find Christopher S.D. Almond, MD, MPH, and colleagues.

Almond's team got blood samples and other data from 488 women and men who ran the 2002 Boston Marathon. They found that 13% of the runners had low sodium levels. And three of the 488 runners analyzed had critically low sodium levels -- putting them at very high risk of headache, confusion, seizures, and death.

Since 15,000 people ran the race, this means that nearly 1,900 of the runners had too-low sodium levels at the end of the race. And some 90 runners, Almond and colleagues estimate, had critically low sodium levels. The main cause of low sodium levels: drinking too many fluids during the race, diluting the body's salt.

"These observations suggest that hyponatremia -- and particularly severe hyponatremia -- may be a greater problem than previously recognized," Almond and colleagues report in the April 14 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

Sport Drinks Not a Solution for Salt Loss

In terms of salt loss, it didn't seem to matter whether runners drank pure water or sports drinks. That's because sports drinks may contain a lot more water than salt.

"Our findings suggest that the contribution of the type of fluid is small as compared with the volume of fluid ingested," Almond and colleagues write.

An editorial accompanying the Almond study underscores this point.

"It is important to recognize that currently available 'sports drinks' are not protective: Most ... provide far more water than salt," write Benjamin D. Levine, MD, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas; and Paul D. Thompson, MD, director of preventive cardiology at Connecticut's Hartford Hospital.

Levine and Thompson note that the problem isn't limited to marathon runners. All kinds of athletes tend to drink too many fluids. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, water and sports drinks aren't dangerous to athletes when used as recommended -- in amounts that approximate sweat loss.

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