We’ve always been told not to drink saltwater, specifically referring to the ocean. It’s traditional wisdom we don’t question, but why not? We question everything else. Why can’t we drink saltwater? To answer that question we’ll have to turn to some medical expertise to see the effects of saltwater on our bodies.
So let’s begin with the question: What happens to our body when we drink saltwater?
It seems logical if we are drinking water, salty or not, we are replenishing much needed fluids our body requires to function properly, avoiding dehydration. However, in reality if we drink 3 ounces of saltwater, our body will expel 5 or more ounces of the fluid we’re trying to replenish. How can that be? It’s done through a process known as osmosis, and we’ll learn how that works before we’re finished.
Let’s begin with the kidneys. The kidney’s act as the body’s filtering system, removing harmful, unneeded or unwanted impurities from the blood, storing this waste in the form of urine, which we excrete when we urinate. This necessary and natural process keeps our body healthy, which is why people with kidney problems must go through dialysis, a medical manual filtering and cleaning of the blood.
It’s important to note the kidneys only filter liquid, solid waste is handled in a different part of the body by different organs. Here’s the rub, the kidneys can only make urine out of water with less than 2% salt content. Saltwater normally contains 3.5% salt, therefore it cannot be turned into urine. So how does the body get rid of it? The kidneys must rob other parts of the body of enough water to dilute the salt to 2% or less. What other parts? Our cells.
Body cells are isotonic, which means they must contain 2% or less of salt to remain healthy. The cell’s membrane is semipermeable, which by design, makes sodium entering into the cell extremely difficult, a safety precaution to keep excess salt out, however, water can move through the membrane easily. The body likes equalization and when the salt content in the blood becomes too high, water is extracted from the cell to reduce the salinity of the blood. This process is called osmosis and can have disastrous results, because as the cells excrete water they shrink in size and that ain’t good.
The kidneys are not the only organs negatively affected by too much salt. If you consume alcohol you are probably aware of the signs that you are over indulging and are starting to become intoxicated. Your body motions are not as fluid and coordinated, your thought process becomes muddled, you may begin to slur your words. Well, the early signs of salt poisoning are quite similar, as you’re becoming intoxicated on salt exactly the way you become intoxicated on alcohol.
When you become intoxicated the Central Nervous System (CNS) is negatively affected. The CNS is responsible for controlling every function of the body from breathing to thinking to controlling your bladder. When the CNS becomes intoxicated it senses the body is not reacting normally, therefore it reduces blood flow to what it deems less critical body functions. In other words, you may stumble or have trouble thinking logically, but you remain breathing and your heart continues to pump. If the CNS continues to become more intoxicated, more saltwater consumed, it will take more drastic actions to maintain life and this can become disastrous.
Salt poisoning can provoke anything from very mild symptoms such as jittery-ness, lethargic reactions and confusion… to more deadly reactions such as dehydration, which can then lead to a spike in blood pressure, seizure and a coma. Let’s exam how these happen.
The jitters by themselves may not seem like a terrible reaction to have, merely a bit uncomfortable or embarrassing. But keep in mind that along with jitters comes a possibility of a dangerous increase in respiration, blood pressure and heart rate. Continued exposure to both those symptoms can lead to much more severe responses such as a myo-cardial infarction, or a heart attack. Likewise, lethargy and confusion can impair judgment and inhibit good decision making, such as I’m in real stress and require medical help.
Seizures can not only be extremely scary, they can be life altering. Normally an intoxicated induced seizure does little to no harm, but repeated episodes can lead to brain damage, because all seizures create bleeding around the brain and any such abnormal activity around the brain is dangerous.
I’ve tried to satisfy the intellect of my readers, but now I’ll bring it down to my level. If you’re chugging seawater thinking your doing yourself any good, you are actually taking in sodium that is incurring a net loss of water, leading to depleted body fluids, muscle cramps, dry mouth, and yes, thirst.
The body tries to compensate for fluid loss by increasing the heart rate and constricting blood vessels to maintain blood pressure and flow to vital organs. You’re also most likely to feel nausea, weakness and even delirium, and as you become more dehydrated, the coping mechanism continues to fail. If you don’t drink enough water to reverse the effects of excess sodium, the brain and other organs receive less blood, leading to coma, organ failure and eventually death.
I temporarily loss my mind and drank a lot of saltwater. Is there any way to reverse the effects of the saltwater poisoning? The best way to reverse any potential side-effects of salt poisoning is to consume large volumes of fresh water in order to dilute it. Depending on the degree of poisoning, the body may be able to purge the excess salt on its own. However, you still must increase your freshwater intake in order to replace missing fluids. However, while trying to replace the saltwater volume with fresh water, you must be careful to not do so too quickly. The body and brain adapt quickly to the higher concentration of salt, a rapid infusion of freshwater before it can effectively rid itself of saltwater can cause the brain cells to swell, which can lead to brain swelling, damage and ultimately death.
In a situation where freshwater isn’t easily available to you, but will be shortly, attempting to purge the saltwater is a good start. If you’ve had too much to purge effectively, and no freshwater is on hand, electrolyte rich alternatives such as coconut water is a good alternative. However if this method is used, you should see a physician quickly after to assure that an imbalance hasn’t occurred.
In the event that someone has already started to exhibit some of the more severe symptoms of salt poisoning, it’s imperative to get them to a physician, hospital or para-medical personnel as quickly as possible.