It’s good to drink water. But too much of a good thing can be bad. Actor Brooke Shields experienced first hand what can happen when you drink so much water that water intoxication and hyponatremia result. Shields experienced what she described as a “grand mal seizure.” This occurred while she was waiting for an Uber prior to her one-woman show, Previously Owned by Brooke Shields in New York City, as described by Emily Tannenbaum for Glamour. She ended up passing out, going “headfirst into the wall” and “frothing at the mouth, totally blue, trying to swallow my tongue,” in Shields’ words. Eventually, she regained consciousness while being “being loaded into an ambulance” while on oxygen “And Bradley [bleeping] Cooper is sitting next to me holding my hand,” because Cooper happened to be area when she collapsed.
Now, typically, grand mal seizures do not finish with Bradley Cooper holding your hand. But the other things that Shields described are quite common for such seizures that are now officially known as tonic-clonic seizures. A seizure results from abnormal electrical activity in the brain that in turn can generate unusual sensations, behaviors, and movements—depending on what part of the brain is affected. The grand mal term applies when the abnormal activity occurring affects many parts of the brain as opposed to petit mal or partial seizures where only one or a few parts are affected. Even though many people still use the grand mal term, doctors now prefer the tonic-clonic term since such seizures consist of the following two phases:
- Tonic phase. Tonic is a medical-ish way saying stiffening, as in muscle stiffening. This initial phase lasts about 10 to 20 second. It’s common to lose consciousness and fall during this phase. Spasming of your muscles may force air out of your lungs causing you to emit a loud cry or a moan. The resulting stiffness of your chest can it difficult for you to breathe and take in enough oxygen, resulting in the greyish or bluish skin color that Shields mentioned. Shields’ foaming at the mouth and trying to swallow her own tongue are common in this phase as well.
- Clonic phase. Clonic means twitching or jerking in medical-speak. That’s because jerking movements of your face, arms and legs predominate in this phase. This jerking results from your muscles alternating between flexing and relaxing in a rhythmic manner. Such jerking movements first grow in intensity and rapidness before eventually slowing down within a few minutes. Then the jerking movements begin to subside, allowing your body to progressively relax. The relaxation allows you then breathe normally and may even be punctuated with a deep sigh. During this relaxation phase, the muscles that keep what’s in your bowel and bladder inside may relax as well. And you can imagine what might happen as a result.
Once the clonic phase has passed, it’s not as if you can immediately jump back into what you were previously doing such as ordering another Uber or operating a forklift. You’ll probably need time to regain your senses and rest. The post-seizure phase—otherwise known as the post-ictal phase—is often marked by disorientation, confusion, fatigue, sleepiness, or all of the above.
There are many possible causes of a tonic-clonic seizure, and hyponatremia is one of them. The prefix “Hypo” means low, the suffix “emia” means levels in the blood, and “Na” is the periodic table sign for sodium, if you remember your high school chemistry classes. Sodium levels in your blood drop can below normal when you drink way too much water, resulting in what’s called water intoxication. It’s not that easy to drink that much water because your bladder will usually have something to say about it. But if you do drink far more water than your thirst tells you to drink, the excess water could end up diluting all of the salt, including sodium, in your blood. When the sodium levels are too low in your bloodstream, water can move via osmosis from your blood vessels into your brain tissue. This can result in parts of your brain swelling. And this swell situation is actually not very swell. It can end up perturbing the electrical signals in your brain, hence the potential of a seizure.
Of course, not everyone who drinks too much water will end up having a seizure. Different bodies can be very different. Without examining Shields or seeing her medical records, you can’t tell for sure what may have happened. Shields could have started off with lower sodium levels, for example. So, this doesn’t mean that you should start fearing the consumption of water. Drinking water is still a good way to keep yourself properly hydrated. Just remember that moderation is the key to happiness and not getting water intoxication. Too much of anything can be a problem.
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