Dehydrating For Sports Can Be Deadly

By: Jim Evans

Dehydration is one of the most popular ways to lose weight among athletes – particularly in those sports where weight classes are required such as boxing, wrestling, martial arts, weightlifting, bodybuilding, and powerlifting. Millions of athletes around the world engage in this destructive form of weight loss just to “make weight” without regard to the potential consequences.

Since more than 70% of the human body is composed of water, it only makes sense that athletes would look to dehydration as a quick way to lose weight before weighing in for competition with the intention of rehydrating themselves after the weigh-in.  The methods of dehydration might include  sweating through increased physical activity (often while dressed in rubberized sweat suits or even plastic garbage bags to prevent cooling through sweat evaporation); sitting in a sauna or steam room for extended periods (sometimes while dressed in rubberized sweat suits or plastic garbage bags) or even exercising while in a sauna or steam room; taking laxatives or diuretics to urinate or defecate more frequently;  self-induced vomiting (purging);  and chewing gum to increase salivation and then spitting out the saliva.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) “alone or in combination, these practices can adversely affect cardiovascular function, electrical activity, thermal regulation, renal function, electrolyte balance, body composition, and muscular endurance and strength.”

Dehydration affects athletic performance adversely since the athlete is almost always weaker and has less endurance.  Since dehydration creates thicker, more concentrated blood, it is less able to provide the muscles with oxygen and nutrients and can place additional strain on the heart by affecting its rhythm.  Moreover, a muscle that is dehydrated by as little as 3% loses 10% of its strength and 8% of its speed which is counterproductive to the ultimate objective of maximizing athletic performance.  It would seem that making weight just for the sake of making weight has replaced commonsense.

According to the Mayo Clinic dehydration can lead to serious complications, including:

  • Heat injury. Inadequate fluid intake combined with vigorous exercise and heavy perspiration can lead to heat injury, ranging in severity from mild heat cramps to heat exhaustion to potentially life-threatening heatstroke.
  • Swelling of the brain (cerebral edema). Most often, the fluid you lose when you’re dehydrated contains the same amount of sodium your blood does (isotonic dehydration). In some instances, though, you may lose more sodium than fluid (hypotonic dehydration). To compensate for this loss, your body produces particles that pull water back into the cells. As a result, your cells may absorb too much water during the rehydration process, causing them to swell and rupture. The consequences are especially grave when brain cells are affected.
  • Seizures. These occur when the normal electrical discharges in your brain become disorganized, leading to involuntary muscle contractions and sometimes to a loss of consciousness.
  • Hypovolemic shock. This is one of the most serious complications of dehydration. It occurs when low blood volume causes a drop in blood pressure and a corresponding reduction in the amount of oxygen reaching your tissues. If untreated, severe hypovolemic shock can cause death in a matter of minutes.
  • Kidney failure. This potentially life-threatening problem occurs when your kidneys are no longer able to remove excess fluids and waste from your blood.
  • Coma and death. When not treated promptly and appropriately, severe dehydration can be fatal.

Dehydration is, in essence, an eating disorder and, although athletes may become accustomed to dehydration through the repeated practice of “making weight,” they never know when they may have carried the practice too far until it is too late.  There have been numerous instances of athletes dying from dehydration – usually from heart attacks and particularly among wrestlers and bodybuilders – but these examples have largely been swept under the rug and not received much public attention.  Dehydration places a constant stress on the body, undermines energy, and weakens your health.

Many athletes have survived the practice of dehydration over the years and will say that it was somehow “necessary” to their success.  They were both foolish and lucky.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) more than 1.5 million children die worldwide every year from dehydration, and yet many athletes foolishly include dehydration as a regular practice in their sport – just to “make weight.”  Is there is something wrong with this picture?

Jim Evans is a 49-year veteran of the health and fitness industry and General Manager of Verdure.  Readers can address their questions about health and fitness to 



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