That and a “specific form of kidney dysfunction.”
Specifically, the authors suggest that he died as a result of not being able to excrete enough water to maintain a healthy body. “Water homeostasis” refers to the regulation of water intake and water loss by the kidneys. In other words, Bruce Lee may have died from drinking too much water, although it’s not quite that simple.
But how much water is too much?
How much water was Bruce Lee drinking in order to die from drinking too much water?
“Be water, my friend,” he famously said.
Food Network quotes Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Ginger Hultin as saying you “absolutely can” die of drinking too much water. It’s a condition called hyponatremia.
“Drinking more than the kidneys can eliminate,” as the authors of the journal article mentioned above suggest happened in Bruce Lee’s case, “could cause hyponatremia in some people.”
But in order to die from drinking too much water, Lee would have to have been drinking more than 947oz (28l) of water per day, it seems.
The kidneys, Food Network specifies, can eliminate “27 to 34 ounces of water per hour, or a total of 676 to 947 ounces (20 to 28 liters) per day.” Any more than that “might put you in the danger zone.”
But, it’s worth noting, that’s true for healthy, functioning kidneys.
Previous theories regarding Lee’s cause of death
Bruce Lee died at the age of 32 in Hong Kong, in 1973, but in the nearly 50 years since his death, it’s unlikely so many people have been wondering how much water he was drinking.
Note: his cause of death is, officially, unknown. Numerous hypotheses have emerged over the decades. One recent suggestion was that he died from heatstroke. Other propositions have included hypersensitivity to a particular prescription medicine, assassination, and a family curse.
But a group of Spanish academics are now proposing he died from cerebral edema due to hyponatraemia. Cerebral edema is basically brain swelling. Too much fluid in the brain.
There are multiple risk factors for hyponatremia, they say. These include high fluid intake; factors that “increase thirst,” such as lifestyle; and factors that inhibit the kidneys’ ability to excrete water.
How does hyponatremia work?
Various things can interfere with the kidneys’ water excretion mechanisms: prescription drugs, alcohol, chronic low solute intake and a history of kidney injury.
Hyponatremia means the sodium level in the blood is too low. Its normal level is between 135 and 145 milliequivalents/liter (mEq/L), per the National Kidney Foundation.
Taking on too much water can cause it. Too much fluid in the body can lead to a “watering down” effect. But hyponatremia can also result from kidney failure, congestive heart failure, diuretics, antidepressants and pain medication, and severe vomiting or diarrhea.
Bruce Lee’s autopsy showed that a severe cerebral edema and resulted in a brain weight of 55.5oz (1.58kg) – it should have been 49oz (1.4kg) – which has led to questions about exactly how much water he was drinking in the period leading up to his death.
Do the authors comment on how much water Bruce Lee was drinking during his life?
Once or twice, yes. But not in the way you might think.
Predisposing factors that inference with kidney function are the “most common cause” of hyponatremia, according to the researchers. In other words, it’s not just about water intake.
A more dangerous way of taking on large amounts of water, it seems, is to do it very quickly, such as during “dare” activities.
In such cases, even “young and healthy” people ingesting 7-8L of water (15-17 pints) in one go can suffer cerebral edema and death “within a few hours.”
But Bruce Lee “did not appear to have drunk 6-8L of free water,” the researchers add. So he might not have been drinking that much water after all. The cause, they are instead suggesting, had more to do with predisposing factors than with excessive water consumption.