HomeIndiaDeath by Water: What is hyponatremia that may have killed Bruce Lee?

Death by Water: What is hyponatremia that may have killed Bruce Lee?

A recent study reveals that Bruce Lee died of hyponatremia. Image courtesy: @brucelee/Twitter

“Be water, my friend.” The man who made this quote popular might have ironically died from drinking too much water, suggests a recent study.

Bruce Lee breathed his last on 20 July 1973 in Hong Kong at the age of 32. The cause of his death wasn’t determined immediately but now, 50 years later, researchers think that he probably died of hyponatremia – a condition that triggers low concentration of sodium in the blood due to excessive water intake.

The study, published in the Clinical Kidney Journal, said, “We propose that the kidney’s inability to excrete excess water killed Bruce Lee. Ironically, Lee made famous the quote ‘Be water, my friend’ — but excess water appears to have ultimately killed him.”

Let’s take a closer look.

Looking back at Bruce Lee’s death

The study has busted a string of conspiracies surrounding Bruce Lee’s death which ranged from rumours of him being assassinated by gangsters and getting poisoned by a jealous lover to dying of heatstroke.

For the purpose of their study, researchers dug up facts about Lee’s death to reach the conclusion that he might have died of hyponatremia. According to New York Times, his wife Linda was quoted in author Matthew Polly’ book Bruce Lee: A Life saying that the martial artist had drank some water that “probably made him a little tired and thirsty.” Soon after this he began to feel dizzy and complained of a headache.

It is also a well-documented fact that before this episode he was under the influence of cannabis, according to IFL Science. Following the headache, he took a painkiller called ‘Equagesic’ after which he was found unresponsive two hours later.

His wife had also mentioned once that his fluid-based diet included carrots and apple juice. He had reportedly given up solid-based food.

An autopsy conducted after his death revealed that his brain had swelled up to 1,575 grams which is way above the average of 1,400 grams. Therefore, it was concluded that the real cause of Lee’s death was not poison but a type of brain swelling called cerebral edema which might have been a reaction to the painkiller he took.

However, researchers have pointed out that he only popped the pill after experiencing a headache which indicates that his brain had begun to swell even before that.

The researchers wrote, “In summary, Lee had multiple risk factors predisposing him to hyponatraemia resulting from interference with water homeostasis mechanisms that regulate both water intake and water excretion. We hypothesize that Bruce Lee died from a specific form of kidney dysfunction: the inability to excrete enough water to maintain water homeostasis.”

What is hyponatremia?

Hyponatremia occurs when there are low sodium levels in the blood. The role of sodium in our body is to maintain fluid balance, and control blood pressure as well as nerves and muscles.

According to National Kidney Foundation, ideally, blood sodium levels in a healthy body should be 135 to 145 milliequivalents per litre. A dip from this level results in hyponatremia.

When the blood sodium level dips too low it allows extra water to get into the cells and results in swelling. These swellings can be especially dangerous in the brain as the brain cannot expand past the skull.

Causes and symptoms

There are several causes that trigger hyponatremia in a person. According to Healthline, medical conditions like severe vomiting or diarrhoea, taking certain medications like antidepressants and pain medications, consuming too much water, dehydration and kidney diseases.

When someone suffers from kidney disease the organ becomes dysfunctional to get rid off any extra fluid from the body while the intake of medications like antidepressants and painkillers makes the body sweat and urinate more than usual.

Severe vomiting and diarrhoea lead the body to lose a lot of fluid and sodium.

Symptoms can show up even if someone is suffering from mild hyponatremia. While in severe cases a person might experience nausea or vomiting, headache, confusion or fatigue, low blood pressure, energy loss and even seizures.

Old age, athletics, residing in warmer climates and consuming low-sodium foods, among other things make a person more susceptible to the medical condition.

Severe complications can also lead to osteoporosis, brain swelling, brain injury and even death.


Sodium levels can be measured through a simple basic metabolic panel—a type of blood test that tests the amounts of electrolytes and minerals in the blood.

If someone’s blood sodium levels turn out to be abnormal, a doctor might order a follow-up urine test to determine the amount of sodium in the urine.

Depending on the causes, the treatment of hyponatremia includes cutting back on fluid intake, adjusting the dosage of certain medication and employing an intravenous (IV) sodium solution.

To ensure that hyponatremia doesn’t affect one’s day-to-day life, Healthline suggests that keeping the water and electrolyte levels as balanced as possible can help prevent low blood sodium.

With inputs from agencies

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