Few martial artists have left behind a legacy as legendary as Bruce Lee’s. With his iconic shrieks, facial expressions, and the fact that he created his own martial arts style, even those who didn’t grow up with his movies feel the weight of his larger-than-life influence.
However, the man died at the ripe age of 32 after his brain swelled to disproportionate sizes. This surprised many because of his standing as one of the pillars of modern fitness at the time — even spurring conspiracy theories that he was perhaps assassinated or succumbed to a family curse. However, new research has pointed to a new probable cause: water.
It has been well-documented that Lee experienced sudden dizziness and a headache shortly before he was found unconscious and later pronounced dead. His brain weighed a whopping 1,575 grams at the time — brains are usually around 1,400 grams — due to which doctors marked cerebral oedema (swelling caused by excess fluid trapped in body’s tissues) as the cause of death.
In fact, many touted an extreme reaction to an Equagesic (a type of painkiller) behind the swelling. However, the research authors claim that the dizziness indicates that Lee’s brain probably started swelling before even consuming the medicine. In addition, cerebral oedema would not be expected to be the only necropsy finding if hypersensitivity to Equagesic was the cause of death.
Therefore, the study asserts that the actual cause was the martial artist’s inability to excrete excess from his kidneys — a condition called hyponatraemia. This usually occurs when someone drinks a large quantity of water within a tiny period.
“Lee had multiple risk factors predisposing to hyponatraemia resulting from interference with water homeostasis mechanisms that regulate both water intake and water excretion,” the study says. “We hypothesise that Bruce Lee died from a specific form of kidney dysfunction: the inability to excrete enough water to maintain water homeostasis.”
And there is significant evidence to substantiate these claims as well. The star was on a “tea and toast diet”, where he had reportedly given up solid foods for only carrot and apple juice. Additionally, some claim that he used diuretics, or water pills, to rid his body of water and make his muscles look more ripped on set — something that can have disastrous consequences on the body’s water regulatory system.
Lee had experienced a cerebral oedema-like episode where he had vomited and passed out in the distant past, although he wasn’t diagnosed with hyponatraemia at the time. If the fact that the star was consuming 10-20 bottles of sake (a Japanese alcoholic beverage) every day in his final months is true, all of these factors could very well have compounded to the proposed death cause.
His death remains a caution tale that too much of anything isn’t always necessarily good. Therefore, while ‘be water, my friend’ might be good advice, ensure you don’t indulge in too much of it.
The findings of this research have been in published in Clinical Kidney Journal and can be accessed here.
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