Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a 31-year-old woman in Monaco faints. She’s brought to the hospital, where a a panel of tests reveal she has insanely low potassium levels, and an erratic and irregular heart beat. The lady doesn’t have a history of heart or hormone problems. Her symptoms are a bit of a mystery until, in true Dr. House fashion, the doctors look into her past to find the source of the problem: for the last 16 years she’s only had cola to drink.
As it turns out, if someone only drink cola for 16 years at a rate of 2 liters per day, the human body starts to fall apart. But here’s the happy news: the doctors told her to stop drinking the brown carbonated elixer and within a week her potassium levels grew and her heart beat returned to a healthy rhythm.
Just like the findings of the film Supersize Me, in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s for a month, these results are alarming but don’t really apply to universal circumstances. While a connection between constant cola consumption and severe health risks can be found, there are very few people who exclusively consume one thing.
So what exactly happened to her body? It’s likely the excessive amount of cola caused excess water to pass into her bowels, which caused diarrhea and therefore a loss of potassium. Another theory is that the massive amounts of caffeine from the soda caused an increase in urine production. Caffeine is a diuretic, which is why you constantly run to the bathroom after drinking iced tea and coffee. The extra urine production would decrease the amount of potassium the body can reabsorb.
Potassium is an important component in creating electrical potential on a cellular level in the body. This allows muscles to move, and the heart is just one constantly moving muscle. In the case of this unfortunate French lady, her potassium levels were around 2.4 mmol/L—half the recommended level for a woman her age. And this drop in potassium caused an increase in her QT interval, a measure of the time between the Q and T waves of a heart beat. If the QT interval gets too long, the heart is barely beating, and the person can easily die. Hers was 610 ms. Normal is no more than 450 ms. Got it? K.
This isn’t the first instance of someone suffering maladies from consuming soda. Drinking diet soda can cause teeth to disintegrate much like crystal meth can, and coke addiction can kill. But this tale is mostly a cautionary one. Think of it like a old wives’ tale, and try to have a glass of water every once in a while.
Blake J. Graham drank a Big Gulp of Dr. Pepper while writing this article