Arguably the greatest on-screen martial artist of all time, Bruce Lee died suddenly on July 20, 1973, at the age of 32. The mystery surrounding his unexpected demise has spawned numerous wild conspiracy theories, yet a new analysis suggests that the ‘Little Dragon’ may have died from drinking too much water.
Though speculative and unconfirmed, this proposed cause of death represents an ironic blow to a man who helped popularize Eastern philosophy with the iconic catchphrase “be water, my friend.”
To reach their conclusion, the study authors began by reviewing the known facts surrounding Lee’s death. For instance, it is well documented that the famous actor experienced a headache and dizziness at around 7:30 pm, shortly after smoking cannabis and drinking water. He then took a painkiller called Equagesic, but was found unresponsive two hours later.
An autopsy revealed that his brain had swelled to 1,575 grams (3.5 pounds), which is well above the average 1,400 grams (3 pounds). It was therefore concluded that Lee died from a type of swelling called cerebral edema, which occurred due to an extreme reaction to Equagesic.
However, the study authors point out that he only took the medication after experiencing a headache and dizziness, which may indicate that his brain had begun to swell before he popped the pill. Furthermore, they say that “cerebral oedema would not be expected to be the only necropsy finding if indeed hypersensitivity to Equagesic was the cause of death.”
“We now propose, based on an analysis of publicly available information, that the cause of death was cerebral oedema due to hyponatraemia. In other words, we propose that the kidney’s inability to excrete excess water killed Bruce Lee,” write the researchers.
Hyponatremia arises when fluid intake exceeds the kidneys’ capacity to filter water out of the blood. Usually it occurs when a person drinks a huge amount within a very short space of time, and while there’s no evidence to suggest that Lee did anything of the sort, the study authors say that he may have had “multiple risk factors for hyponatraemia” and could therefore have developed the condition “from drinking a much lower water load.”
For instance, they note several claims made by Lee’s wife and physicians that the actor had given up solid foods and survived only on carrot and apple juice. Known as the “tea and toast diet”, this low solute eating regime may have significantly increased Lee’s chances of developing hyponatremia.
The star is also reported to have used diuretics in order to rid his body of sodium and make his muscles appear more ripped. On top of this, sources close to Lee claim that he began drinking “ten to twenty ceramic bottles of sake” a day in the final months of his life.
Taking these lifestyle factors into account, the researchers say Lee probably experienced a cerebral edema two months before his death, when he vomited, passed out and began convulsing. Though he recovered from the event and was not diagnosed with hyponatremia at the time, the study authors propose that this unexplained illness may have foreshadowed what was to come.
“In summary, Lee had multiple risk factors predisposing to hyponatraemia resulting from interference with water homeostasis mechanisms that regulate both water intake and water excretion,” they say. “We hypothesize that Bruce Lee died from a specific form of kidney dysfunction: the inability to excrete enough water to maintain water homeostasis.”
In other words, be water, my friend. But not too much water.
The article is published in the Clinical Kidney Journal.