BACKGROUND - Water drinking increases blood pressure profoundly in patients with autonomic failure and substantially in older control subjects. The mechanism that mediates this response is not known.
METHODS AND RESULTS - We studied the effect of drinking tap water on seated blood pressure in 47 patients with severe autonomic failure (28 multiple system atrophy [MSA], 19 pure autonomic failure patients [PAF]). Eleven older controls and 8 young controls served as control group. We also studied the mechanisms that could increase blood pressure with water drinking. Systolic blood pressure increased profoundly with water drinking, reaching a maximum of 33+/-5 mm Hg in MSA and 37+/-7 in PAF mm Hg after 30 to 35 minutes. The pressor response was greater in patients with more retained sympathetic function and was almost completely abolished by trimethaphan infusion. Systolic blood pressure increased by 11+/-2.4 mm Hg in elderly but not in young controls. Plasma norepinephrine increased in both groups. Plasma renin activity, vasopressin, and blood volume did not change in any group.
CONCLUSIONS - Water drinking significantly and rapidly raises sympathetic activity. Indeed, it raises plasma norepinephrine as much as such classic sympathetic stimuli as caffeine and nicotine. This effect profoundly increases blood pressure in autonomic failure patients, and this effect can be exploited to improve symptoms due to orthostatic hypotension. Water drinking also acutely raises blood pressure in older normal subjects. The pressor effect of oral water is an important yet unrecognized confounding factor in clinical studies of pressor agents and antihypertensive medications.