Bruce Lee's Cause of Death Might Have Finally Been Explained

A new medical study may have shed fresh light on the death of martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Lee passed away on July 20, 1973, and his cause of death has long been mired in mystery but has generally been accepted to be some combination of allergies to medications and over-exertion, with other factors often added in depending on the source. The new issue of Clinical Kidney Journal suggests that a major factor may have been Lee drinking too much water.

Autopsies and investigations at the time confirmed that Lee suffered cerebral oedema – swelling of the brain due to excess fluid. Doctors speculated that this may have been induced or exacerbated by a combination of common painkillers that Lee had taken at the time to combat headaches and fatigue. However, a research team in Spain has identified some risk factors that weren't considered before and theorized that Lee could have suffered from hyponatremia. "In other words," the published study reads, "we propose that the kidney's inability to excrete excess water killed Bruce Lee."

The scientists were able to get a reliable accounting of Lee's diet at the time of his death, which included lots of juices, protein drinks and extra water during his long workouts. They also confirmed that Lee was using cannabis at the time of his death, which can increase thirst. They argued that Lee had some textbook predispositions to hyponatremia and that this condition could have led to cerebral oedema which ultimately took his life.

"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," reads the medical paper. We hypothesize that Bruce Lee died from a specific form of kidney dysfunction: the inability to excrete enough water to maintain water homeostasis. Ironically, Lee made famous the quote 'Be water my friend,' but excess water appears to have ultimately killed him."

While excess water and an imbalance of water content in the body may have been the deciding factor in Lee's untimely death, the new paper refutes a previous theory about Lee's voluntary removal of some sweat glands. In his 2018 biography of Lee, author Matthew Polly revealed that Lee had axillary sweat glands removed from his underarms in April of 1973, believing it would make him look better on camera. Polly speculated that this could have contributed to the cerebral oedema and perhaps caused heat stroke as well, but the Spanish research team actually decided this factor was irrelevant, as they explained in minute detail.


In spite of his tragically young death, Lee remains a global icon and his teachings continue to enrich lives everywhere. Lee's philosophy surrounding the quote "be water, my friend" has been expounded on recently in a 2020 book by his daughter, Shannon Lee, as well as a 2020 documentary film that is streaming now on ESPN+.