Water retention and what can you do about it

waterThe average human body is about 60% water. Most of the time our bodies keep everything in check, and we stay that way.

Sometimes our water component becomes out of balance. This could be a combination of different factors (lifestyle, illness…) and it’s always worth checking with your doctor if your water retention does not go away by itself. For example, when we travel on long haul flights our lower legs and feet may get swollen – the swelling normally goes down by itself within a day. If what is supposed to be a temporary occurrence becomes longer lasting, get medical attention.
Water/fluid retention is defined as “ an excessive build up of fluid in the circulatory system, body tissues, or cavities in the body”. Hormones regulate the water balance in the body, so if we are not drinking enough water, the kidneys are given an order to slow down the passing of water.

Excess fluid can also be the bane of image-obsessed body beautiful people: models and body builders may adopt extreme diets to banish the bulge.

In body building, water weight is the enemy just like fat is. Excess water will cover the definition in toned muscles – this can lead to some extreme behaviors to get rid of fluid like “water loading” before a big body building event just to shed the excess water in bulk. Same thing applies to models before a photo shoot. (Children, don’t try this at home.)

Contributing factors causing water retention

Salt is essential for the water balance in our body, but consuming too much salt can contribute to water retention and to higher blood pressure. Salt will act as a sponge absorbing the water we drink, trapping it into the tissues.

The recommended daily intake of salt for the average adult is 6 grams – but if you eat lots of pre-prepared meals you need to check the numbers to ensure you are not exceeding this limit.

Not drinking enough water can have the same effect as having too much salt: if our body thinks we are not getting enough water from our diet, it will hold on to any water to make sure everything stays hydrated.

An inadequate diet can also cause the body to hold on to water: for example, consuming too many refined starches and not enough fibre may slow down the digestive system. Long haul flights may cause some swelling in the lower legs. Also, a sedentary lifestyle can lead to water retention. Standing for long periods of time can have the same effect: shop assistants or other workers who need to be on their feet for most of the day may suffer from puffy legs.

Sometimes the swelling is localized in the face, or hands, or chest area. Swelling in the armpits (accompanied by “gritty” nodules under the skin) should be looked at by a doctor to rule out anything serious. Talking of “anything serious”, we shouldn’t confuse occasional water retention (for example, bloating and swelling relating to hormonal changes) with the medical condition edema.

If localized swelling doesn’t go away on its own after one or two days, it is recommended to have a medical check.

 When fluid retention needs to be investigated

A long recovery from illness may cause some water retention if the patient is bedridden.

Fluid retention may be also a symptom of heart problems.  If you are worried about your health you need to consult your doctor. When the heart does not function as normal (congestive heart failure), blood pressure can rise and this can cause water retention.

In pregnancy it is quite common for women to suffer from swollen legs – this can be easily dealt with by sleeping with a pillow under their legs at night and by taking up gentle exercise like swimming. If the swelling becomes painful it needs to be checked by a medical professional.

Chronic fluid retention may be a sign of edema.

Unfortunately, apart from wearing compression stockings and some gentle massage, there is currently no cure for edema. Edema can be caused by leaky capillaries – those tiny veins and arteries in our bodies that carry our blood. The lymphatic system is responsible to drain excess fluid away from the tissues but if there’s an infection the whole process grinds to a halt.

What you can do if you have non-medical water retention

If your water retention is linked to lifestyle, here’s some simple things you can try:

  • improve your diet by eating more fruit and vegetables and reducing your salt intake; good quality protein and carbohydrates should give you all the minerals and vitamins you need for optimal health
  • reduce your intake of drinks like tea, coffee and alcohol which tend to dehydrate the body

Get to know your body, and you’ll know when it’s out of balance!

image courtesy of winnond /freedigitalphotos.net