So much water is flowing throughout our bodies, which is good for our muscles, organs, and blood flow. However, sometimes our body holds on to way too much water, causing certain parts to swell up and get super puffy. Water retention, also known as edema or fluid retention, can happen to anyone’s circulatory system.
A major symptom of water retention is swelling or puffiness in your skin that causes it to appear stretched and shiny. Most people tend to severely swell up in their legs, hands, and feet, which tends to be worse in areas of the body that are closer to the ground.
"Water bloat is when the body holds on to excess water which can show up on the scale," Amy Shapiro, R.D. says, "This is usually due to too much sodium or salt in the body, dehydration or lack of movement."
There are many causes that could explain water retention, some more serious than others, so we called upon Dr. Karnika Kapoor, D.O. and Shapiro to spell out all of the signs of water retention that you need to be aware of.
Meet the Expert
- Karnika Kapoor, D.O., is a primary care physician at the Medical Offices of Manhattan. She is a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians, New York State Academy of Family Physicians, American Osteopathic Association, and American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians.
- Amy Shapiro M.S., R.D., CDN, is the founder and director of Real Nutrition, offering individual and corporate level programs dedicated to helping people reach their weight, wellness, and nutritional goals.
Reasons You're Retaining Water:
- Your lifestyle: Eating salty foods can easily make your body retain water, both experts note. Not drinking enough water, which helps to flush out sodium, can also lead to water retention.
- High-sodium foods: Shapiro says to be aware of high-sodium foods like soy sauce, soup, jerky/processed meats, pickles, olives, and starchy foods, especially when dining out. (Plus, an individual with a severe protein deficiency may be more likely to retain water as well, Kapoor says.)
- Allergies: Some food allergies or sensitivities can lead to bloating as well.
- Medication: Side effects of certain medications can include water retention. Make sure to ask your doctor about any potentially adverse side effects especially when it comes to oral diabetes medications, high blood pressure medications, non-prescription pain relievers (such as ibuprofen), and estrogens.
- Hormones: play an important role in water retention, especially when pregnant. Women typically experience swelling during pregnancy, and this is considered normal, especially near the end of the term.
- Menstrual Period: Water retention that occurs in a cyclic pattern usually means it’s due to hormonal changes, which are related to the menstrual cycle.
- Travel: Sitting for prolonged periods, like when traveling, can cause swelling especially in the lower legs.
Most causes can be easily treated if you maintain a healthy lifestyle and remain aware of what your body is consuming. Though, some cases can be more serious than others, which is why you must pay attention to important indicators as to what you might be experiencing. Kapoor explains that water retention is generally the worst in the lower legs (called peripheral edema) after walking about, standing, sitting in a chair for a period of time, or at the end of the day. It also accumulates in the lower back (called sacral edema) after being in bed for a long period of time. One sign of water retention is if you push on the swollen area for a few seconds, see if a dimple appears in the skin. You should also be aware of an increased size of your abdomen and difficulty breathing.
It's also important to note that more serious causes of water retention may require emergency treatment. These may be due to:
- Chronic Venous Disease
- Congestive Heart Failure
- Deep Vein Thrombosis
Not all types of water retention require treatment, though. Here are some ways to help if your issues can be adjusted through lifestyle changes. Now that you know what causes water retention, read on to learn how to combat these symptoms.
Reduce Your Sodium Intake
“Sodium, which is found in table salt and processed foods, can worsen retention,” Kapoor says, which is why limiting the amount of salt you consume can help to reduce water bloat.
Plus, there are high levels of sodium hidden in everyday staples as well, which a majority of people are severely unaware of. Things like bread and soup, which are often considered healthy can contain a boatload of sodium. This isn't to say we suggest you cut any particular item from your diet, but be aware of how much sodium certain items contain, and if it's causing you to retain water. Dr. Shapiro says it's important to read nutrition labels and look at sodium levels. She also recommends no greater than 500 mg per serving.
"Other things we use a lot, like soy sauce, can exceed our daily sodium requirement in one simple tablespoon so that [a] sushi meal turns into a bloat fest the next day. Also, cheese is very high in sodium—many people ignore this fact or just consider it high in fat and disregard the sodium component," Shapiro says. "I recommend eating fewer processed foods, as they often contain a lot of sodium, eating lots of veggies and fruits as they contain water and can help you to meet your water goals, and to drink at least 8 glasses of water daily. "
Replace Salt With Other Options
Now that we've established that there's hidden sodium in certain food items and it can lead to potential water retention, what exactly can we do about it? Shapiro notes that diet is the biggest player when it comes to water retention and suggests abiding by the following:
- Buy low-sodium foods
- Salt your own food after cooking and tasting
- Use lemon or citrus to brighten your meal instead of adding salt
- Limit cheese consumption
- Eat out at restaurants less often
- Drink a lot of water
- Up your intake of naturally diuretic veggies and teas such as celery, fennel, dandelion, and citrus
Experts recommend you drink at least half a gallon of water every day, which is equal to eight 8-ounce glasses or two liters. Keep a reusable water bottle on you and refill throughout the day. This ensures you're drinking water and staying hydrated on the go.
Change Your Medication (If You Can)
Ask your doctor if your medication could be causing water retention and talk to them about finding another medicine that works for you.
According to Kapoor, there are types of medication, like diuretics, that cause kidneys to excrete more water and sodium, which can reduce water retention.
“Diuretics must be used with care because removing too much fluid too quickly can lower the blood pressure, cause lightheadedness or fainting, and impair kidney function. You may have to empty your bladder more frequently after taking a diuretic. However, other side effects are uncommon when diuretics are taken at the recommended dose.”
Take Natural Preventative Measures
Unfortunately, traditional probiotics won't help reduce water retention, but they can help with regularity and therefore, decrease bloating and distention, Shapiro says.
There are also some vitamins that act as natural diuretics, like B6, that can act as a preventative measure if you feel like something in your diet could lead to bloating. Then, there are different herbs you can try as well that can help with excess water retention. Herbal teas, while not exactly prescribed by a doctor, per se, have a lot of benefits and can help calm issues like bloating. For example, Shapiro says she takes Dandelion Root whenever she feels bloated.
Try out a stomach-calming herbal tea, like chamomile, which can help reduce bloating and ease any related symptoms.
Try Out Compression Stockings
Leg swelling can be prevented and treated with the use of compression stockings. Stockings are available in several heights, including knee-high, thigh-high, and pantyhose. Knee-high stockings are sufficient for most patients,” she says.
What Are Compression Stockings?
Compression stockings are tight stockings that apply gentle pressure to your legs and ankles. They work to boost circulation to the legs as well as promote lymphatic drainage and prevent blood from pooling in the veins. People tend to wear compression socks on long flights to help with blood flow.
Weigh Your Birth Control Options With Your Doctor
Birth control has its benefits even beyond preventing unwanted pregnanc, such as regulating hormones, but it also has links to several sometimes negative side effects, which is something that needs to be taken into consideration.
Birth control can also be a big source of water retention. If you feel like your birth control is making you bloated, talk to your doctor as it could be an unintentional side effect.
Dr. Shapiro says that water bloat can also be due to hormones, either related to birth control, or issues on their own. If you've recently started a new or different kind of birth control, give yourself time to adjust first. On the flip side, if you think it's hormonal issues that are causing excess bloating, talk to a gynecologist about your options, as a variety of birth control options are available to help regulate and balance your system.
Be Aware of Body Positioning
“Leg, ankle, and foot swelling can be improved by elevating the legs above the heart level for 30 minutes three or four times per day,” explains Kapoor. “Elevating the legs may be sufficient to reduce or eliminate water retention for people with mild venous disease." While you're in that position, try incorporating some lymphatic massage. "Make sure you massage the affected area—stroke it firmly in the direction of the heart—it may help move the fluid," says Shapiro.
Don't Take Hot Showers
When a certain area of your body is affected by water retention, avoid extremes of temperature, such as hot baths, showers, and saunas. As more sweating increases to account for the heat, fluid requirements of the body will increase via expanded blood vessels to allow for greater blood flow and an increase in total body water.
Make Movement a Daily Thing
Getting adequate movement is important in general, but especially when it comes to water retention. "Movement prevents water from collecting at extremities like your ankles and feet," Shapiro says. It helps blood flow more efficiently through the body, she says, while sitting or standing in one position too long can prevent efficient movement and lead to bloating, as discussed above. It doesn't matter what you do—be it beginners yoga, a simple jog around the park, or a dance class—the point is, you're moving.
Along with daily movement (which in many ways is essential for general wellbeing), there are other innovative or alternative methods you can try that remove excess sodium, which can lead to water retention. Shapiro cites adding infrared sauna and dry brushing to your daily routine, both of which also have a host of other beneficial effects.
It's important to mention that some people are more sensitive than others when it comes to retaining water. When it comes down to it, the exact reason you're retaining water applies to you individually. What works for someone else might not be helpful to you, so use caution when it comes to hastily taking on a new trend, and refer to a physician first.