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If you've ever felt swollen and heavier than usual, seemingly out of nowhere, you know how uncomfortable—and sometimes even debilitating—it can feel. The good news is that this swelling is often not an immediate cause for concern and most likely the result of water retention in your body—or your body holding onto water that it should otherwise be releasing. We asked medical experts to help us sort out the causes and treatment of water retention in the body.
What Is Water Retention?
Water retention, which goes by the medical term, edema, is swelling due to the trapping of fluid in the body. "Edema is commonly discovered, and most noticeable in the lower legs, ankles, and feet, but can affect any part of the body besides the extremities, including the lungs, brain, and eyes," says Rigved Tadwalkar, MD, a board-certified cardiologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. Most often, water retention will show up in the form of swelling in the affected area, which can cause that part of the body to increase in size and cause some physical discomfort, adds Dr. Tadwalkar.
What Are the Causes of Water Retention?
Water retention is quite common and has several causes that are typically not connected with a serious underlying medical condition. Take a look at some of the most recurrent culprits.
Eating Salty Foods
You probably know that a diet high in salt can be detrimental to your health. In fact, the CDC recommends less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day to help reduce the risk of a myriad of diseases. Salty foods create electrolyte changes, which causes the body to hold onto more fluid. "This excess fluid accumulates in different parts of your body, often in your lower extremities," says Andrew Moore, MD, a gastroenterologist in Chicago.
It's important to recognize that not all salty foods taste incredibly salty. For example, cottage cheese is perfectly healthy, but contains a decent amount of sodium (819 milligrams per cup). If you eat it alongside several other sodium-rich foods, you may find yourself retaining water, says Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RD, the founder of Essence Nutrition in Miami. "Other common culprits include any restaurant food, sauces and condiments, salad dressings, bread, canned foods, frozen snacks and entrées, salted nuts, salted seeds, salted nut and seed butters, crackers, popcorn, soy sauce, ketchup, soups, and deli meats," Moreno says.
Eating Too Many Carb-Heavy Foods
Carbohydrates are not the enemy—your body needs them. They are one of the three macronutrients, alongside fat and protein, that we need to survive. However, if we over-consume simple carbohydrates, we may experience water retention. "When your body stores that extra glucose, in the form of glycogen, it actually stores water along with it, too," says Roxana Ehsani, RD, a dietitian and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "If you go on a low-carb diet, you may notice weight fall off quickly—that's due to the water weight falling off from eliminating carbs."
Ehsani recommends against this, however. Instead of limiting or restricting carbs, choose whole grains, like whole wheat bread and whole wheat pasta, and watch your portion sizes.
Alcohol causes dehydration, which makes the body hold on to fluid, says Ehsani. After a night of sipping too much wine, beer, or martinis, you may wake up feeling and looking bloated. "Next time, have a glass of water in between alcoholic drinks to prevent dehydration and water retention," Ehsani says. She also recommends sticking to just one or two drinks.
Something as simple as the temperature outside can cause water retention. In fact, it's more common to experience this condition during the summertime, when temperatures climb. "This happens for a variety of reasons, but is chiefly a result of dilation of the blood vessels in response to heat. This [leads] to pooling of fluid, which thereafter moves into the surrounding tissues—where it causes swelling," says Dr. Tadwalkar.
Sitting for Long Periods of Time
Believe it or not, sitting idly for extended periods of time can lead to swelling due to water retention. We're all guilty of it now and then, whether we're sitting at our desk at work, or on a train or plane. "Sitting for long periods can cause water retention, as pressure in the lower extremities can cause fluid buildup," says Moreno. To mitigate this, she recommends taking quick, frequent walks around your office—or, while you're en route to a vacation and have limited space, getting up every hour. Keeping your legs elevated on a chair beside you can also help, Moreno adds.
If you're expecting, you might notice a little swelling here and there, especially in your hands and feet. This is quite normal and the result of your body producing as much as 50 percent more blood and bodily fluids during gestation, according to the American Pregnancy Association. Ultimately, your body goes through so many changes during pregnancy—many of which can lead to swelling. "Circulating blood volume increases during pregnancy to help the baby grow, and hormones secreted during pregnancy actually promote fluid retention," says Dr. Tadwalkar. "Additionally, the enlarging uterus can cause compression of the pelvic veins as well as the large vein in the abdomen (the inferior vena cava) that transports blood from the legs to the heart. This can cause edema in the lower legs due to an inability to effectively transport this blood to where it needs to go."
Medications, especially those used to treat high blood pressure, diabetes, and inflammation, can also lead to water retention. "Much like with hormonal changes during pregnancy, these drugs cause changes in the structure and functioning of the blood vessels (particularly the capillaries), which encourages the movement of fluid out of the blood and into the [limbs]," explains Jack Baron, RDN, a registered dietitian based in Philadelphia. "Because this water retention is normal, [you don't necessarily need to treat it], it can be managed."
Ways to Treat Water Retention
Good news: There are a few easy remedies that typically work to improve water retention, especially of the lower legs. Here are some expert-approved solutions.
Elevate Your Feet
Putting your feet up when you sit sit or rest supine is particularly helpful in reducing water retention, explains Dr. Tadwalkar; this promotes blood return from the veins back to the heart. "In turn, this improves pressure dynamics in the lower legs that helps relieve the swelling," says Dr. Tadwalkar.
Wear Compression Stockings
Support hose or compression stockings can provide outside pressure onto the legs to help get blood flowing and reduce water retention, says Dr. Tadwalkar. "There are many different types of stockings available, so I tell my patients that there is most likely a product available out there that will suit them if they look," he says.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends at least 150 minutes of heart-pumping exercise each week, which equates to about 2.5 hours total. This not only keeps you healthy and reduces your risk of developing a myriad of diseases, but also encourages your veins to function more effectively—thereby reducing your chances of holding onto too much water, says Dr. Tadwalkar.
Cut Back on Salt
Reducing your salt intake will also prevent water retention. "Increased sodium in the blood causes the body to retain more fluid," says Dr. Tadwalkar. "There are many hidden sources of sodium, so I always recommend reading the nutrition labels when purchasing a specific item."
Eat More Potassium-Rich Foods
Potassium is a nutrient that can counteract the effects of sodium in your diet. "The more potassium you ingest, the more your body tends to excrete sodium, which may relieve water retention," says Dr. Moore. For patients with any underlying cardiac or kidney issues, he recommends discussing your goals with your primary care provider before making big changes to your dietary intake of potassium, as too much potassium in the body can also be serious.
When to See a Doctor
While rare, water retention could be a sign of something more serious. In fact, one of the key symptoms of heart failure, which affects more than 6 million Americans, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is swelling in the legs, feet, and ankles. "When the heart fails or is weakened, fluid collects in the lungs, legs, and abdomen," explains Hoang Nguyen, MD, an interventional cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif.
Another common disease, liver failure—which affects some 4.5 million Americans, reports the CDC—can also cause swelling or water retention when "the liver [fails] to produce vital protein such as albumin," says Dr. Nguyen, noting that pressure in the bloodstream then changes and "causes fluid to seep into organs, mainly in the abdomen, but sometimes also in the legs."
It's also important to be on the lookout for deep vein thrombosis, which is the medical term for a blood clot. When a clot occurs, explains Dr. Moore, blood and fluid pools behind it, causing legs to swell. "This is a medical emergency and requires prompt medical attention," he adds.