I got a question on my members’ Facebook page a couple of weeks ago regarding water retention. There is nothing worse than a bloated tummy – it can not only make you feel physically uncomfortable, but can also wreak havoc on your psychological state (as many people equate the bloating to ‘feeling fat’, despite there being no relationship between the two). Further, a bloated stomach impacts on your ability to move properly. We can’t engage our core muscles, so aren’t able to move, lift, push or pull in a way that is functionally optimal. This has important implications for our core strength and injury prevention. Of course water rentention affects more than just our stomach – a long haul flight to somewhere warm can turn anyone’s lean calves into kankles due to changes in the pressure in the capillaries, causing fluid to leak out into the body tissues. There can be many reasons for this, so I thought I would investigate the most common causes and possible solutions.
- Minimize your sodium intake. Although sodium (aka salt) is an essential mineral because it’s used to regulate the fluid levels in body tissues, bringing water into the cells. Excess intake of sodium may cause excessive fluid retention in the body tissues. While the evidence behind this recommendation suggests it isn’t something that affects everyone, this may help some people, particularly those who are salt sensitive or hypertensive. Do note, though, that if you follow the types of principles that I suggest, your diet is probably quite low in salt anyway, as most salt comes from processed foods (around 70%). However, there are whole foods that are high in sodium, such as cheese, miso, cured meats and biltong, so you could reduce these, and avoid adding salt to your food to see if this makes a difference.
- I probably don’t need to tell you to avoid eating too many refined carbohydrates – these tend to spike insulin, which causes sodium (often found in these foods) to be re-absorbed back into the kidneys, thus increasing water retention. Your best bet for carbohydrate foods are those whole-food, minimally refined varieties that have negligible sodium for a start, and that you eat in a mixed meal with good fats and proteins to help slow down the release of carbohydrate into your bloodstream, minimising insulin response.
- Any form of dehydration can cause your body to hold onto water. Therefore, ensure that if you drink alcohol, do extended exercise training sessions, or are in a hotter environment that you remain well hydrated to offset any potential for dehydration. The fluid you lose during exercise should be replaced in the three hours after training, and at 1.5 times the amount lost – you can work out how much this is by weighing yourself before and after an exercise session. The amount of weight lost roughly equates to the amount of fluid lost. Prior to drinking alcohol, have a couple of glasses of water (this will also help slow down your drinking). And be an adult about how you drink: is it necessary to drink more than a few in any one sitting?
- Take adequate amounts of vitamin B6 combined with magnesium. For women, prior to your period you can feel a little bloated and that you are retaining water. Interestingly, however, some research investigating the timing of this around the menstrual cycle has found bloating occurs more in the onset of your cycle (day 1) after which is rapidly declines, despite the perception of puffiness or bloating in the week prior to menstruation. This puffiness, however, could well be related to food choices in that week, as the intake of higher sugar choices can increase for some.
- If you have water retention before your period, you may, however, benefit from taking both a magnesium supplement (at 250mg per day) combined with a vitamin B6 supplement (40mg) daily – a study found this combination the most effective for decreasing premenstrual symptoms when administered for two months by balancing your hormone levels.
- Potassium works in conjunction with sodium, pumping fluid out of the body cells. Therefore, if you aren’t consuming enough then it could cause problems with water retention. The reality is, though, that you are following the meal plan and including plenty of vegetables, your potassium intake is likely fine. However, if you don’t have a good intake of vegetables (at least 7 serves per day) then increasing these is a good idea. This will also bump up your fibre intake, which can further help reduce fluid retention.
- Take natural diuretics. Dandelion root has long been used to help flush water out of the body – therefore investing in a good tea such as this Golden Fields one is not only delicious (often used as a substitute to coffee), it will also be beneficial. In addition, this kidney cleanse tea from Artemis has other natural diuretics to help flush water out.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise can help reduce water retention, not just by increasing sweating, but by moving water from the intercellular compartments to the muscles.
- Increase your caloric intake, if only for a day. I know – this one sounds weird, but a ground-breaking study in the 1950s called the Minnesota Experiment found something interesting mid-way through their study. The study followed men on a 1500 Calorie diet for 6 months, and subjected to hours of hard labour per day. Half way through the trial the men were allowed a celebration meal, effectively increasing their caloric intake to 2300 Calories. Following a night of getting up to go to the bathroom several times, the men were a few pounds lighter the following morning. Obviously, the weight lost was water weight – but why would this be the case? Potentially the long-term calorie deficit caused an increase in cortisol levels, and this increases water retention in the body. By increasing caloric load, the body reduced cortisol levels and this reduced water retention.
- Reduce overall stress load. As we have just discovered, higher cortisol levels will increase water retention, therefore anything you can do to reduce stress is going to impact favourably on water loss. Let’s not forget the impact that high stress levels have on blood sugar levels, inflammation and fat gain (to name just three areas it impacts). While stress is a perception of a situation, and changing your mind-set is one of the best things you can do to lower stress levels, ensure you are getting adequate sleep, time in nature, time with loved ones and taking time just for yourself. These are going to help lower your cortisol levels and combat any stress-related water retention.
So… not a definitive list, but hopefully a few pointers to help you get to the bottom of your fluid retention issues and make some improvements. For more individual advice, don’t hesitate to contact me for a consultation or for online nutrition coaching. Further, if you’re in the Bay of Plenty, Queenstown, Nelson or Wellington regions, then I’m headed your way for an evening of ‘real food’ talk – click here to find out more information and to book tickets!