Why Water Weight is a Thing and How to Get Rid of it
Few things in life are more irritating than pulling on a favorite pair of jeans and finding they suddenly refuse to be zipped. No one likes fighting with denim, but just about everyone — particularly people who menstruate — has experienced the scenario. Despite what society and diet pill marketers would have you believe, weight gain can happen for a variety of reasons. And not all weight gain is inherently a negative thing. But noticing a sudden shift in size for seemingly no reason can sometimes be uncomfortable (and inconvenient if it renders half your closet temporary unwearable).
The culprit in these immediate and ostensibly unprompted weight changes is usually an otherwise innocent element: water. Formally known as “edema,” water weight or water retention is swelling caused by excess fluid that gets trapped inside the body’s tissues because of tiny blood vessels called capillaries that leak. The type of edema we’re talking about here is mild, common, and completely normal. But before we address the run-of-the-mill version of the issue, it’s essential to recognize the type of severe swelling that merits prompt medical care.
“Let’s get one thing out of the way — if there’s an urgent, immediate, red-hot swelling in one leg or something and you’re having trouble breathing, this is not water retention,” says New York-based OB/GYN, Alyssa Dweck, MS, MD, FACOG. “Those are causes of significant concern, and you should see a doctor immediately because it could be a blood clot or pulmonary embolism — a lot of girls are on birth control pills, and these kinds of things are not unheard of.” That’s because certain types of birth control can significantly increase a woman’s risk of developing a blood clot by two to four times, which, in rare cases, could break off and travel to the lungs. Here’s what that really means though: between one and five out of every 10,000 young women not birth control will get a blood clot in a given year. If you quadruple that, the risk for women on birth control is still incredibly low (between four and 20 out of 10,000). So while the statistic sounds overwhelmingly scary, perspective is important in recognizing how rare this event actually is.
Severe water retention accompanied by chest pain, difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath could also imply other serious conditions are at the root of the issue. “It could also be a sign of heart failure or kidney failure, which isn’t really common in young women, but you never know,” Dweck says.
Now that you know what’s considered off-the-charts abnormal, let’s talk about the typical, albeit maddening, type of bloating many people get in different areas of their bodies, depending on the time of the month, their activity level, last night’s meal, and more.
What is water weight, and why does it happen to me?
“Water retention or ‘edema’ is fluid that tends to collect outside of the blood vessels in the tissue,” Dweck says. “Some people are prone to this because they have leaky valves in their blood vessels or they work jobs like cashiers or toll-takers who stand on their feet all day which causes their blood vessels to leak.”
Edema is most common in the feet, ankles, and legs, but it can affect pretty much any area of the body, including the hands, face, and abdomen, and it can affect the entire body as a whole. One major cause of edema is simply gravity — as you sit or stand for a prolonged period of time, fluid is naturally pulled downward, so it pools in the lower extremities. It can also happen if the blood vessel valves weaken for any reason, making it tough for the veins to push blood back up to the heart (this is what causes varicose veins as well).
Another common cause of water weight (and well, other types of weight too) is pregnancy. “In pregnancy, a lot of women get edema in their ankles and hands because they have excess fluid in their bloodstream,” Dweck says. “ Their bodies are overwhelmed because their kidneys are doing the job of filtering their blood and the baby’s blood, so they’re on overdrive.” Swelling in the legs is particularly common during pregnancy since the growing uterus is putting extra pressure on the blood vessels in the lower half of the body.
But the reason many people — particularly women — are familiar with edema is hormones. “Most women notice water retention as it relates to their periods,” Dweck says. “Premenstrual water retention is a hormonal issue but it can also be related to what you’ve eaten when you were craving certain foods leading up to your period.”
Estrogen and progesterone — the two main female sex hormones — have a lot of influence on fluid regulation in the body. So as these hormones fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle, they can cause gains and losses in water weight. Experts still aren’t entirely sure why and how these changes occur. But studies have shown that many women experience peak fluid retention on the first day of their flow, and can feel hormone-induced bloating during the luteal phase (aka the two weeks or so between ovulation and menstruation), as progesterone and estrogen peak.
It is important to learn how to manage stress to try and avoid the above list of potential health hazards that can occur or worsen due to stress. Stress management and relaxation techniques are two very important tactics for combating the stressors of everyday life. There will always be stressors that we cannot control, but as individuals we do have the power to decide how we respond to stressors, helping to decrease the risk of developing unwanted complications of long-term stress.
Okay so bloating is normal…but am I making it worse? How do I lose water weight?
So yes, according to science and very likely your own personal experience, bloating is very real and your temporarily tighter wardrobe is very much not a figment of your imagination. But since it’s clear extreme water retention coupled with other symptoms like chest pain or difficulty breathing can be a sign of something far more serious than standard hormonal shifts, how much is “normal”?
“It’s tough to put it into scale in terms of what’s ‘a lot,’” Dweck says. “But if your socks are leaving big lines around your legs and your rings don’t go on and off easily like they used to, those are some signs of water retention. Also, some people say their contact lenses don’t seem to be working as well, and that’s because of water retention in the eyeballs.” Dweck says many women notice the scale tip by five pounds or so in the days leading up to their periods and then magically shift back down once bleeding begins — that’s typical water retention. “Some people will get on the scale and go, ‘oh my god, I gained five pounds,’ and that may be the case and may be related to their cycle, but it should resolve with the onset of their period,” she says.
But while water retention may be a less than pleasant part of being a human (particularly a human who menstruates), are there ways to minimize its effects? And are there ways you may be inadvertently making your bloating way worse? In a word? Yes — to both questions.
“People who are prone to water retention should watch their diets and eliminate the offending agents, with salt at the top of the list,” Dweck says.
So let’s talk about salt. Sodium is a necessary part of the diet to maintain health. But you don’t need much and you probably don’t need to be sprinkling table salt on your meals as the element naturally occurs in many foods. Your body needs sodium to regulate the amount of water in your cells and help keep nerve communication and muscle function running smoothly. But just a little salt goes a long way.
“If you’ve ever eaten a massive load of pickles and potato chips and then woken up and couldn’t fit your rings on your fingers, that’s water retention from all the salt,” Dweck says. “Water tends to follow salt, so when there’s a lot of salt, the water can’t keep up and fluid ends up in the tissues. Eventually, the kidneys catch up and filter it out, so you lose the water retention.”
One way to speed that natural process along is to chug more H2O. “Drinking more water can help,” Dweck says. “Don’t drink to the point of oblivion, obviously, but usually eight eight-ounce glasses a day is enough and even a very tall order for most people. And some of that has to do with how much exercise you’re engaging in.”
Staying active is an important way to reduce water retention. “If you’re not an exerciser, you’re more likely to have fluid retention because working your muscles helps keep the blood vessels moving around,” Dweck says. “Blood moves through them better when you exercise, so there’s less chance of fluid moving into the tissues.” That’s because if blood is pooling in the limbs and not properly pumping to the heart, the accumulation can put extra pressure on the capillaries, potentially causing them to push fluid out into the tissue, creating bloat.
While reducing sodium and amping up exercise may help keep water retention under control, committing too intensely to an extreme diet and lifestyle may actually sabotage your success. “If someone is really malnourished, believe it or not, particularly in protein, that can also cause water retention,” Dweck says. That’s because the human body requires a certain level of protein to effectively balance water and bring it back from the tissues and into the capillaries.
Nutrition and lifestyle choices are, of course, a big part of the picture, but many other factors can contribute to your tendency to bloat or not to bloat. “A sluggish lymphatic system that’s not draining well, surgery, and congenital issues can also cause it,” Dweck says. “Other things that can water retention are certain medications, especially hormonal medications like birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy — it’s just part of the mechanism of how they work.”
And while you may not be able to counteract the effects of medical conditions, procedures, or treatments, you can implement a few strategies in addition to a regular exercise routine and well-rounded diet. “Some people suggest adding either potassium or magnesium to the diet, but I wouldn’t recommend those as supplements,” Dweck says. “I would just have patients add them into their diets as food. So bananas can be helpful — usually fruits and vegetables contain these elements that could be helpful.”
A few more drugstore solutions to try: “You may want to use compression stockings that are really thick or use over-the-counter water pills,” Dweck says. Water pills, aka diuretics, are often recommended as a tool to help temporarily boost your kidneys’ ability to remove sodium from the body. As sodium exits, so does water, and so does bloat. Of course, you should talk to your doctor before starting a diuretic or any other pharmaceutical remedy for water retention. Dweck says diuretics should not be used for lasting weight loss or in excess of recommended dosing, and if you’d prefer a non-pharmaceutical option, you may want to try kicking up your feet and sipping on a cup of coffee. “Caffeine is also a natural diuretic,” Dweck says. “And elevation can be helpful, so elevating whatever extremity is swollen.”
Whichever strategy you choose and however you go about living with the sometimes inevitable reality of water retention, remember that bloating is a temporary state. Bloating comes and goes, and you’re still flawless — whether your pants fit or not.