Water Retention: Definition, Signs, Causes & Remedies

It is common knowledge that our bodies are made up largely of water;  at birth we are over 75% water our brain and heart are 73% water, our skin 64%, our muscles and kidneys are over 79% water. In fact, our bodies will consist of over 50 per cent water throughout our entire lives. It holds vital importance to the function and structure of our organs, muscles and bones, as well as ensuring we properly absorb nutrients and expel acidic waste and toxins from the body. It only makes sense, therefore, that we are repeatedly told since childhood to maintain consistent hydration and drink at least 2 to 3 litres per day.

 

As a result, we can be forgiven for thinking that water retention is a positive health benefit. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Water retention can in fact hold some significant symptoms, and should it persist, can lead to concerning health implications.

 

What is Water Retention?

So, what is water retention? Once consumed, water needs to be put to use in your body, and perform the functions mentioned above. Blood is one of the main transportation methods of water travelling throughout the body, but there are ways in which excess fluids can actually ‘leak’ back into tissues. When fluid is retained by the tissues through a number of potential issues with our internal mechanisms for regulating water levels, this is known as oedema (or water retention). The extent of water retention can vary, with generalised oedema meaning the entire body is experiencing symptoms, and localised oedema referring to specific areas of the body being affected.

 

Water Retention Signs and Symptoms

 With this information in mind, it is important to be mindful of the water retention signs and symptoms you may experience. As there is a range of different types of water retention possible, there is naturally a selection of different signs to be mindful of:

 

Swelling

 Swelling is one of the most common signs of water retention in the body. You may notice the tightness and expanding size of your ankles, feet and legs, with puffy, shiny, and red skin. Water retention in your stomach and face is also a common symptom, as well as your hands and fingers with rings, watches and bracelets no longer fitting.

 If you suspect oedema in these areas, gently press down on the area with light pressure and, should that area be retaining water, an indentation will be left behind.

 

Weight Gain & Bloating

Many people might be confused about whether they are experiencing water retention or belly fat. If you find yourself consistently feeling bloated and are struggling to lose weight despite conducting regular bouts of exercise (combined with a healthy diet), then the reason may be due to the body retaining upwards of several litres of water weight, stored in the fluid surrounding our cells.

 

Stiff Joints & Aching Limbs

Water retention can also cause you to feel extremely stiff in your joints, and experience a general aching and tenderness across the affected limbs.

 

Hydrocephalus

In more extreme cases, fluid can build up around the brain, known as hydrocephalus. Sufferers can experience signs and symptoms ranging from headaches and vomiting, to blurred vision and difficulty in trying to walk. This can stem from congenital issues apparent from birth, acquired after an event or injury, or with age.

 

Pulmonary Oedema

 When fluid builds up within the lungs, it is referred to as pulmonary oedema, and can often be an indicator of significant issues with your cardiovascular and/or respiratory systems. Associated symptoms range from breathing difficulties, chest pain, and overall weakness due to the lack of oxygen in the body.

 

What causes water retention?

Despite the incredible functions the human body can perform, there is the potential for our systems responsible for maintaining fluid levels to become disrupted. When we look at what causes water retention, the answers are typically found in these areas:

 

Understanding the Lymphatic System

As blood flows throughout the body, our blood vessels begin to grow smaller as they progress closer to the extremities. This gradually causes the vessels to leak a selection of salts, proteins, water and glucose within the tissues, collectively forming a liquid known as ‘lymph’. A mechanism known as the ‘lymphatic system’ then activates to collect the lymph from within our muscles to avoid it accumulating and leading to a range of distressing symptoms, such as swelling (known as lymphedema). 

Once the lymph has been collected, the lymphatic system will then move from draining to filtering out the bacteria, toxins, and microbes from the fluid itself. These will be transported away to lymph nodes where white blood cells are waiting to neutralise them. It is therefore crucial to maintain a healthy lymphatic system to ensure this essential function continues to operate at optimal levels.


Sodium Retention

Salt is a common element in our modern diets, but should we consume too much through our food and beverages, it is likely that our bodies will retain this additional sodium by increasing the fluid levels surrounding our cells. Higher levels of sodium will then be excreted through urine, demanding more sodium and fluid to be retained, with the cycle continuing as we maintain high salt intake levels.

 

Pregnancy

Water retention in pregnancy stems from the mother carrying a greater amount of water than they would normally for the sake of the foetus. Paired with hormonal changes and added weight being carried within the abdomen, this can lead to water retention signs to develop in the lower limbs. Putting your feet up as much as possible and avoid standing for long periods without moving will assist reduce water retention.

 

Kidneys

Our kidneys are responsible for filtering our blood as mentioned above, and in doing so, maintaining proper fluid levels. If they fail to locate and remove wastes like excess fluids and sodium, they will naturally recirculate and stay in the body, spreading to our limbs, hands and face.

 

Poor Diet

Certain proteins, such as Albumin, play important roles in aiding the body's mechanisms regulate fluid levels. If you do not consume enough protein, the potential for malnutrition can lead to kwashiorkor, with fluid retention as a key symptom.

 

Hormonal Changes

Hormonal imbalances are common, yet can still play a significant impact on the body’s ability to maintain fluid levels. Menstruation, for example, causes hormonal imbalances that lead to a build-up of fluid and lead to breast tenderness and bloating.

 

How to Reduce Water Retention – Fast

Once you know what causes water retention, you can progress to finding out how to get rid of water retention.

 

Adjusting Your Diet

A balanced diet is essential for proper bodily functions.

It’s not surprising that our lymphatic system, like the rest of our body, depends on a well-balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals to keep it in peak condition. If our body is experiencing a high level of inflammation, this can put increased stress on the lymphatic system and overtime this can lead to dysfunction and impairment. To ensure that you are supporting the drainage and filtering power of the lymphatic system make sure to take in plenty of water and foods with anti-inflammatory properties and reduce your intake of foods that can increase inflammation within the body.

Ensuring you maintain a healthy balance of proteins, magnesium and vitamin B-6 can ensure that your hormonal balance remains at optimal levels. Increasing your alkaline intake may also aid in balancing the acidity in your body, improving kidney function.

 

Elevation

Oedema in the lower limbs can be supported with simple elevation. For example, sitting with your legs raised at a level greater to your heart, or sleeping with your tender limb on a pillow, can help improve circulation.

 

Clothing

Be sure to wear loose clothing. As the issue is with circulation, you do not want to further constrict an affected area. Support stockings may prove beneficial in encouraging more efficient circulation.

 

References:

H.H. Mitchell, Journal of Biological Chemistry 158

https://www.usgs.gov/special-topics/water-science-school/science/water-you-water-and-human-body

 

Roland J, Fisher J, What Is the Average (and Ideal) Percentage of Water in Your Body?Healthline (2019) https://www.healthline.com/health/body-water-percentage

 

Meinders AJ, Meinders AE. Hoeveel water moeten we eigenlijk drinken? [How much water do we really need to drink?]. Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd. 2010;154:A1757. Dutch. PMID: 20356431.

  

Professor G.A. MacGregor, Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Barts & The London School of Medicine, London https://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/salthealth/salt-and-water-retention/https://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/about/cash-members/

  

Popkin BM, D'Anci KE, Rosenberg IH. Water, hydration, and health. Nutr Rev. 2010;68(8):439-458. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00304.x

 

Better Health, Fluid retention (oedema)(2017) https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/Fluid-retention-oedema

 

NHS, Swollen ankles, feet and legs (oedema)(2018) https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/oedema/

 

Everyday Health, How to Recognise And Reduce Water Retention (Edema)(2017) https://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/weight/how-recognize-reduce-water-retention-edema/

 

Sullivan D, Brazier Y, What To Know About Water Retention,Medical News Today (2020) https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/187978#_noHeaderPrefixedContent

 

Brunner S, What is pulmonary edema?,Medical News Today (2017) https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/167533

 

Ebrahimi E, Khayati Motlagh S, Nemati S, Tavakoli Z. Effects of magnesium and vitamin b6 on the severity of premenstrual syndrome symptoms. J Caring Sci. 2012;1(4):183-189. Published 2012 Nov 22. doi:10.5681/jcs.2012.026

 

Passey C. Reducing the Dietary Acid Load: How a More Alkaline Diet Benefits Patients With Chronic Kidney Disease. J Ren Nutr. 2017 May;27(3):151-160. doi: 10.1053/j.jrn.2016.11.006. Epub 2017 Jan 20. PMID: 28117137.