Water retention can leave you feeling puffy and uncomfortable. [Photo: Bigstock]

Q&A: What to do about water retention?

13 February, 2014

 Q – I suffer from water retention. I don’t seem to have any other symptoms other than a difficulty in losing weight, and feeling  bloated and uncomfortable much of the time. Can diuretics help and can you explain something about what causes water retention.


A – Although women seem to suffer from it more, anyone can retain water (a condition also known as fluid retention or oedema).

Our bodies are composed of around 50-60% cent water and adequate water in the body is necessary for many biological functions. Normally the fluids we take in each day are utilised and then excreted by the kidneys but in some individuals the system goes awry and water is retained.

Fluid retention brings with it a number of symptoms including bloating, muscle aches and other flu-like symptoms, fatigue. Anxiety and depression are also common.

Sometimes fluid retention is a symptom of health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and thyroid problems and you should certainly rule these problems out before deciding to self treat.

Sometimes it is medically induced. Several types of medication are known to cause fluid retention including hormone treatments such as the Pill and HRT, over the counter painkillers such as paracetamol and aspirin, steroids and blood pressure medications. High intake of liquorice (the herb and the sweet) can also cause fluid retention.

Conventional medicine has not really got to the bottom of fluid retention. Many cases are referred to as idiopathic fluid retention syndrome. Idiopathic means that the doctors don’t know what causes it. This diagnosis is almost always attributed to women and linked to their monthly cycles, although it has been noted in males as well.

Tracking down causes

Fluid retention is said to occur as a result of abnormal changes in the pressure inside the capillaries – tiny blood vessels in the body. This can cause fluid to leak into the surrounding tissues where it can accumulate in the tissue spaces around and in between your body’s cells.

According nutritionist Linda Lazarides, an expert on the subject and author of the Waterfall Diet, these tissues are like sponges and have the capacity to absorb and retain large amounts of water. So it is not unusual for a person suffering from fluid retention to be holding onto anywhere from 7 to 20 pounds of excess water in this way.

The fact is that the water balance in your body isn’t static and it is constantly changing in response to your physical and emotional environment.

In the short term emotional stress, high carbohydrate meals, alcohol, prolonged standing and exercise and high ambient temperatures can all cause the body to retain water.

Other causes include:

Accumulated toxins Some practitioners believe that a polluted body is more likely to hold onto water. The theory is that the body can’t always keep up with the demand to process and eliminate all the toxic substances we are exposed to. Instead it may just hold onto water in order to dilute the toxin and prevent it from damaging the body. Linda Lazarides believes cellulite is a form of water retention which is also caused by accumulated toxins.

Food allergies In much the same way that the body ’dilutes’ environmental toxins, it also dilutes allergens.

Poor lymph drainage Water retention is also caused by a sluggish lymph system. The lymph systems job is in part to collect fluid and return it to the blood. Without the efficient involvement of the lymph system fluid can accumulate.

Nutritional deficiencies You diet also has a part to play in fluid retention. Caffeine containing drinks and alcohol are dehydrating to the body and may end up cause fluid imbalances.

What to do?

Many people automatically restrict their fluid intake when they feel they are retaining water. This is unlikely to result in less fluid retention. It may even make the problem worse, so keep drinking the water, as well as herbal teas and even very dilute fruit juices and fresh vegetable juices, but cut back (or cut out) sodas which contain additives and sweeteners that can make water retention worse.

Diuretics, too, are unlikely to be of any real help and may even make the problem worse in the long run.  Diuretics stimulate the kidneys to draw more water from the blood – they cannot encourage the release of more water from the tissues – where the real problem lies. Diuretics also cause sodium/potassium imbalances and other problems in the body.

In one study of 30 fluid retaining patients comparing diuretics with placebo, there were no significant differences in the outcomes between the two leading to the conclusion that diuretics should not be prescribed for patients with fluid retention. Other evidence suggests that use of diuretics can actually cause oedema  through what is thought to be a rebound sodium retention caused by the pills.

When your body is not eliminating water efficiently there is a chance that the kidneys are sluggish, in which herbs with a diuretic action can be a useful short-term support (long term they can cause the same problems as conventional medicines). But this should be used alongside therapies which support and heal the kidneys so that they may begin to work efficiently on their own again.

The safest herbal diuretics are traditionally believed to be dandelion leaf (Taraxacum officinale), elderflower (Sambucus canadensis), dill (Anethum graveolens) and celery seed (Apium graveolens). These can be brewed as teas or taken as tinctures or tablets. Other herbs with diuretic actions include nettle (Urtica dioica), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), ginseng (Panax ginseng) and hawthorn (Crataegus oxycanthus).

Bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus), a common seaweed, has diuretic properties but since it is also a source of iodine, it should not be taken over the long-term.

To combat fluid retention there are several things you can do.

Diet First ensure that your protein intake is adequate. Studies in animals suggest that protein deficiency can contribute to oedema.  There is also some merit in the age-old advice to reduce your salt intake, because salt acts like a water magnet in the body. But remember that cutting salt out altogether is not healthy. Several foods including celery, onion, eggplant, asparagus and watermelon are said to have a diuretic effect

Supplementation with vitamin B6 helps regulate estrogen and may be of benefit for women who find they retain fluids cyclically. Vitamin E may also help strengthen capillaries thus preventing leakage and Vitamin C is useful because of its  role in collagen production and its capability to help repair red blood cells.

Antioxidants In diabetics increased intake of bioflavinoids has been shown to reduce capillary permeability, thus helping to stop fluids leaking out into surrounding tissues. Flavonoids have also been found to reduce swelling in cases of lymphoedema. Hesperidin is a flavononoid found abundantly in the peel and pith of citrus fruits and which can help improve capillary strength and reduce leaking.  Try supplementing with this, rutin and other flavonoids as well as vitamin C.  Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), is a rich source of anthocyanins, which can help maintain the integrity of veins and capillaries. Studies show that bilberry is effective in reducing capillary permeability.

Massage is another traditional way of relieving fluid retention. Officially it is used in cases of lymphoedema (again usually a symptom and manual lymphatic drainage, as it is called, is where the bulk of the research into massage as therapy for oedema lies. Massage with essential oils known to help relieve water retention may also be helpful. Try using Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), Grapefruit (Citrus paradise), Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), Juniper (Juniperus communis), Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) and Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).

Exercise Lengthy sessions of vigorous exercise are actually associated with short-term water retention. Try gentler approach to stretching and toning with something like Pilates, swimming or yoga (in fact several traditional yoga positions are specifically indicated to help reduce water retention)

Like all conditions which have multiple origins, it may take a combination of therapies and a bit of patience to finally deal with your fluid retention. If the problem is diet related it may also require a change in the way you eat over the long term.