What is Water Weight and How to Lose It

by Marixie Ann Obsioma
Published on November 4, 2020 and last updated for accuracy on November 8, 2020

You’ve probably heard that when you lose weight fast, it’s usually water weight. Or maybe you point fingers at water weight after stepping on the scale when you’re feeling totally bloated. But what exactly is water weight or fluid retention and how do you get rid of it?

Water, or fluid, retention occurs when there is a problem with one or more of the body’s mechanisms for maintaining fluid levels. The main symptoms are swelling and discomfort.

The circulatory system, the kidneys, the lymphatic system, hormonal factors, and other bodily systems all help maintain healthy fluid levels. If a problem arises with one or more of these systems, however, water weight or fluid retention, others know it as edema, can occur.

This can affect any area of the body and it happens for a variety of reasons.

What Causes Water Weight?

Salt and Carbs

One of the most common causes of water weight is too much salt in your diet. Sodium binds with water and keeps it trapped in the body. The higher the sodium in the diet, the more fluid retention a person will have.

Carbs can also have an impact on fluid retention, specifically if you start adding them back after a period of restricting them.

The carbohydrates we don’t use right away for energy we store as glycogen. Glycogen pulls in water, so the more glycogen we are storing, the more water we are taking in.

When we are on restrictive diets and at first lose weight quickly, that really is just water weight from the loss of stored glycogen from our muscles.

Malnutrition

Albumin is a protein that helps the human body manage fluids. When a person has a severe protein deficiency, it may be harder for their body to move interstitial fluid back into the capillaries.

When a person is severely malnourished, they may develop kwashiorkor. Symptoms include a loss of muscle mass and an enlarged abdomen. This is due to fluid retention in the bodily tissues.

Infections and Allergies

The immune system’s role is to defend the body from disease and infection. When the immune system detects an unwanted invader, such as bacteria or an allergen, it will mount an attack. Inflammation is part of this process.

When inflammation occurs, the body releases histamine. Histamine causes the gaps between the cells of the capillary walls to widen. It does this to allow infection-fighting white blood cells to reach the site of inflammation.

However, it can also allow fluid to leak from the capillaries into the surrounding tissues. The swelling that results from this is usually short-term.

People with long-term inflammation may experience water retention.

Menstruation

Many women retain water weight the week before their period due to fluctuating hormones. Fluid retention may reach its peak the first day of your actual period, before subsiding for that cycle.

With this type of fluid retention, the breasts can get really tender and some women get belly fullness.

You might also notice swelling in your face, legs, arms, and pubic area in the days leading up to your period.

Pregnancy

During pregnancy, the body holds more water than usual, and this can lead to swelling in the lower limbs, especially during hot weather or after standing for a long time.

Hormonal changes and carrying extra weight in the abdomen can also contribute (1).

This is not usually dangerous, and it mostly resolves after delivery.

If the swelling suddenly becomes more severe, however, it may be a sign of pre-eclampsia. This is a type of high blood pressure that can harm both the mother and the fetus.

Anyone who experiences headaches, vomiting, pain under the ribs, or vision problems along with increased swelling during pregnancy should seek immediate medical attention.

Medications

Certain medications can cause you to retain fluid. These include drugs for high blood pressure like calcium channel blockers, corticosteroids, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Some diabetes drugs, called thiazolidinediones, also do this.

Your doctor or pharmacist will be able to tell you if fluid retention is a side effect of any medications you’re taking and if there are alternatives that might not cause water weight.

Hormonal Birth Control

Just like there’s a connection between pregnancy and menstruation and water retention, hormonal birth control can also sometimes cause water weight.

Both the estrogen and progestin in birth control pills can be culprits. Usually the water weight isn’t major and doesn’t last long, but you may want to talk to your ob-gyn about other birth control options.

Cortisol

Cortisol is best known as a “stress hormone,” although it’s actually much more than that. It’s involved in keeping blood sugar levels stable, balancing metabolism, reducing inflammation, and even forming memories.

Water retention as a result of elevated cortisol levels isn’t common, but it can happen.

You’d have to have a pathophysiologic release of cortisol for that. In other words, there would have to be a lot of cortisol. Just being stressed won’t do that.

Cushing syndrome, for instance, might cause water retention. This is when tumors on the pituitary or adrenal glands release too much cortisol into the blood. People with low levels of thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) can develop swelling around their eyes, says Dr. Mack.

Physical Inactivity

People with mobility problems or a sedentary lifestyle can develop edema in the lower legs. Underuse can cause the calf muscle pump to lose strength.

It may help to:

  • Keep the feet raised
  • Wear compression stockings
  • Practice exercises, such as raising and lowering the feet or rotating the ankles

Travel 

Sitting for long periods of time on cross-country flights or lengthy road trips can cause water retention.

Your muscles contract literally from sitting for too long and your feet and legs may swell in response as the fluid pools there.

While in most cases water weight is usually not a concern, certain chronic conditions can also cause water retention. 

Capillary Damage

Capillaries are tiny blood vessels with a key role in managing fluid balance in the body. Some medications, such as those for high blood pressure, can cause damage to the capillaries.

Capillaries deliver fluid to surrounding tissues. This fluid, called interstitial fluid, supplies nutrients and oxygen to cells. After delivering the nutrients, the fluid returns to the capillaries.

If the capillaries become damaged, edema can occur. Possible problems include changes in pressure inside the capillaries and the capillary walls becoming too leaky.

If these problems do occur, too much liquid can leave the capillaries and enter the spaces between cells. If the capillaries cannot reabsorb the fluid, it will stay in the tissues, causing swelling and water retention.

Some people experience this type of edema because they have a rare condition known as systemic leaky capillary syndrome.

Congestive Heart Failure

The pumping action of the heart helps maintain normal pressure within the blood vessels. If a person’s heart stops working effectively, their blood pressure will change. Fluid retention can arise from this.

There may be swelling in the legs, feet, and ankles, as well as fluid in the lungs, which can result in a long-term cough or breathing difficulties.

Eventually, congestive heart failure can lead to breathing problems and stress on the heart. It can therefore be life threatening.

Kidney Diseases

The kidneys filter the blood and help maintain fluid levels in the body.

Waste, fluids, and other substances pass into tiny tubules in the kidneys, which act as a filter. The bloodstream reabsorbs anything the body can reuse and removes the waste in urine.

If the kidneys do not work properly, they cannot remove waste material, including fluids and sodium. The fluid will therefore stay in the body.

People with chronic kidney disease, for example, may notice swelling in the lower limbs, hands, or face.

10 Ways to Lose Water Weight Safely

1. Exercise Regularly

Exercise may be one of the best ways to reduce water weight in the short term. Any form of exercise increases sweat, which means you will lose water.

The average fluid loss during one hour of exercise is anywhere between 16–64 ounces (0.5–2 liters) per hour, depending on factors such as heat and clothing (2, 3, 4).

During exercise, your body also shifts a lot of water into your muscles.

This can help reduce water outside of the cell and decrease the “soft” look people report from excessive water retention (5).

However, you still need to drink plenty of water during your training session.

Another good option to increase sweat and water loss is the sauna, which you could add in after your gym session.

2. Avoid Super-Salty Foods

A high salt intake may increase water retention. This is particularly true if coupled with low water intake and no exercise (6, 7). 

It’s not so much the saltshaker on your table you have to worry about, it’s processed foods. These contribute about 75% of our salt intake, according to the FDA, since many use salt as a preservative.

All of your processed, packaged foods are going to have more sodium simply because the manufacturers want them to stay on the shelf longer.

Cook from scratch when you can, using non-processed items like fresh fruits and vegetables. If you do need a packaged item, read the label and compare sodium content across similar products.

3. Sleep More

Research on sleep highlights that it’s just as important for health as diet and exercise (8, 9).

Sleep may also affect the sympathetic renal nerves in the kidneys, which regulate sodium and water balance.

Adequate sleep may also help your body control hydration levels and minimize water retention.

Aim to get a healthy amount of sleep per night, which for most individuals will be around 7–9 hours.

4. Stress Less

Long-term stress can increase the hormone cortisol, which directly influences fluid retention and water weight (10).

This may occur because stress and cortisol increase a hormone that controls water balance in the body, known as the antidiuretic hormone or ADH (11).

ADH works by sending signals to your kidneys, telling them how much water to pump back into your body.

If you control your stress levels, you will maintain a normal level of ADH and cortisol, which is important for fluid balance and long-term health and disease risk.

5. Drink More Water

You might think that putting more water into your body just adds more water weight. In fact, the opposite is true. If your body feels starved for water, it will hold on to whatever water it has.

If you’re retaining water, make sure you’re getting plenty of H2O, especially if you’re also eating salty foods.

It might also help to limit tea, coffee, and alcohol, all of which can be dehydrating. Cranberry juice, on the other hand, has a slight diuretic effect and may help flush out some excess water.

6. Take Electrolytes

Electrolytes are minerals with an electric charge, such as magnesium and potassium. They play important roles in your body, including regulating water balance (12).

When electrolyte levels become too low or too high, they can cause shifts in fluid balance. This may lead to increased water weight.

You should tailor your electrolyte intake to your water intake. If you drink large amounts of water, you may need more electrolytes (13).

If you exercise daily or live in a humid or hot environment, you may need additional electrolytes to replace those lost with sweat (14).

In contrast, large amounts of electrolytes from supplements or salty foods, coupled with a low water intake, can have the opposite effect and increase water weight.

7. Take Caffeine Supplements or Drink Tea and Coffee

Caffeine and beverages that contain caffeine, such as coffee and tea, have diuretic effects and may help reduce your water weight.

It has been shown to increase short-term urine output and decrease water weight slightly (15, 16).

In one study, a glass of water with or without caffeine was provided to participants in doses of 2 mg per pound (4.5 mg per kg) of body weight.

When combining caffeine with water, participants’ urine volume significantly increased (17).

That being said, even though caffeine has a mild diuretic effect, it doesn’t lead to dehydration in habitual consumers.

8. Take Magnesium Supplement

Magnesium is another key electrolyte and mineral. It has recently become a very popular supplement for health and sports performance.

Research regarding magnesium has been extensive and shows that it has over 600 roles within the human body (18).

Studies in women show that magnesium can reduce water weight and premenstrual symptoms (PMS) (19, 20).

These changes occur because magnesium plays an integrative role with other electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium. Together, they help control your body’s water balance.

Magnesium supplements have numerous other potential health benefits for people who are lacking it in their diet.

9. Use Dandelion Supplement

Dandelion, also known as Taraxacum officinale, is an herb used in alternative medicine to treat water retention (21).

In recent years, it has also become popular among bodybuilders and athletes who need to drop water for aesthetic purposes or to meet a weight category.

Dandelion supplements may help you lose water weight by signaling the kidneys to expel more urine and additional salt or sodium.

This is supported by studies showing that taking dandelion supplements increases the frequency of urination over a 5-hour period (22).

However, even though it’s already in popular use, more research is definitely required on dandelion supplements.

10. Consider Prescription Water Pills

Prescription diuretics and water pills are sometimes used to treat excess water retention (23).

They work by activating your kidneys to flush out excess water and salt through urine.

These diuretic pills are often prescribed to those with heart or lung issues and to help with blood pressure, prevent fluid buildup and reduce swelling.

It’s important to note the difference between prescription diuretics and over-the-counter or online water pills.

Prescription pills have been clinically tested for long-term safety, whereas over-the-counter pills may lack clinical research and have not always been tested for safety.

Either type may help combat medically diagnosed edema or excess water weight.

Speak to your doctor before trying these.

The Bottomline 

If your water weight problem persists, seems severe or increases suddenly, it’s always best to seek medical attention.

In some cases, excess water retention can be caused by a serious medical condition.

At the end of the day, the best way to combat excess water weight is to identify and treat the cause.

This may be excess salt intake, lack of electrolytes, inactivity, excess stress or the regular consumption of processed foods.

Some of these are also among the main causes linked to poor health and disease, which may be even bigger reasons to avoid them.

References: 

(1) https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1358863X16672576

(2) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17277604/

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3707098/

(4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC297375/

(5) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10638379/

(6) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6823962/

(7) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1501562/

(8) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4444051/

(9) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10543671/

(10) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8266000/

(11) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7260711/

(12) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10483801/

(13) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/5572793/

(14) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10919961/

(15) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/353595/

(16) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19774754/

(17) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3036994/

(18) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25540137/

(19) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9861593/

(20) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22069417/

(21) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16950583/

(22) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19678785/

(23) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24243991/

 

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