There are at least seven causes of water retention. Most cases of water retention are due to ‘idiopathic oedema (edema)’ which simply means that the water retention is not associated with a specific disease. In most cases the cause is reversible by changing what you eat and how you exercise. Use these quicklinks to find out more:
- Weak circulation in leg veins
- Immobility and lymphatic system
- Hormones and medicines
- Wastes and toxins
- Low-calorie diets
- Histamine and dehydration
- Heart or kidney problems
Weak circulation in the leg veins
This is probably one of the most common causes of water retention in legs and ankles. This occurs in pregnancy and causes swellings like those shown in the video. In older people this problem may also result in varicose veins. Also see…
Blockage or congestion of the lymphatic system
This can cause a type of water retention known as lymphoedema (lymphedema), which is common after some types of surgery, for instance. People who spend a lot of time immobile, e.g. those in hospital beds, wheelchairs, or on long-haul flights, even ‘couch potatoes’ can develop water retention because without regular movement, it is difficult for your lymphatic system to drain excess fluid out of your tissues.
Premenstrual water retention
This also common, and is caused by the hormonal changes of the menstrual cycle. Nutritional deficiencies caused by consuming too many of the wrong foods and drinks will make this problem worse.
One of the main causes of water retention is eating too much salty food. The main component of salt is sodium, which the body dilutes with water if too much of it is present. Salt makes you thirsty, and your body will hold on to this water. Reducing the amount of salt in your diet will help you to release a little water retention but not usually more than about 2 lbs in weight. Even a relatively salty diet, although it can be harmful in many ways, will not normally cause gross water retention.
Lesser-known causes of water retention
Hormones and Medicines
High levels of certain hormones can also make your body hold on to water. These include insulin, which is needed to process sugar; cortisone, which is produced when you are under stress; and the female hormones oestrogen (estrogen) and progesterone. The water-retaining effect is caused by the effects which these hormones have on sodium levels in your body, and on the hormones which govern how your kidneys work. Certain prescribed medicines such as the contraceptive pill and some painkillers can be causes of water retention by affecting levels of these hormones.
Water retention which is caused by hormones can be spread around the body but often affects your tummy most of all. Women can also get water retention in the breasts, which causes breast tenderness and swelling. Also see…
Wastes and Toxins
Cellulite, which mostly affects women’s thighs, is a form of fat complexed with retained water. Sometimes it holds so much water that it is swollen and painful to the touch. Metabolic wastes and toxins such as pesticides which the body cannot easily release tend to be stored in this fat. It is thought the causes of water retention in cellulite are either irritation and swelling due to these toxins, or results from the body’s attempt to dilute them.
If you have water retention you are very likely to be overweight. But overweight people tend to go on a low-calorie diet. A low-calorie diet will unfortunately not get rid of water retention – it can actually make it worse, especially if you eat less than 1,200 Calories a day for months or years. This is because you may not have enough protein in your blood to draw excess water out of your tissues. This type of water retention can cause generalized puffiness but if severe can give you a swollen tummy.
Histamine causes water retention leading to bloating and tummy swelling. If you have ever been stung by an insect or developed an itchy red lump after a mosquito bite, you will be familiar with the effects of histamine. Histamine widens the joins between the cells which line your smallest blood vessels, known as your capillaries. This makes them leak both water and protein into your “tissue spaces” – the area surrounding the cells of tissues such as flesh, organs and intestines. If the protein cannot be removed from your tissue spaces, it will stay there, attracting water.
Poor digestion and taking antibiotics can cause changes in your intestines which lead to a lot of histamine being produced in this area. Sometimes eating yoghurt and probiotics can help to reduce this problem, but if it has been going on for some time these measures may not be effective on their own.
Drinking less fluid will not cure water retention. One of the causes of water retention is dehydration due to not drinking enough water.
These causes of water retention often respond to dietary measures. The Waterfall Diet has been designed by British nutritionist Linda Lazarides to help release excess water weight as quickly as possible. It can also help to treat health problems associated with water retention, such as swollen legs, arthritis, high blood pressure and PMS.
Heart or kidney problems
Heart or kidney failure causes a severe and permanent swelling of the legs and ankles (oedema or edema), together with exhaustion, shortness of breath, coughing, and a severely reduced ability to urinate. These are medical conditions which require treatment from your doctor.
Do you have water retention?
How and when did it start? What do you think may have caused it? Let us know by telling your story in the comment box at the end of this page.