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Water Retention Causes

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Water Retention Causes
Water retention can occur due to mild conditions or can even be indicative of a severe illness. Check out the facts about water retention and what causes it. Learn to deal with edema.

Edema occurs when excess fluids in the body are stored inappropriately in the tissues. Check out the causes for water retention and how to diagnose it. Look at various treatment options for water retention.

Water retention

Water regularly leaks into the body tissues from the blood via lymphatic system - network of tubes throughout the body whose main function is to drain the fluid (lymph) and other extraneous waste material from tissues and return back to the bloodstream. When the excess water is not removed from the body tissues by this lymphatic system, it is retained in the tissue leading to swelling. This condition is medically termed as edema.

The amount of water consumed plays a vital role in water retention. In addition to dissolving and transporting nutrients such as oxygen and minerals to the body, water also helps in the process of digestion, assimilation, metabolism, elimination of waste from the body. Water is also necessary for proper weight balance.

In order to burn fat cells, it should be free from excess water and toxins. The body will hold on to excess water for survival if an adequate amount of water is not supplied. Water is a critical nutrient for many bodily processes. Due to dehydration, body excretes less water leading to bloating.

Formation of edema happens when fluid leaks from the capillaries into the neighboring tissue. It is insufficient for such leakage by itself to cause swelling. As soon as the brain senses that fluid is being lost, it instructs the kidneys to retain sodium and water. Consequently there is an increased level of fluid in the bloodstream. This worsens the leakage of fluid from the capillaries. The presence of edema is noticed only at this stage.

Causes of water retention

Location of water retention has a major bearing on possible health consequences. For example, while ascites and peripheral edema are uncomfortable with lesser serious conditions but, pulmonary edema can be a serious threat to health. Location of the swelling hinges on the underlying cause of the edema, be it a severe illness or even a mild condition. Water retention occurs due to various factors like:

Eating Too Much Salt and sugar

  • One of the most common causes of water retention is too much intake of salt in the diet. Even occasional intake, may cause brief episodes of water retention. This can be avoided by lowering sodium content in the diet. Don't reduce sodium intake completely, but using it in smaller amounts by avoiding processed foods can help. Salt helps naturally to retain water in the body, which is stored for later use. As it is a vital element in the diet, it should never be overused.

  • Eating too much sugar raises levels of the hormone insulin. Excessive consumption of sweets can lead to water retention as elevated insulin makes excretion of sodium harder.

Gravity: Prolonged standing leads to accumulation of excess fluids in the tissues of lower leg.

Burns/Sunburn: Severe sunburn may lead to water retention and blistering. It makes good sense to protect the skin from sunburn in any case, since sun damage to the skin is linked to higher skin cancer rates. Burns leads to water retention due to secretion of toxins at a high rate. This overloads the kidneys causing the body to store water in other areas of the body. Severe edema is caused by extensive burns.

  • Idiopathic Cyclic Edema leads to severe tissue swelling in the legs and abdomen. This occurs in menstruating women largely due to leakage of fluids into the fat and skin tissues. Gravitational pull worsens the pressure on the vascular system.

  • Oral contraceptives pills that include estrogen can trigger fluid retention.

  • Leg edema during pregnancy occurs as a result of uterine pressure on the vena cava.

  • Fluid retention of pregnancy also might be caused by a more serious condition called preeclampsia

  • Venous insufficiency is a common problem of the weakened valves in the veins of the legs. This leads to varicose veins and build up of fluid.

Nutritional deficiencies: Low protein levels in the blood can be seen in malnutrition, kidney and liver disease. Proteins are responsible for holding fluid in the blood vessels without any leak. Lower level of blood protein like albumin leads to leg edema.

Drug side effects: Certain drugs, including high blood pressure medication (antihypertensives), corticosteroids, NSAIDs like ibuprofen and medications for diabetes called thiazolidinediones are known to cause fluid retention.

Food intolerance: Modern dietary habits sans proper nutritional values lead to poor digestion ability. Histamine is produced when these undigested food particles stimulate immune cells in the blood system.

Lack of exercise: People without mobile activities or regular movements for longer time e.g. those in hospital beds, wheelchairs, or on long-haul flights are more prone to water retention, as the lymphatic system cannot drain excess fluid out of your tissue spaces.

Serious medical conditions

  • Chronic venous insufficiency
  • Heart failure
  • Kidney disease
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Cirrhosis
  • Thyroid disease
  • Arthritis
  • Allergic reactions
  • Malignant lympho-edema

Symptoms of water retention

  • Swelling of affected body parts like feet, ankles and hands

  • The affected body parts may ache.

  • Breathing difficulties, a common feature of with pulmonary edema.

  • Stiffness in the joints.

  • Rapid weight gain over a few days or weeks

  • Fluctuating weight changes.

  • Skin becomes stretched and shiny due swelling of legs and lower back. This could be observed in the case of patients who are bed-ridden, causing peripheral edema and sacral edema.

  • When pressed, the skin may hold the indent for a few seconds (pitting edema)

  • In other cases, the skin may not indent when pressed (non-pitting edema).

  • Bloated or enlarged abdomen, a common feature in ascites edema.

Water retention diagnosis and tests

Before treating edema, the underlying cause of the edema must be diagnosed. Common diagnostic tests to determine the most likely cause, may include:

  • Questioning the patient about the exact symptoms of fluid retention being experienced - when it started, where the swelling occurs in the body, whether it is constant or intermittent, aggravating factors that worsen the swelling.

  • A physical examination of the patient (e.g. close examination of the legs and veins in the neck).

  • A review of the patient's medical history.

  • Blood tests

  • Urine tests will show whether the patient is losing protein from the kidneys.

  • Liver function tests

  • Kidney function tests

  • Chest x-ray

  • Heart function tests, such as electrocardiogram (ECG).


Treatment depends upon the cause of edema and severity of its symptoms.

  • Low salt diet

  • Diuretics(water pills)

  • Treatment for the underlying medical condition - hormone replacement (thyroxin) in the case of hypothyroidism

  • Lifestyle changes in response to the underlying medical condition.

  • Changes to medication or dosage, if drugs are the cause

  • Dietary adjustments, if malnutrition is the cause

  • Ongoing medical supervision

  • Aids such as support stockings.

  • Improvement in body positioning by elevating the legs


  • Reduce the amount of salt in your diet. Cautioned use of processed foods such as manufactured meats, which tend to contain 'hidden' salt.

  • Vitamin B6(pyridoxine) is thought to help in cases of mild fluid retention. Good sources of vitamin B6 include brown rice and red meat.

  • Vitamin B5(pantothenic acid), calcium and vitamin D helps the body to excrete excess fluids.

  • Include fresh fruits and low fat dairy foods in your daily diet.

  • Calcium, magnesium, manganese, evening primrose oil and chaste tree supplements might aid in reducing fluid retention caused by menstrual cycle.

  • Drink plenty of water. A well-hydrated body is less likely to retain fluid.

  • Cut back on dehydrating drinks such as tea, coffee and alcohol.

  • Lie down with your legs higher than your head, when possible.

  • Exercise regularly.

  • Wear support stockings

  • Try natural diuretic products.

Natural diuretic foods

Foods that are diuretic in nature should be eaten with moderation.

  • Apple juice (stimulates kidneys and liver)
  • Artichoke
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas (also a good source of potassium)
  • Beets
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Cranberry juice
  • Cucumber
  • Grapes
  • Green tea
  • Lettuce
  • Tomatoes
  • Watermelon
  • Yogurt
  • Garlic
  • Horseradish
  • Onions (raw)
  • Parsley (especially powerful and packed with vitamins)

Bibliography / Reference:

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