Understanding Fluid Retention

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What is it and how do we manage it

Fluid retention, also known as water retention, hydrops and hydropsy refers to an excessive fluid buildup in the circulatory system, body tissues or cavities in the body. Seventy per cent of the human body is made up of water. Water exists both inside and outside our body’s cells. Even blood is primarily made up of water. Our organs and muscles are no different either.

The two broad categories of fluid retention include generalised oedema, when swelling occurs throughout the body, and localised oedema when particular parts of the body are affected.

Fluid retention is not just a cosmetic issue affecting our looks as most people mistakenly think. Sure, you look bloated, your face looks round, your eyelids and/or your cheeks look puffy. But there’s so much more to it than that.

Although it’s recommended that you see your doctor rather than self-treat, there are some simple steps you can take to prevent and manage fluid retention.

Areas affected

Fluid retention can occur for different reasons in many different areas of the body such as the:

  • Capillaries
  • Lymphatic system
  • Heart
  • Kidneys

Symptoms of fluid retention

Swelling of affected body parts.

Feet, ankles and hands are commonly affected.

The affected body parts may ache.

The joints may feel stiff.

Rapid weight gain over a few days or weeks.

Unexplained weight fluctuations.

The skin may not indent when pressed (non-pitting oedema).

When pressed, the skin may hold the indent for a few seconds (pitting oedema).

If you wake up in the morning, and have bed sheet marks all over your body, or deep indention lines from your underwear, etc, then you are retaining excess water.

When you feel thirsty, your body is asking for more water. If you reach this state, you are or will be soon retaining excess water, until the body trusts that you are giving it hydration on a consistent basis.

Lack of urination, extremely dark yellow urine, and lack of sweat are all system related responses to dehydration, meaning that the body literally starts shutting down various processes in order to hold on to fluid.

Medical conditions that may cause fluid retention

  • Chronic lung diseases
  • Kidney disease
  • Heart failure
  • Liver disease
  • Malignant lymphoedema
  • Thyroid disease
  • Arthritis
  • Allergies

Causes of fluid retention

Gravity. Standing up for long periods of time allows fluid to “pool” in the tissues of the lower leg.

Hot weather. The body tends to be less efficient at removing fluid from tissues during hot weather.

Burns; including sunburn. The skin retains fluid and swells in response to burn injuries.

Menstrual cycle. Some women experience oedema in the two weeks prior to menstruation.

Pregnancy. Hormones encourage the body to hold onto excess fluid.

The pill. Oral contraceptives that include oestrogen can trigger fluid retention.

Dietary deficiency such as insufficient protein or vitamin B1 (thiamine), B5 and B6 in the diet.

Excessive sodium. The body needs sodium and potassium to achieve optimal levels of fluid balance. Excessive sweating, diarrhea and vomiting also throw the body’s water level off balance. Sodium-rich foods may also cause water retention.

Physical and emotional stress. These two factors affect your hormone levels. Intense exercise with insufficient rest periods, lack of sleep, tension, constant worrying… are all examples of things that can cause stress on the body over time.

Medications. Certain drugs are known to cause fluid retention.

Chronic venous insufficiency. Weakened valves in the veins of the legs fail to efficiently return blood to the heart. The pooling of blood can result in varicose veins.

Physical inactivity. Lack of exercise is a common cause of water retention, because muscle action is needed not only to keep blood flowing through the veins but also to stimulate the lymphatic system.

Long-haul flights can increase your risk of water retention.

Reducing water retention symptoms

Cut down on your salt consumption.

Drink more water.

Exercise regularly, but be sure not to overdo it.

Relax – both mentally and physically.

Raise the legs several times per day to improve circulation.

Try not to sit/stand still for too long.

During a long-haul flight, even minor physical movements, such as standing on tiptoes and down a few times, rotating the ankles and wiggling the toes can help reduce fluid retention.

Wear supporting stockings if the water retention occurs in your lower limbs.

Avoid extremes of temperature, such as hot baths, showers and saunas.

Massage the affected area gently but firmly in the direction of the heart as it may help move the fluid.

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