If your stomach has ever felt bloated, your face has ever felt puffy, or your feet and ankles have ever felt swollen, you’ve probably experienced water retention. Retaining water is uncomfortable, sometimes concerning, and often downright mysterious—but thankfully, it’s not typically a serious or permanent condition, and there’s usually a pretty simple fix or two that’ll help you wash those extra fluids away. Here are five of the most common culprits of water retention, plus what you can do to send it packing.
What Fluid Retention Is All About
Fluid balance is the regulation of the water coming in and out of your body that’s necessary for maintaining the proper balance that allows essential minerals called electrolytes (think magnesium and potassium) to stay within healthy levels, explains dietitian Chrissy Arsenault, R.D.N., L.D. When you’re in a state of proper fluid balance, water enters and leaves the body at a normal rate.
When you’re retaining water, though, you’ve fallen out of balance, Arsenault says. In some cases, this can indicate illness like heart or kidney disease—but fortunately, “many causes of fluid retention are preventable,” says dietitian Naira Le Mire, M.P.H., R.D., C.L.E.C. Or, at the very least, you can remedy them relatively easily.
Possible Reasons Why You’re Retaining Water
So what’s behind those swollen ankles? The following culprits are the most common causes of water retention.
1. You’re not hydrating enough
Whether you have to set reminders for water breaks or buy one of those motivational time-stamped water bottles, drinking water is key to maintaining fluid balance. “During times of dehydration, our body adapts by releasing an antidiuretic hormone,” says Le Mire. This makes your body intentionally retain whatever fluid you do have in order to maintain homeostasis.
Read More: Are You Dehydrated Without Even Knowing It?
You may be surprised to know that even being in a mildly dehydrated state can impact your fluid balance enough to cause retention, as one Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study shows.
2. You’re overdoing it on Alcohol
On the flip side, there are certain beverages that ultimately leave you dehydrated enough to start retaining water.
One big one: alcohol. “When one study analyzed fluid balance, alcohol was shown to contribute to loss of fluids and cause feelings of bloating and swelling,” says Arsenault. A major contributor to this is the fact that alcohol has a dehydrating effect in the body, which then causes you to hold onto whatever fluid you can get your hands on.
3. You’re being too liberal with salt
If you’re one to salt food before even tasting it and find yourself swelling often, it might be time to lighten up.
Case in point: This The Journal of Clinical Investigation study, in which groups of healthy men ate diets controlled for three salt intake levels. As the men increased their salt intake, they drank more water and held onto more fluid throughout their bodies.
Along those lines, frequently eating out or buying frozen meals could also lead to water retention, as both typically equal higher sodium intake.
4. You’re experiencing hormonal changes
For women, in particular, hormones are a common culprit behind water retention, comments dietitian Katie Dodd, R.D.N., L.D., F.A.N.D., founder of The Geriatric Dietitian blog. “Hormonal changes throughout menstrual cycles to those during pregnancy can increase the risk of the body holding on to water,” she says.
Research published in Sports Medicine that investigated athletes at different points in the menstrual cycle and while on hormonal contraceptives offers a closer look at this. “The results provided evidence that increased levels of progesterone and estradiol during the luteal phase are linked to fluid retention,” says Arsenault. Basically, women may naturally be more likely to retain water during the phase of their cycle when their ovaries release an egg, right before the onset of their period.
5. You take certain medications
Most medications have side effects—and fluid retention is a common one. “Water retention is a side effect of some common medications, from blood pressure medications to pain relievers to oral steroids,” says Dodd. “Check with your doctor or pharmacist to see if any of the medications you are taking could have water retention as a side effect.”
How To Ease Irritating Fluid Retention
Now that you might have a better idea of what’s behind your frustrating water retention, rest assured that there are a few simple tactics you can use to remedy it.
1. Drink more hydrating liquids
Let’s start with an obvious one: Drink more water. “Drinking fluids (mainly water) easily prevents dehydration,” says Le Mire. (Remember, the more liquid your body craves, the more it holds onto!)
“Drink water throughout the day, and always pair it with your meals,” Le Mire adds. She personally likes infusing her water with fruits for extra flavor: “Just add your favorite and let it soak for about an hour,” she suggests. FYI: Experts often recommend drinking half your body weight in ounces of water per day.
2. Swap salt for Herbs and Spices
The average person should limit daily sodium intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams, while those with high blood pressure or pre-hypertension should stay under 1,500 milligrams daily, says Gorin.
In lieu of salt, Arsenault recommends using spices and herbs to add extra flavor to your food. We also love adding a squeeze of lemon or lime juice to most savory recipes.
3. Eat more potassium-rich foods
The electrolyte potassium also plays a key role in managing the fluid balance in your body, which is why Gorin says it’s important to get your fill of it (which is 4,700 milligrams) every day.
Luckily, potassium is easy to find in foods. Some of Gorin’s go-to sources include cooked lentils (731 milligrams per cup), potatoes (1,600 milligrams per large potato), edamame (676 milligrams per cup), and tomato (427 milligrams per cup).
When Retaining Water Warrants A Doctor’s Visit
Most fluid retention can be prevented by eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, and avoiding alcohol. However, if you have any concerns, speak with your doctor. “Certain health conditions (like renal failure, heart disease, dialysis, and liver disease) can lead to fluid retention, so it is vital that you consult with your primary care providers with concerns,” says Le Mire. This is especially true if you’re experiencing decreased amounts of urination and any chest pain or pressure.
Since coughing, shortness of breath, loose stools, nausea, feeling full without eating much, and rapid weight gain can also indicate a heart problem, call your doctor if you experience water retention plus any of these symptoms, Arsenault adds.