There are days whMen you step on the scale and it shows a higher number than you expected. Or your body swells up like a sponge, your eyes feel puffy, and your hippest pair of jeans just refuses to button up. What happened overnight? You can’t really gain weight in a matter of hours, can you?

“No, you can’t," says Arvind Aggarwal, senior consultant, internal medicine, Sri Balaji Action Medical Institute, New Delhi. “But you can look and feel bloated due to water retention. About 20-30% people suffer from oedema, as it is called in medical terms, some time or the other. Sometimes the entire body swells up and at times just one or two parts (like, say, the ankle or the face). Most of the time, the condition is temporary and harmless, if somewhat uncomfortable. But see your doctor when you have swelling in your abdomen or your extremities that lasts for more than a week," says Dr Aggarwal. Women tend to have higher water retention than men because they have comparatively higher percentage of fat, and fat cells store extra water in the body.

Why does this happen?

“Lots of things can cause waterlogged tissues: heart and kidney problems, hormonal imbalances, steroid medications (they lead to puffiness, and cause the kidneys to hold on to sodium) and PMS (premenstrual syndrome)—about a week before periods, the increase in the oestrogen hormone makes the kidneys retain water," explains Debasis Basu, consultant, internal medicine and specialist, diabetes and preventive cardiology, Apollo Gleneagles Hospitals, Kolkata. Often dietary choices can be a cause of oedema.

Check your water meter: “You could be retaining water if you are dehydrated. That’s because just like when on a crash diet the body responds by going into starvation mode and clings to fat, your body begins to hold on to fluid when it’s dehydrated. So a bloated stomach could actually be a signal to gulp some water," says Debjani Banerjee, therapeutic nutritionist, PSRI Hospital, New Delhi. Caffeine and alcohol are both diuretic, and consuming these in excess will dehydrate you, worsening the fluid retention problem, says Banerjee.

Natural diuretics: “Remember, diuretics are not a weight-loss solution. Unless your doctor puts you on them, do not self-prescribe these to lose a few kilos quickly," says Banerjee. Go natural instead—several herbal teas have a mildly diuretic effect. Parsley tea is the best-known herbal tea. Brew two teaspoons of dried leaves per cup of boiling water and steep for 10 minutes. Drink up to three cups a day. Eat foods with diuretic properties like celery, lettuce, carrots, onion, asparagus, tomato and cucumber.

Salt scare: “Too much salt in the body can cause fluid retention to worsen. Two of the most important minerals that the body uses to help regulate fluid balance are sodium and potassium. Unfortunately, most people get too much sodium and barely enough potassium. This can raise blood pressure and also lead to fluid retention," explains Dr Aggarwal. “This is precisely why an evening spent pigging out on popcorn can leave us puffy-eyed (the kidneys retain fluid in the body so the excess salt can be diluted, leading to bloating). Our body needs little salt and is good at conserving it, so less is good," he adds.

A word of caution though: Too little salt in the diet can also cause fluid retention, for it signals the kidneys to secrete hormones that conserve salt, partly by reducing urinary output. Most doctors agree that a total intake of about 2,400mg (a little more than a teaspoon) every day is just about right for an adult. That is inclusive of all the sources it could arrive in—soups, salads, pickles, rotis, vegetable, rice and pulses, etc. Watch out for the monosodium glutamate (MSG) found in processed food. Read your labels for “MSG" or “hydrolysed" vegetable protein, which contains MSG, and avoid these foods as much as possible.

Your other buddies

Potassium is important as foods high in it help offset the sodium load. “It works with sodium to control nerve functions and muscle contraction and helps regulate the flow of water in and out of cells," says Madhusmita Mohanty, dietitian, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Patparganj, New Delhi. “Calcium and magnesium also play an important role in the fluid balance in the body," she adds.

u For potassium, eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables daily. Nuts and seeds are good sources too.

u For magnesium, depend on nuts (especially almonds), legumes, wheat grain, green vegetables, potatoes, apples, jamun (java plum), phalsa, mangoes, amla (Indian gooseberry), guava and bananas.

u Check if you are getting enough calcium daily. Stick to skimmed milk, yogurt, tinned fish, green leafy vegetables and figs.

Some vitamins play a role too. Vitamin B6 is believed to help in cases of mild fluid retention. Good sources of vitamin B6 include brown rice and red meat. Vitamin B5, calcium and vitamin D help the body excrete excess fluids.

Get moving

“Exercise regularly to release excess body fluid and increase circulation," advises Dr Aggarwal. “It helps sweat out excess water, leading to better circulation, which also helps prevent fluid retention. Walking, bicycling, tennis and exercising help pump out water and other fluids that can accumulate in the legs and ankles."

Lose weight

“Overweight women have more oestrogen in their systems because fat tissue produces oestrogen," explains Mohanty. “This puts them at higher than normal risk of retaining fluid in their tissues and for adding to their overall weight."

Overweight people need lots of water and must reduce salt intake and follow an optimum calorie plan that brings them close to their ideal weight.

De-stress

Sometimes stress can trigger bloating. Under stress, the brain stops the body from digesting food until things return to normal. “When the body gets flooded with stress hormones, the blood flow to the abdomen is reduced, creating a bloating feeling," explains Dr Aggarwal. Yoga, meditation, counselling and exercise may help get rid of stress and, subsequently, the bloating problem. Moreover, the body often tries to combat stress with excessive production of the hormone oestrogen. This prevents normal excretion of salt from the kidneys, adding to fluid retention.

Be careful

“Fluid retention may be a symptom of serious underlying medical conditions, including kidney disease, chronic lung diseases, like severe emphysema, liver disease, severe cirrhosis, hypothyroidism, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome and arthritis—joints affected by some types of arthritis tend to swell with fluid or even an allergic reaction," says Dr Basu. “In susceptible people, the body tends to swell in response to particular allergens: for example, an insect bite."

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