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Home » OSL Blog » What Causes Water Retention and How to Get Rid of It

What Causes Water Retention and How to Get Rid of It

August 5, 2019

Key Takeaways

  1. Water retention can have a wide range of cases, from excess estrogen to high sodium and carb intakes.
  2. Certain foods increase estrogen levels, leading to bloating and fluid retention.
  3. A high-carb diet, or even a high-carb meal, can cause you to retain water.
  4. One way to lose water weight and get ripped is to manipulate your carb intake through carb loading and carb depletion.
  5. Sometimes, fluid retention can indicate an underlying condition, such as heart failure or hormonal disorders.

When you’re cutting, you want to see your abs popping out and show off your hard work. You deserve it! After all, you’ve been eating clean and hitting the gym religiously for ages. 

There’s one problem, though. 

Despite your best efforts, you’re struggling with water retention. 

Unfortunately, this phenomenon can affect anyone, from elite bodybuilders to the average Joe. The excess fluid keeps your arms, chest, and abs from looking their best and makes you feel bloated and heavy. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for cutting water weight. It all depends on what caused it in the first place. A high-sodium meal, for instance, can make you look like you’ve gained 10 pounds overnight. 

Fluid retention actually is one of the biggest obstacles that bodybuilders face before stepping onto the podium. Luckily, it’s just a temporary condition. 

Let’s see why it occurs and how to address it without risking your health. 

What Is Water Retention? 

The human body is up to 60% water. Every cell and tissue contains this vital fluid. Water regulates your temperature, support hormone production, and lubricates your joints, among other functions. 

water retention
Water retention is the water excess that accumulates in the body’s tissues & cells.

Without water, your body wouldn’t be able to digest and process food. This fluid keeps your skin hydrated, forms saliva, and helps you flush out metabolic waste. It also plays a key role in muscle function and physical performance. Even the slightest dehydration can affect your endurance, reaction time, and mental focus. 

bodybuilder drinking
Water is necessary for the body for hydration & to digest & process food.

The problem is that excess water can accumulate in your tissues and cells, causing the number on the scale to go up. 

Sometimes, the extra fluid collects in your hands and feet. In this case, it’s known as peripheral edema. Other times, it builds up underneath the skin or around the brain. 

puffy eyes
Swelling around the eyes is a sign of high sodium intake and much more.

Periorbital edema, for example, is a fancy term for swelling around the eyes. It can have a wide range of causes, from high sodium intake to insufficient sleep, heavy drinking, and medical problems like thyroid disease or conjunctivitis. 

When it comes to water retention in bodybuilding, we’re talking about subcutaneous fluid buildup

In plain English, it means that excess water accumulates underneath your skin, keeping you from achieving a shredded look. Too much salt, hormonal fluctuations, prolonged sitting or standing, and menstrual changes are all potential causes. 

Warning Signs Your Body Is Retaining Too Much Water

A puffy face is one of the most common signs of fluid retention.

bloating
Bloating is a sign of water retention.

The symptoms will vary, though, depending on the affected area. You may experience any of the following issues:

  • Rapid weight gain 
  • Swollen fingers or ankles
  • Bloating, especially after eating
  • Stiffness in the joints
  • Discolored skin
  • Unexplained weight fluctuations

In general, gaining weight within days indicates that those pounds are just water. Fat gain takes longer to show on the scale. 

bloating
Bloating from water retention is due to retaining above 15 pounds of excess water.

As the experts at Harvard Medical School point out, most people will retain up to 15 pounds of excess water before experiencing bloating and swollen legs. Sometimes, fluid retention can indicate a more serious problem, such as heart failure. 

Under normal circumstances, you shouldn’t gain more than four pounds of water in a week. 

Why Are You Retaining Water? Sodium Might Be the Culprit

Have a love-hate relationship with salt? The truth is that few of us can resist the urge to eat a slice of pizza or cheese, especially on cheat days. Unfortunately, some people are more sensitive to sodium than others and can pack on pounds after just one salty meal.  

salt
Sodium, the active ingredient in table salt, is the water retention’s main culprit when consumed in excess.

Sodium, the active compound in table salt, isn’t harmful. On the contrary, it’s one of the most important electrolytes in your body. It helps maintain blood pressure and blood volume, supports nerve and muscle function, and keeps your fluid levels within a normal range. 

The average man has about 92 grams of sodium in his body, according to a research paper published in Advances in Nutrition. About half of it is found in the intracellular fluid. 

A common cause of water retention is excessive sodium intake. The American Heart Association recommends up to 2,300 milligrams of this mineral per day. Ideally, you should aim for no more than 1,500 milligrams a day. 

junk food
Processed foods are high in sodium.

Yet, the average American consumes around 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily. Over 70% of it comes from processed foods. 

High-sodium diets not only cause fluid retention but also increase your blood pressure. In the long run, hypertension can lead to stroke and heart disease. 

According to a 2013 meta-analysis featured in The BMJ, cutting down on sodium reduces blood pressure without affecting kidney function, cholesterol levels, or triglycerides. Over time, it may lower the risk of cardiac events.

Cut Back on Salt without Giving Up Flavor 

The first step to losing water weight is to cut back on salt. While it’s true that some foods are naturally salty, they contain significantly less sodium compared to their processed counterparts. 

salmon
Raw salmon is a good source of sodium.

Raw salmon, for example, provides 37 milligrams of sodium per serving (3 oz). Smoked salmon, by comparison, boasts a whopping 1,020 milligrams of sodium per serving. 

Here’s another example. One ounce of cheddar cheese has 185 milligrams of sodium. The same amount of parmesan contains 480 milligrams of sodium. 

What about processed foods?

In general, packaged and processed foods are the worst offenders. Deli meats, for instance, are much higher in sodium compared to unprocessed meat. 

potato chips
Potato chips are one of the products that are high in sodium.

In case you’re wondering how to get rid of water retention, avoid the following products:

  • Potato chips
  • Smoked meat and fish
  • Frozen shrimp
  • Canned soup
  • Canned vegetables
  • Ready-made meals
  • Canned fish
  • Commercial salad dressing
  • Packaged broth
  • Processed cheese
  • Dried meats 
  • Luncheon meats 
  • Pickles
  • Bread
  • Tomato sauce
  • Frozen meals
  • Bacon
  • Cottage cheese
  • Aged cheese
  • Soy sauce
  • Pizza and junk food 

Let’s take cottage cheese. We all know that it’s one of the sources of slow-digesting protein out there. What you might not know is that a half-cup contains more than 459 milligrams of sodium — that’s nearly 20% of the daily recommended intake

Love cheese? Here’s a trick you can use to reduce its sodium content. Rinse it with water for at least three minutes before consumption. This will lower its salt content by up to 63%. 

Do the same with canned tuna. A three-minute rinse can reduce its sodium levels by up to 80%. 

processed meat
Processed meats are another foods high in sodium.

Steer clear of bacon, jerky, and other processed meats. There are more than 620 milligrams of sodium in one ounce of beef jerky. 

If you’re addicted to salt, switch to a low-sodium brand. Check food labels for monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrate, baking powder, baking soda, and other additives that contain sodium. Season your favorite dishes with spices and herbs instead of salt.

Beware that restaurant meals, such as salad, can exceed 4,500 milligrams of sodium per serving. 

Carbs — an Overlooked Cause of Water Retention

Just like salt, carbs may lead to fluid retention when consumed in excess. After ingestion, carbs are broken down into glucose and used for fuel. Excess glucose is stored in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen. Each gram of glycogen holds up to 3 grams of water

cabohydrates
Excess of carbs may lead to water retention.

High-carb foods like sweet potatoes, rice, or quinoa are more likely to cause water retention than steak or leafy greens. But you can use this to your advantage. 

Carb loading and carb depletion are common practice among bodybuilders. These strategies date back to the late ’60s. 

The bodybuilding legends of the Golden Era knew how to manipulate carbs to put on mass or torch fat. 

tom platz
Tom Platz increased his carbs intake before competitions.

Tom Platz, for instance, decided to go against the flow by increasing his daily carb intake to a whopping 300 grams before the 1980 Mr. Olympia. During that time, he achieved the best condition of his life. 

sauces
Ketchup and sauces are sources of hidden carbs.

Carbs are not the enemy. You just need to find the right balance. If you’re struggling with fluid retention, watch out for hidden carbs like:

  • Processed meats
  • Protein bars
  • Cheap protein powders
  • Fruit juices and smoothies
  • Low-fat snacks and “diet” foods
  • Ketchup, BBQ sauce, and other condiments
  • Peanuts
  • Pistachios
  • Starches
  • Sugar alcohols
  • Ready-made meals
  • Canned foods
nuts
Peanuts & other nuts have a decent amount of carbs per gram.

Nuts, for example, are considered high-fat foods, but they also pack a lot of carbs. One ounce of cashews provides around 8 grams of carbohydrates, while chestnuts have nearly 14 grams of carbs per serving. 

1. Switch to a Ketogenic Diet 

Another way to lose water is to go on a ketogenic diet. This eating pattern is high in fat, low in carbohydrates, and moderate in protein. Some versions limit carbs to 20 or 30 grams per day, making it easy to flush out excess water. 

keto diet
A ketogenic diet is low in carbs & will help you get rid of water retention.

The lower your carb intake, the less fluid you’ll retain. 

Real Keto fat burner
Real Keto fat burner is designed for low-carb dieters.

For best results, try the Real Keto Fat Burner, our latest thermogenic formula. It’s specially designed for low-carb dieters and contains no MCTs, exogenous ketones, and other ingredients that hamper fat loss.

2. Manipulate Carbs to Get Ripped

As an athlete, you need carbs to perform at your peak. Carbohydrates help replenish muscle and liver glycogen stores, improve recovery time, and keep your cells hydrated, leading to better performance. 

Strength training uses glycogen as its main source of fuel. The key is to manipulate your carb intake to lose water and fat without sacrificing your gains. 

An older study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine compared the effects of a moderate-protein, high-carb energy-restricted diet, a high-protein, moderate-carb hypocaloric diet and a placebo on muscle function. Weight lifters who followed a high-protein, moderate-carb diet preserved more lean mass compared to the other groups. 

low carb meal
Lowering your carb intake through low carb meals will help you get ripped.

To keep it simple, you don’t need a ton of carbs to maintain your hard-earned muscle. However, it’s not smart to cut out carbs just to get rid of water weight (unless you’re competing). 

Pro bodybuilders, for example, gradually reduce their carb intake prior to competitions. This strategy, which is known as carb depletion, allows them to get shredded to the bone and flush out excess water. 

Over the last two or three days before competing, they take in complex carbs to push water into their muscles and achieve a fuller appearance. This practice is called carb loading and can significantly improve your performance. 

bodybuilder
Bodybuilders manipulate their water & carb intake to achieve the desired physique.

Elite athletes also manipulate their water and sodium intake before photo shoots and competitions. These strategies — combined with carb loading and carb depletion — result in a lean physique with impressive, well-defined muscles. 

Beware, though — eliminating excess water to make your abs pop will only work if you have low body fat.

High Estrogen Levels and Fluid Retention 

Another common cause of water retention is excess estrogen. Both men and women produce this sex hormone in varying amounts. 

estrogen
Excess estrogen causes an increase in water weight.

Women have higher estrogen levels than men, so they’re more likely to gain water weight, especially before and during their periods. 

A research paper published in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews highlights the impact of sex hormones on body fluid regulation. As the researchers note, estradiol (the primary form of estrogen) and progesterone influence fluid and sodium levels in the body, altering water distribution. 

blood test
Estrogen levels influence fluid & sodium levels s it’s always good to test your levels.

Furthermore, estrogen levels tend to increase at the beginning of the luteal phase when the female body starts to prepare for a possible pregnancy. This leads to fluid retention and bloating before the menstrual cycle. At the same time, the body begins to release more progesterone, which results in constipation. 

Beware of Estrogen Dominance 

Men can have excess estrogen too. This hormone regulates their libido and sexual behavior. Too much of it, though, can lead to diminished sperm production, testicular atrophy, erectile dysfunction, and infertility. 

cardiovascular problem
Cardiovascular problems are a symptom of high estrogen in men.

Other symptoms of high estrogen in men include:

  • Gynecomastia (enlarged breasts)
  • Weight gain
  • Bloating
  • Fluid retention
  • Cardiovascular problems 

For example, a 2007 study featured in Neuro Endocrinology Letters has found that estradiol levels were significantly higher and testosterone levels were lower in men with acute myocardial infarction

Another study, which appeared in the journal Neurology, suggests that older men with high estradiol levels face a greater risk of stroke.

Additionally, your testosterone levels decrease with age. If left unaddressed, this problem can lead to hormonal imbalances, such as estrogen dominance

One way to prevent these complications is to boost your T levels and reduce estrogen. Dietary and lifestyle changes may help. 

Easy and Natural Hormone Hacks for Higher T Levels 

Before resorting to hormone therapy, there are a few things you can do to balance your hormones naturally. 

First of all, cut down on estrogen-rich foods. 

Soy products, for example, are high in phytoestrogens. Despite their potential health benefits, these compounds can disrupt your hormonal balance and skyrocket estrogen levels. 

Eating soy doesn’t mean you’ll grow man boobs. However, some guys are particularly sensitive to phytoestrogens. A diet rich in soy-based products, flaxseeds, legumes, and other high-estrogen foods may cause them to pack on pounds and retain water. 

In a small study, men who consumed two scoops of soy protein powder per day for four weeks experienced a 19% decrease in testosterone production. Their levels returned to normal two weeks after they stopped using the supplement. 

Other studies, though, show that soy has no impact on male hormones. 

As you see, the research is conflicting. However, if you’re retaining water despite eating clean, it’s worth trying an alternative approach. 

1. Cut Back on Estrogenic Foods 

flaxseeds
Flaxseeds are an anti-estrogenic food.

Switch to anti-estrogenic diet for a month or two and see how your body reacts. These include but are not limited to:

  • Soybeans
  • Tofu
  • Edamame
  • Soy protein powder
  • Red clover
  • Flaxseeds
  • Sesame seeds
  • Multigrain brain
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Dried fruits
  • Beans, green peas, and other legumes
  • Pistachios 
  • Papayas
  • Tomatoes 
  • Dairy products
  • Red meat 
pistachios
Pistachios are high in phytoestrogen content.

Pistachios, for example, are considered healthy. What you may not know is that they have the highest phytoestrogen content of all nuts. These compounds also occur in meat and dairy foods

If you carry extra pounds, take the steps needed to lose weight. According to a recent study published in the journal Metabolism, being obese or overweight results in higher estrogen levels. This applies to women too. 

When produced in excess, this hormone not only increases fluid retention and weight gain, but it may also contribute to breast cancer.

2. Try a Natural Testosterone Booster 

After age 30, your testosterone levels decrease by about 1% each year, which can lead to hypogonadism and hormonal imbalances. Weight gain, infertility, low libido, mood swings, breast enlargement, and fatigue are all common side effects. 

Low testosterone doesn’t directly cause water retention. However, an imbalance between testosterone and estrogen may contribute to this issue. Testosterone replacement therapy has its share of side effects, including fluid retention, acne, and enlarged prostate. 

vintage boost
Vintage Boost works with the body’s self-regulating hormonal mechanisms for a natural testosterone boost.

One way to increase your T levels naturally is to use testosterone boosters. Choose a formula with proven benefits, such as Vintage Boost™

This supplement contains a unique mix of ingredients that stimulate testosterone production and balance estrogen levels. Unlike anabolic steroids, our formula works with your body, not against it. 

To fully reap the benefits, use Vintage Boost™ as part of a balanced diet and strength training program. Lift heavier, prioritize compound movements, and get adequate rest. 

Stress can wreak havoc on your hormones, so try to squeeze more “me” time into your schedule. Also, give your body time to recover between workouts. Overtraining increases your stress levels too. 

Have you ever cut water weight before a photoshoot or contest? What’s your strategy for dealing with water retention? Let us know in the comment section below!

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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