Water retention, or fluid retention, is the excessive fluid buildup in the body’s tissues, cavities, or circulatory system.

Our bodies mostly consist of water. Water is located in our blood, bones, muscles, and organs. While our bodies certainly need water to function, it can sometimes hold too much of it – this buildup of water in our body is called water retention. Water retention manifests physically. Thus, the body appears abnormally swollen.

In most cases, short-term water retention is not a serious problem, nor does it cause serious health dilemmas. However, water retention over the long term can produce unsafe effects on the body. Underlying health conditions that may produce fluid retention as a side-effect include liver cirrhosis, heart failure, kidney failure, preeclampsia (a dangerous, pregnancy-related condition), and premenstrual syndrome.

5 Reasons Your Body Retains Water (And How to Avoid It)

Water retention may result from several things. Here are the top five reasons we retain water (and suggestions on what to do).

1. Diet

Sodium (i.e. salt or table salt) is an essential nutrient that serves several important functions, but we only require small amounts. Too often, our foods have excessive amounts of salt, inducing fluid retention and weight gain.

Recommendation: First, know the recommended amount of sodium intake: 2,300 milligrams or less per day, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); this may sound like a lot – but it’s only about a teaspoon of salt. Second, limit your salt intake by using alternatives, such as herbs and spices. Cumin, dill, garlic, ginger, oregano, onion, sage, and pepper are all viable choices. Lemon juice, mustard, and vinegar may add flavor without all the salt.

care for your body

2. Lifestyle

Sitting or standing for an extended period causes body tissue to hold water. Having a sedentary, inactive lifestyle can also cause water retention. Of course, either scenario produces physical symptoms, including swollen ankles and legs.

Recommendation: It is important to keep blood circulating throughout the body. If your job requires you to sit at a desk all day, use your breaks to get outside and move around a bit. Park further away from the building, so you can enjoy a refreshing walk in before a long day’s work. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Don’t be afraid to get creative! If you’re inactive, it’s important that you first understand the benefits of exercise. You don’t need to train like Jillian Michaels or Gunnar Peterson – try getting 15 to 30 minutes of light to moderate exercise three times per week.

3. Medications

Many prescription medications list water retention as a side effect – and the National Library of Medicine agrees. They explain, “NSAIDs promote sodium and water retention…”

Rx meds that may increase fluid retention include antidepressants, beta-blockers, blood pressure medication, chemotherapy medication, and over-the-counter NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).

NSAIDs are worth paying particular attention to, as more than 30 million Americans use the drugs daily to relieve various kinds of pain. The most common NSAIDs are aspirin (Bayer, Bufferin, Excedrin), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve).

Recommendation: Tapering off Rx medication requires consultation with a physician. The reason for medical oversight is the withdrawal symptoms often experienced as the body adapts to lower amounts of the drug. A doctor’s visit may also be wise if you notice excessive swelling from NSAIDs or other pain-relieving medications.

4. Hormones

It’s widespread for women to experience severe bloating during perimenopause (early menopause) and menopause. In fact, Reproductive Sciences states that fluctuations in fluids may be a natural part of aging.

Recommendation: First, take a good look at your diet and eliminate or reduce foods that seem to cause bloating and gas (do some research here.) If this doesn’t solve the problem, it may be necessary to see a dietitian, who will likely test for allergies and food intolerances. In rare cases, hormone replacement therapy or hormonal rebalancing under the guidance of an OB/GYN may be necessary.

5. Heart problems

Fluid retention from a heart condition may be evident in the legs and abdomen swelling. While this is certainly a scary proposition, it is important to refrain from jumping to conclusions. Additional common symptoms of heart failure include lightheadedness, fatigue, rapid heart rate, weakness, and shortness of breath.

Recommendation: See a doctor right away. The risk of heart failure increases the longer medical intervention is delayed. The attending physician may order one or more tests, including blood tests, a chest x-ray, electrocardiogram (ECG), cardiac computerized tomography (CT) scan, and/or cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

Editorial Note 08/22/2023: Added links to updated research