Water Retention, Inflammation and “Unexplained” Weight Gain
So you’re on track with your target macros or nutrition as per guidelines, but you’re seeing the number on the scale increase when you’re looking for it to go in the other direction. So what gives?
There are a few reasons why you could be retaining weight (note: NOT gaining fat!) and it’s usually caused by at least one of the following:
You’ve recently made a change in your workout routine (either increased strength training, changed the style of training, added into cardio or some form of yoga)
You’re a woman and therefore you experience hormonal fluctuations
You have increased cortisol levels (aka more stress than usual)
You may have sodium and/or potassium imbalances
You’re not drinking enough water
Now we’re going to dig deeper into these points to better understand what’s going on and how we can address some of these issues.
A change in workouts
When you work out, it causes little tears in your muscle fibres. This is called micro trauma and it’s why you feel sore after a workout. On the upside, your body heals these little tears, making the fibres tougher than they originally were. That’s how you become stronger. To make these repairs, your body uses its standard healing process, including the inflammation phase. When you incur injury (including micro trauma) your body releases various substances generally known as inflammatory mediators that swarm the area and perform triage, bringing in healing white blood cells and opening up blood vessels to flush out debris and toxins. There’s so much going in that area that it swells up, or inflames. The fluid required for inflammatory response obviously weighs something—and that might show up on the scale. When inflammation is allowed to occur in a healthy way, it’s temporary.
A side note: a few of my clients actively participate in hot yoga, and although this practice may seem like it would pull the water out of your body, it almost always works the opposite way. You’re sweating which does in fact mean you’re losing water weight through your sweat release, but then you’re also drinking more water as well as causing micro trauma to your muscle fibres. This is almost like a double whammy here. And I especially notice my own personal “unexplained weight gain” after either a rest day or a higher cardio day.
Women are more prone to water retention because of hormone fluctuations throughout their monthly cycle, especially after exercise. The chances of fluid retention may become greater and more unpredictable as you approach menopause. Taking hormones such as birth control could worsen water weight gain. It is important to stay on track with exercise and healthy well (that’s why we follow a plan!) Though you may not always feel like it, sticking to a consistent working plan is a great way to banish bloat and minimize the symptoms of PMS.
Increased cortisol levels
We’ve talked about cortisol many times before. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress and low blood sugar levels. These little glands sit above your kidneys and release this hormone around your midsection when you do feel stressed, helping your body remain as calm as possible. Almost every cell has receptors for cortisol so there are many effects to increased cortisol levels such as influencing blood sugar and fluid retention levels, the metabolism of food, the central nervous system, and more. Under normal conditions, cortisol doesn’t cause water retention problems. Under abnormal conditions, it does. And when we push our bodies in challenging workouts or experience many ‘adult’ situations in life that are highly stressful, it does.
Sodium and/or potassium imbalances
I have experienced personally and with many clients the crazy affects of sodium and water retention in the body. Everyone in this sense is so unique; someone who adds +2,000mg to their daily intake might see a drastic drop on the scale the next morning, while others will see a drastic gain. And to be honest, I’m going to say about 90% of us are the latter. Sodium is absorbed by cells and brings water in with it. When you eat a large amount of sodium, it can cause cells to temporarily retain water until balance can be restored to cellular fluid levels. This is also why when you restrict sodium intake, water retention decreases.
Potassium plays a vital role in restoring this cellular fluid balance. Whereas sodium sucks water into cells, potassium pumps it out, and this is why restricting potassium intake can also increase fluid retention.
Larger-than-normal amounts of sodium find their way into cells, which then have to “wait” for their pumps to bring things back to normal. And you get to deal with that soft, bloated look that you hate so much while you wait. Similarly, when you dramatically decrease potassium intake, this too causes water retention because potassium is necessary for the operation of the cellular pumps.
We just can’t seem to win, eh?
Not drinking enough water
If you don’t give your body enough fluids it causes adaptations that increase water retention.
“But Courtney, I drink over 100oz/day like you tell me to!”
If you don’t give your body enough water through food and drinking, it takes action to hold on to the water it is getting. This includes releasing hormones like aldosterone and vasopressin that increase water retention. And just like everything else in life, a certain amount of water that may work for one person, doesn’t necessarily mean it works for everyone. Sometimes we need to play around with intake a little bit more.
So now that we know what causes water retention, how do we address the situation? There are a few options that we can implement:
Understanding and accepting that it’s going to happen. Unfortunately, there’s just some things in life that we cannot control like stress levels and hormonal fluctuations. But as long as we can understand that these changes will happen, we can be a little more understanding and accepting when we do see the weight change happen on the scale.
Potential diuretics. Now I am NOT one to ever recommend starting to take supplements, but because I do get a lot of questions about diuretics, I want to address it here. A food (or drink) that is to be considered a diuretic is known to help pull out water from the cells. This may work for some people better than others, but naturally occurring foods and drinks that offer diuretic benefits include (in no particular order): dandelion, celery, onion, eggplant, asparagus, caffeine, hawthorn, parsley, green and black tea. Now one thing to be mindful about is that if you start pumping your diet full of many of these above mentioned foods, you may experience digestion issues (more so like celery, onion and eggplant.) So again, being mindful and slowly adjusting as weeks progress is smart. And these foods are not going to be a magic cure-all for midsection weight loss.
Getting regular massages. Many people find massage helpful in aiding muscle recovery and redistributing fluid throughout the body. If fluid retention is an ongoing issue for you (when we’re talking about post workout) then you may find massages to be beneficial. How often you should go varies from person to person but you could try once a week if you have the financial means. Some insurance companies may cover expenses, so make sure you look into that!
Be mindful of your sodium levels. This is why we like to track it with our check ins! Potassium isn’t something I focus much on, because I believe that the sodium amounts will provide a lot of information for me. If you do track your sodium, please make sure that you are doing so accurately and ensuring that your numbers are true reflections of labels and contents.
Minimize stress levels. Dreaming, right!? I’ve mentioned the Headspace app many times before, and I will mention it again. Following a daily relaxation or meditation routine can really help reduce heightened cortisol levels. You can also look to slowly increase your amount of daily sleep (and in my opinion, a more consistent sleeping pattern both during the week days and weekends is much more healthy than trying to play ‘catch up’ on weekends.) Other options we may look into are either taking a deload week from the gym or implementing reefed days for your body and metabolism to better respond.
Hopefully some of these points you are able to find informative and useful to better understanding your unexplained weight fluctuations. Remember that everyone is going to respond in different ways to changing their workouts, to hormonal imbalances, to sodium intake. Be patient with your body and understand that as long as you are being honest and accountable with your choices and communication with your amazing coach, then we can work together to implement the best tools for your success.