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When you think about your weight, you probably see it as a semi-static measurement that, for the most part, accurately represents your overall fat and muscle mass. And while this is somewhat true, weight is actually a deeply complex metric!

Body weight is dynamic and ever-changing. It can be affected by a seemingly endless list of lifestyle and environmental factors. Stress, food and beverages you consume, and changes in your hormonal levels all play a role in creating the number you see on the scale, which fluctuates multiple times throughout the day.

In accordance with that, the number reported as your weight will increase or decrease as your body attempts to maintain a state of homeostasis (balance) as you move through daily routines.

One example of how your body maintains its balance lies in its ability to retain water during periods of metabolic need or stress. Commonly referred to as water weight or fluid retention, this phenomenon is incredibly common — and, in most cases, not something to be concerned about.

Throughout this article, we will dive into the science behind water weight — exploring what it is, why it occurs, and what you can do to prevent and treat any symptoms of water weight that may arise. This article also covers the difference between mild edema (which is another term for water weight) and its more insidious form, chronic edema — because the treatment needed for each of these conditions varies greatly.

Ready to learn more about your body and its fluctuating weight? Let’s get started!

Important note  water weight is different than chronic edema

Before we get too far into this article, we need to make an important distinction between water weight and mild water retention vs. chronic edema.

While both conditions involve excess fluids being held within the body, each condition’s severity and treatment options are vastly different. So, just for clarity’s sake, here are the definitions of each condition that will be utilized throughout the remainder of this article:

  • Water weight or mild edema — This is a low-grade condition that results in the retention of small amounts of additional fluid in the body. It is usually not a serious medical condition but rather a passing experience caused by certain lifestyle factors.
  • Chronic edema — Alternately, chronic edema is a much more serious condition, often seen as a complication of another medical comorbidity, such as heart or kidney failure. Symptoms of chronic edema are more apparent than symptoms of mild edema and can be debilitating. This form of edema requires medical attention to resolve.

What is water weight?

Water retention and water weight gain both refer to an increase in your overall body weight that results from an accumulation of fluids in your body tissues. On average, the human body is made up of about 60% water, divided between your organs, blood, and cells. Throughout the day, water moves through the membranes of your cells, on a mission to maintain your body’s balance and homeostasis.

Due to a variety of factors, there are times when it is advantageous for the body to hold on to, or retain, excess water. This is an example of water weight or mild edema — a short-lived period of time when the amount of fluid in your body is greater than usual. When this occurs, you may notice that you feel slightly bloated or that your hands, feet, and ankles feel a bit puffier than normal. In most cases, this mild form of fluid retention resolves itself without treatment, often in a matter of hours.

How does my body gain water weight?

To better understand fluid retention, you first need to understand that there are two primary locations where water can be stored in the body — the intracellular and extracellular spaces.

  • Intracellular space — The intracellular compartment refers to all fluid stored within the membranous walls of an organism’s cells. Under healthy and balanced conditions, about ⅔ of your body water (or 28 liters of fluid) is stored within your cells at any given time. This fluid can flow into and out of the cells as needed to maintain balance during periods of dehydration or overhydration.
  • Extracellular space — The extracellular compartment is composed of two smaller components: your blood plasma (which is the fluid part of your blood) and interstitial fluids (which can be found between individual cells). Making up the other ⅓ of your body’s water, neural and hormonal sensors throughout the body are very sensitive to changes in the volumes of these fluid compartments.

Body Water Balance

When it comes to maintaining this delicate fluid balance between the compartments, the renal system (primarily the kidneys) is heavily involved. Acting as a filter for your blood, your kidneys are made up of small filtering units called nephrons. As your blood passes through the nephron, essential nutrients and water are reabsorbed into the bloodstream, based on the body’s metabolic needs.

As a result of dietary changes, activity levels, or hormonal imbalances, the amount of water retained during this process can increase, resulting in a higher level of extracellular fluid and the development of water weight symptoms.

The most common symptoms of water weight

Because fluid retention is a systemic condition that impacts multiple tissues and organs, it is common to experience water weight symptoms throughout your entire body. Examples of some of the most common water weight symptoms include:

  • Bloating of the abdominal area
  • Joint stiffness and pain
  • A swelling feeling in the feet, ankles, and calves
  • Puffiness in the face, hips, and feet
  • Fluctuations in your baseline weight

Usually, the symptoms you experience due to water weight gain will disappear within a few hours or days as your body returns to a state of homeostasis.

But, if you notice that your symptoms persist for multiple weeks or feel that your symptoms are worsening, it may be a sign that they are being caused by more serious health issues that should be addressed by a healthcare provider. Examples of symptoms to look out for include:

  • Profound swelling and puffiness of the feet, ankles, and legs
  • Stretched and shiny skin
  • Difficulty moving joints
  • A heavy or full feeling in the affected limbs
  • Areas of skin that temporarily hold the shape of a thumbprint when pressure is applied (also known as pitting edema)
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing as the condition progresses

Why you gain water weight

As mentioned above, most cases of water weight gain are not the result of a serious medical condition. Instead, when you notice that your body is holding onto more water than normal, it may be a result of some of the following environmental and lifestyle factors:

  • You ate more sodium than normal — While sodium is an essential nutrient that you need to get from your foods, eating a meal with a large amount of sodium can cause the body to retain excess water for a short period of time afterward.
  • You changed your exercise level — Prolonged periods of sitting or standing in one place can cause fluid to pool in the extracellular spaces of your feet and ankles. Regular movement can help to reduce these symptoms.
  • You are taking a new medication — When starting a new medication, it is very important to speak to your primary care provider about the possible side effects you may experience. In some cases, mild fluid retention and water weight gain may be something you should look out for during the early stages of treatment.
  • Your hormones are fluctuating — Your hormones play an essential role in regulating your body during periods of change and stress. At times of high anxiety, you may experience water weight gain as your body produces higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Diagnosing water weight gain

In most cases, water weight is often not an officially diagnosed health condition, due to its short-lived and mild symptoms. This being said, that doesn’t mean you should completely brush off any symptoms you are experiencing. If you notice symptoms of water weight that are persistent or recurring over longer periods of time, be sure to speak to your primary care provider.

Additionally, if you want to learn more about the amount of water your body carries at a baseline level, body composition testing may be helpful. By recording your average body water percentage to get a better understanding of your baseline values, you will be able to track changes in these measurements over time that may be signs of early-stage fluid retention.

Most cases of water weight do not require treatment

Treating your water weight gain may be as simple as letting some time pass — yes, really! Because mild fluid retention is often a short-term response to a lifestyle or environmental situation, your body will likely be able to resolve this issue on its own over time. Additionally, paying closer attention to your diet, participating in regular exercise, and getting a good night’s sleep can also help to treat any mild forms of fluid retention.

However, treating chronic edema is a much more advanced and involved process. Because chronic edema most commonly presents as a complication of another poorly managed medical condition, treating the underlying disease is often the first-line therapy for edema symptoms. Other treatment options for chronic edema that may be explored include:

  • Elevating the affected tissue above heart level for 30 minutes at a time
  • Reducing sodium intake from dietary sources
  • Taking diuretic (water pill) medications

How to prevent water weight gain

As a result of living in a modern world full of stress, it is impossible to completely remove any risk that your body will experience periods of mild fluid retention from time to time.

But there are lifestyle changes you can make to better manage fluid retention and reduce your susceptibility to frequent bouts of water weight gain. Some of our top tips for preventing water weight gain include:

  • Reducing the amount of sodium you consume
  • Ensuring that your body is adequately hydrated throughout the day
  • Elevating your legs after long periods of standing
  • Participating in regular physical activity
  • Wearing supportive compression stockings on the feet and calves

Putting it all together

So, what have we learned?

While it is completely normal for your body weight to fluctuate, sudden increases in your weight and the development of mild puffiness and swelling may signify that you are carrying some extra water weight. And this isn’t always a bad thing!

As a mild and non-life-threatening condition that will likely resolve within a day, water weight symptoms can be a helpful sign that you may want to adjust your current lifestyle habits.

Just because your scale shows a weight increase, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have gained muscle or fat mass — it can mean that your body is merely holding on to a little extra water for a while. However, if you notice your water weight symptoms persisting, it’s advised that you consider contacting your healthcare provider.

We hope this article has been a helpful resource for dispelling some of the most common misconceptions about weight gain and fluid retention. Maybe it will also act as a reminder to show your body some extra compassion and TLC the next time water weight gain happens to you!