How to deal with water retention

Water retention can be a huge pain in the butt.

Those who want to lean out often see this phenomena bluf their results and make it nebulous if they are progressing or not.  For those looking to gain muscle, excess water retention from increased calories, carbohydrates and salt might make it look like you're gaining more fat than muscle.

To throw another wrench in the works, it is hard to predict when this will happen and, just like there are days where you wake up looking great, you'll have days where you wake up and look like you've gained 10lbs of fat.

Stress and Cortisol

Lets focus mostly on fat loss here.  With many clients I have worked with along with fielding questions from frustrated dieters, there usually comes a time where no weight loss occurs.  You might be controlling your calories, training hard and sleeping well but after weeks of progress suddenly you hit a wall.

Sometimes this happens right at the beginning of a diet. One of the first times my wife went on a fat loss phase she ended up losing about 20lbs over the course of 6 months.  But the first month of the diet she had literally no change in scale weight.  Then, on week 5, things started to move and then kept moving along for the remaining months.

One major factor with water retention and dieting is stress.  Dieting is really controlled starvation, the reason you get hungry is that your hypothalamus is sensing your energy intake, partially through hormone interactions with fat cells, and trying to get you to eat more.  It doesn't want you to be in a calorie deficit because ultimately it's a threat to the system.  Sure, you look better super lean but it might not mean much for survival, and might in fact threaten it.

Right off the bat you are battling hunger and if you choose to be super aggressive with fat loss, you might run into issues of poor blood sugar control, fatigue, lethargy, irritiability and poor sleep.  Even the most sane and well-balanced fat loss diet will eventually become quite stressful because after a certain point you need to eat low amounts of calories to keep fat loss occuring and those low calorie states alongside your exercise will really drive the stress response up.

If you are driving stress, you're driving cortisol.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing; cortisol is there to suppress immune function and mobilize energy so you can kick ass.  But when stress is raised beyond normal amounts systemically, and for long periods, then cortisol is elevated much more. 

Fat Cells and Hunger

Did you know that your fat cells don't just sit there?  They are in fact, hormonally active!  Fat cells release a hormone called leptin.  Leptin acts to drive or suppress hunger; the more fat cells you have, the higher your leptin typically would be to suppress hunger so you can eat less and lose some weight.  In very lean people, leptin is lower (because of less fat cells) and hunger will generally be higher. Interestingly, leptin also has an effect on energy expenditure, so the higher your leptin, the more energy you will expend.  Again, this is an effort to drive down fat stores to a healthier level.

Mice who have very low levels of leptin get massively obese.  Without much leptin, hunger stays high and energy expenditure stays low, this is a bad place to be.

Leptin acts on the hypothalamus to let your body know there is enough energy coming in and can downregulate hunger and increase energy expenditure.  More food, like in a maintenance or muscle gain phase signals the body that energy is abundant and thus you have more resources to put into things like exercise.  In an energy surplus you have 15% higher than normal protein synthesis (muscle building) and in an energy deficit, there is 15% lower protein synthesis than normal.  So the gap between fat loss and muscle gain calories is a whopping 30% muscle building potential.  Obviously in a calorie restricted phase, building muscle is not a priority for the body.

So now you know that the body has regulations and systems in place to keep your energy intake constant and to keep you from getting to lean or too overweight.

Stress and Water Retention

Being in a fat loss state is a stressor.  We already discussed that systems are in place to combat this and push you out of low-calorie states.  When calories are lower, cortisol is higher, like I mentioned previously. The hypothalamus senses lower energy intakes and stimulates the adrenals (which sit atop the kidneys) to raise cortisol.  Cortisol mobilizes fattty acids, amino acids and glycogen as well as suppresses inflammation and increases blood pressure.

In addition, the kidneys are then stimulated to release a hormone called aldosterone, which is a mineralcorticoid.  Aldosterone works to increase extracellular fluid volume, increase sodium retention, decrease potassium retention and increase water retention.  Now pay attention: potassium helps draw fluid INTO the cells.  With potassium down, sodium up and water retention up, those retained fluids then reside primarily in the extracellular fluid.  This is not just blood but joints, limbs and midsection too.  So you might notice edema in the ankles and hands, increased blood pressure and of course, water retention around the midsection.

Now these changes are usually short term, so they won't play out into long-term increased blood pressure or decreased potassium for instance.  But they can, in the short term drive you crazy because ypu might visually look the same or WORSE despite eating really well and training hard.

This is far too common in people who decide to exericse 6-7 days a week to lose fat while also consuming 1200 calories per day.  The exercise is a stress, the low calories are a stress, the constant all-consuming desire to be lean is a stress, worrying about how people perceive you is a stress. On top of that, recovery will be poor from the decreased calories so you not only risk under-recovering but losing muscle mass as well.  And with suppressed immune and inflammation from increased cortisol, you can't repair muscle like you should and increase your risk of getting sick. These low calorie and high energy output states can really cause some issues with blood sugar as well.  And, remember this, if sleep is impacted, your blood sugar is impacted.  It only takes a couple of nights of crappy sleep to start seeing blood sugar reponses like a Type II diabetic along with the inability to control hunger and cravings.  Essentially, it's the perfect storm to binge, crash and regain (if not gain more) the weight you lost in the short term crash diet.

As a practial example of what excessively high cortisol does, look at  Cushing's disease. It causes massive water retention all over the body as well as high blood pressure, poor wound healing, irritability, muscle weakness, declined cognition and decreased libido. 

These hormonal responses can be so pronounced that it is not uncommon for a figure competitor who dieted down to very lean levels eating little and exercising a ton to gain massive amounts of weight in the short term after.  Coaches used to think long-term dieting set you up for an "anabolic rebound" to gain muscle when calories were turned up.  We now know that is wrong and in fact, long-term crash dieting strategies set you up for massive fat gain.  This, posited by Layne Norton, is why people who crash diet see more fat GAIN over the long run.  After each subsequent diet, they find it harder to lose fat but have the propensity to gain fat more easily.  

Hypothetical (but cool!) Observations

Lyle McDonald proposed the idea that during the initial phases of fat loss, energy is being utilized and fat is being burned.  However, as fat cells lose triglycerides to be burned off as energy, they pull in some water to replace the lost volume and keep the cell size.  Imagine a water balloon filled with oil, if every time you take a cup of oil out you put a cup of water in, the balloon stays the same size, even though it has much less oil in it.

This would help explain the "whoosh" effect many people experience when dieting....nothing happens for a couple of weeks and then one day you wake up 3lbs lighter.  The theory is that after a set amount of time (out of our control) fat cells then release the water they pulled in, creating the weight loss you see on the scale.  It would also help explain why, as a coach, if I feel very confident someone is eating enough calories to lean out, exercising optimally and sleeping great, they might not need to change anything if weight loss is not occurring in the short-term.

Sometimes we just need to trust the process and let the water loss catch up to the fat loss.  We can see this sort of water retention play out short-term in other areas too.  A couple of night's poor sleep or maybe getting thrown off your usual routine like traveling and flying can cause some acute water retention.  I know every time after I change time zones when I fly, I retain water for a few days and look much less lean.  The stress of those changes causes that water retention.

But the chronic dieter who jumps from program to program never takes enough time to see things normalize and get into the groove.  OR for people who eat a poor diet, they may see HUGE water weight loss the first few weeks as inflammation goes down and glycogen stores decrease and they associate thatt drastic weight loss with huge fat loss.  In this case these 5-10lb drops the first week or two are almost entirely water weight.  But they have such blurred opinions of water SHOULD happen on a diet that they expect giant scale changes every week.  And of course, if they stall for a week or two down the line due to water retention, they immediately abandon ship.

Strategies for dealing with water retention

Are your basics covered?

-Sensible calorie deficit.  Huge swings in calories will cause larger stress responses and (especially in women) resistance to fat loss which occurs from a decrease in normal energy expenditure. Essentially, the harder you push your body, the harder it pushes back.  Sensible calorie deficits and small adjustments to that over time work much better

-Exercising optimally. 3-5 days per week, and I even would push for 3-4 days per week of exercise is fine for most people.  You DO need to kick ass while training fewer times but it also ensures you aren't training beyond your ability to recover.  On top of that, get 8,000 to 10,000 steps per day.  The calorie deficit will do the rest.  Train for strength and hypertrophy, walk and eat well,

-Sleep.  If you aren't sleeping optimally, forget about losing fat.  Seriously, just forget it!  4-5 hours won't cut it.  Aim for 7-9 hours per night.

Giving it time

Like we discussed, you might just have temporary water retention covering up the fat you've lost.  In this case I always advise clients to give it a full TWO weeks of zero progress in any area before changing things. 

Refeeds and time off

Sometimes you need a reduction in stress.  We can help alleviate stress with refeeds (mostly from carbohydrates, as people love that) and either an added day off here and there or adding in something like a massage, getting a manicure or working in some other stress reducing activities.  Lyle McDonald does say "get drunk, get high and get laid".  Basically doing something really fun and relaxing can help bust through plateaus.

If I have a client doing multilple low-carb or lower calorie days in a row, they probably need 1-2 refeeds per week.  It doesn't always have to be HUGE additions of calories/carbs but even just going back to maintenance calories for a day or two can help.  Usually 48-72 hours of time spent NOT in a deficit can clear up the stress-related stalls in fat loss.

The mental game

Eric Helms has a great quote about dealing with the issues that arise during a fat loss diet:

"If you push your body too hard, and if you are also very psychologically stressed in that process, you’ll get to find out just how good your body is at fighting the process of fat loss. And, some people have a body that is much better at this than others. Likewise different approaches at different time points in the life of your body will yield different results. Push harder, the body pushes back harder. Sometimes that is a game that you end up on the losing side of."

Also remember that there are lots of processes going on behind the curtain besides just some water retention.  Long-term dieting results in subconscious behavioral changes as well, like fidgeting and moving around less, taking fewer steps per day, training less intensely.  Not to mention the thermic effect of food is less because calories are less. When you combine all of these things AND you see some water retention, people feel crazy.

But it's so important to make sure you are checking all of the boxes above and not to gut-react to anything.  When you realize that losing body fat is, for some, a threat to the system, then we can see that small adjustments work better than hammering everything right out of the gate.  And this ALL starts with a smart plan of action and a good program.  If you start off with a kooky plan, you'll have more of these issues for sure.

If you are looking for an awesome new and SMART program, The Strong Kitchen is now offering our Meal Template programs, complete with your own personalized nutrition program with built-in adjustments, a maintenance period, progress tracking and access to our Facebook support group.  Check the link out below!