Thursday, January 28, 2010

How to Deal With Water Retention: Part Two

In part one of this article series I covered the basics of water retention.

This time I'll list a few effective tricks that will help you deal with it when and if it occurs. Don't worry, you won't be sweating it out in a sauna and sucking on ice cubes. I'll offer simple and non-intimidating strategies that don't require a whole lot of thinking. They can be used in isolation or in combination.

Reduce sodium

The most common reason people hold water is due to shifts in sodium balance. Going from a low baseline intake of sodium to sudden and high intakes can have dramatic effects on your visual appearance (which any bodybuilding-competitor can attest to). Conversely, reducing sodium can have the opposite effect and cause water loss. This is all about relative and not absolute numbers; it's not high sodium per se that cause water retention/water loss, but deviations from the habitual intake. The solution therefore is to reduce sodium to a level below baseline. So for a day or two...

* Ditch all canned or pre-packaged foods since they tend to contain a lot of sodium. A paleo approach to food choices is a pretty good model to use for your diet during these days since it's relatively low in sodium.

* Reduce spices and table salt - make a conscious effort to use less than you're used to. An easy way to reduce sodium without feeling deprived is to use a salt substitute, which contains only half of the sodium chloride found in regular salt.

* Drink a ton of water. Aim for 6-8 liters. You should be pissing like a race horse.

* It's claimed that some foods have a diuretic effect and they're often referenced as natural remedies to combat water retention - asparagus, celery, cucumber and watermelon, for example. I've yet to find some scientific backing for these claims, so take it for what it's worth. I suspect that the proposed diuretic properties of these foods is related to their high water content rather than some other magical mechanism.

Get cortisol back to normal

Elevated levels of cortisol can cause water retention, potentially due to interfering with aldosteron (a hormone that regulates fluid balance). Excessive cardio, particularly of the more intense variety (HIIT), and low calorie intakes increases cortisol.

* Only do low intensity steady state cardio, such as walking or similar activities with a low perceived rate of effort.

* Increase calorie intake to a level that is no less than 500 kcal below maintenance (i.e if your maintenance intake is 2700 kcal, you should eat no less than 2200 kcal these days).

Have a drink

Alcohol has a quite profound diuretic effect, so drink a a large glass of wine (7 ounces/2 dl) or a large shot of vodka (2 ounces/6 cl) shortly before going to sleep. Caffeine-rich beverages are often said to have a diuretic effect as well, but this is actually a myth. Studies show that the fluids ingested with the caffeine more than makes up for the diuretic effect of caffeine itself. In order for caffeine to have a diuretic effect, take caffeine pills.

Look over your fiber intake

In my experience, both high and low fiber intake can cause water retention and a feeling of bloatedness. Look over your diet and it should be clear what the problem is.

Do a refeed

Do a carb-refeed, preferably after having depleted muscle glycogen. A full-body session consisting of 2-4 sets of 12-15 reps per body part will get the job done. Carb choices should consist primarily of starches such as potatoes, rice, pasta and bread. Keep fiber low, potassium high. The exact amount of carbs to be ingested depends on several factors, but I suggest playing it safe and not going overboard.

* 4-6 g of carbs per kilo lean body mass is a good starting point, preferably on the low end of that if you're inexperienced with carb-refeeds and how you react to them.

* If you do it right, this will have the effect of pulling water outside the muscle cell into the muscle cell. Along with increased muscle glycogen, this will give you a lean and full appearance the next day - ideally also causing a "whoosh" over night.


Jon Fernandes said...

Awesome, Thanks Martin.

Wilmar said...

vodka nightcap, huh? i'll drink to that!

Sterling Purdy said...

Always good stuff Martin! Short, succinct, and helpful.

Tan Yew Wei said...

Agreed with the rest. Direct and to the point.

BTW, your recommendations for reducing cortisol is actually a guideline one how to prevent it shooting through the roof, and to take it back to baseline via the body's own mechanisms. I'd think that women may have problems due to cortisol even by applying the recs (correct me here if i'm wrong).

I've heard of some meds having an impact on cortisol, actively suppressing it. Are there any "Natural" ways of doing the same? Thanks.

Anonymous said...


For someone who doesn't have much of a taste for alcohol, would it be of any value to substitute in something like dandelion root for a brief time? Or would you just go with the caffeine anhydrous route in that instance?

Thanks for sharing all of this info. Much appreciated.

~Ron McCloud

Martin Berkhan said...

Thanks, guys.


'I've heard of some meds having an impact on cortisol, actively suppressing it. Are there any "Natural" ways of doing the same?'

You wan't to bring it down to natural levels i.e the one regulated by the diurnal rhythm. To do that you need to remove or alleviate external/internal stressors. I decribed how to deal with the external stressors.

If you suppress cortisol to levels below baseline by artificial means you'll run into problems of a different kind. Consider people that have a blunted morning peak of cortisol that can't get out of bed much less do anything else productive. But cortisol blockers are a bunch of nonsense anyway so that's a moot point.

Just realize that chronically high AND low levels of cortisol = both cause problems. Hypervigilant fitness freaks has more of the former.

Martin Berkhan said...

Ron, it might be that dandelion root has diuretic properties, but it's not a substitute for alcohol. Different mechanisms. But noone said you have to use everything I'm proposing either.

Anonymous said...

This could come in very handy. Thanks!

Justin said...

The first time I got very low BF (around 5% for me) I did it following a 2 days low carb/cal and 1 day carb re-feed. I used to notice looking very tight around the afternoon of the re feed when I had drank enough to start filling glycogen. Veins and whatnot. While the diet worked for me as far at getting to a low BF quickly it was hard to live with. Besides the obvious social problems I had upset stomach frequently and never slept well.
IF is MUCH easier to get similar BF levels.

Adam said...

A full-body session consisting of 2-4 sets of 12-15 reps per body may work to 'deplete' glycogen if you are already low on muscle glycogen, typically seen in people on ketogenic diets.

However someone who is on IF and regularly consumes resonable postworkout carbs may not be able to 'deplete' muscle glycogen with that kind of workout. Any comments?

Martin Berkhan said...

The goal isn't to deplete muscle glycogen fully but to create a sink for the carb load. A carb load that is also fair more modest than CKD or similar.

Eileen said...

Another great post, thanks! Your suggestion to have a bedtime drink raises a question regarding IF protocols. I had been avoiding a bed time glass of wine since that would be out of my eating window (11am-7pm) on my IF. As long as the calories are accounted for, do you know how doing this (in the absence of other food, etc.) would impact the overall effectiveness of the IF?

Martin Berkhan said...

I don't see how having a drink outside the feeding window on occasion would be detrimental. Quality of life > strict diet.

Ben said...

Doesn't alcohol consumption reduce testosterone levels? Do you subscribe to the large vodka shot before bed?

I am just wondering what effects the alcohol consumption are on performance and body comp.

Also, is it important that the alcohol be consumed outside of the feeding window?

JK said...

Thanks for these posts.I thought I was getting puffy because of fat gain but the truth is I was consuming waayyy too much sodium and not drinking enough water. I cut back on added salt today and upped the water a ton and I've already noticed a difference. Those of you who eat sauerkraut, beware. It's loaded with sodium probably. Thanks again, Martin

Manveet said...

I'm assuming you are limiting water intake during the refeeds, correct?

Martin Berkhan said...


I'm not saying you should have a drink before bed EVERY DAY. I'm suggesting it as part of a strategy to deal with water retention once in a while. That being said, the detrimental effects of moderate alcohol consumption on bodycomposition are widely exaggerated. But that's another article.

Martin Berkhan said...


Glad to hear it.


No need for that.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Very useful information.

Yash said...

What do you think about the sauna technique to get rid of water under the skin? You mentioned potassium; are too many other vital minerals aside from sodium lost via this technique? A few bananas could remedy the K, but I wonder if there's anything else to consider.

Martin Berkhan said...

Old-school/extreme ways (i.e sauna combined with water restriction) to cut weight is sometimes used to make weight in sports like wrestling, but require a good deal of suffering and comes with risks in the form of dehydration and sodium loss. Not something worth going through for the average joe.

Anonymous said...

'That being said, the detrimental effects of moderate alcohol consumption on bodycomposition are widely exaggerated. But that's another article.'

I'd love to read the article ..

Mike Kelly said...

First of all I want to say that your site is awesome Martin. I have just recently discovered it and after doing all my reading and research I have been doing intermittent fasting for about a week and a half. My average day is work, Gym, home by 7-8 at which point I generally devour a ton of chicken breasts and lots of green vegitables. I haven't noticed any major weight loss yet, but I have noticed the energy, it is unreal. My question is: I have noticed that my gut and other areas where I have excess fat have become very soft. Before I always had the weight there but it was more firm, now it is very flabby...I am hoping this means it is on its way out of me, but I really have no this normal?

Martin Berkhan said...

Hey Mike, glad you like my site and the diet approach I'm advocating.

What you're experiencing is fairly normal in that fat depots typically become squishy before they're about to get smaller.

If you grab some tissue, you might notice that it isn't as firm as before. You may even feel small "knots" in it. This is particularly noticeable in the lower ab region and the back of your arms.

Anonymous said...

Good post and this enter helped me alot in my college assignement. Thank you seeking your information.

Anonymous said...

Martin, I used to believe that increasing potassium intake would help with pulling water out of the interstitium and extracellular space as well (since it is an intracellular ion that would cause an osmotic pull bringing water into the cell), but it turns out that potassium is one of the 2 chief activators of aldosterone (the other one being an acute and large drop in sodium intake). The body may interpret a high potassium intake to also conversely act as a signal for low sodium intake. What do you think about this? Isn't high potassium intake counterproductive to the goal of dropping water?

Secondly, I've read that at least in rats, acute and drastically high sodium loading compared to normal intake will not cause an immediate increase in natriuresis. To the contrary, sodium retention will persist for another 3-4 days before the RAS begins to lower resorption of sodium from the tubules. This may be why bodybuilders have found through experimentation found that a 1-2 week sodium loading phase followed by a gradual lowering in sodium intake leading up to a contest yields more predictable results. In the same vein (and from what you've seen with your clients), would a drastic drop in sodium intake from, say 4000 to 1500 milligrams, cause delayed natriuresis in humans?

Lastly, I learned of the whoosh effect a while ago and tried to put it to the test. I did not lose the alleged water weight even a week after binging and carbing up. Before the binge, I had ramped up my cardio to 45 minutes every day at an 8:00 pace, and I did further drop my caloric intake. Nevertheless, why a week's worth of unaccounted splurging didn't magically cause me to lose weight in the scale discouraged me. Perhaps I ended up overeating to the point that I canceled out all of the masked weight loss?

Alex said...

Hmmm really informative, thanks!

Anonymous said...

how long should one wait after the high-rep full-body workout to eat?

Martin Berkhan said...


'The body may interpret a high potassium intake to also conversely act as a signal for low sodium intake. What do you think about this? Isn't high potassium intake counterproductive to the goal of dropping water?'

Great input - you're right. I've removed that advice from the article. To be honest I've never seen that much of an effect by messing around with varying levels of potassium. OTOH, the foods I tend to recommend for the carb-ups are naturally rich in potassium.

'In the same vein (and from what you've seen with your clients), would a drastic drop in sodium intake from, say 4000 to 1500 milligrams, cause delayed natriuresis in humans?'

The effect is fairly acute (<2 days IME), which is why 1-2 days of lower sodium intake usually works as a quick fix to reduce water retention.

'Perhaps I ended up overeating to the point that I canceled out all of the masked weight loss?'

Very possible. Some people can do A LOT of damage with one day of binging (trust me, some people can put away 10k calories like it's nothing).

Martin Berkhan said...


'how long should one wait after the high-rep full-body workout to eat?'

No need to wait any specific amount of time. Go home, fix your food, eat.

Anonymous said...

Interesting about cortisol and intense cardio, and hyperhydration. I always find that I only look my leanest after intense or long duration endurance workouts in hot and humid conditions. Then, once I begin eating, I get puffy until I deplete my carb/sodium/water levels once again.

Rodney said...


Do you have any comments regarding carb loading and water/sodium manipulation for bodybuilding contests?

Thanks, love your site!

Martin Berkhan said...

Yeah, but it's way too complicated to get into here. My strategies differ from the norm that's for sure.

Rodney said...

Perhaps the topic of a future article, or covered in "The Book"?

Martin Berkhan said...


izigr said...

this was really interesting and does explain a lot of the odd fluctuations i've been having. great article

Melissa said...

Thanks for the article.

Water retention is a huge issue for me. When I wake up, there are lines everywhere. When I do supermans on my exercise mat, it leaves an impression on my abs. I can go from a 4 pack to soft looking abs overnight. I have identified gluten and dairy as part of my problem, but still retain water like crazy out of nowhere sometimes, and it is very discouraging. Diurex helps, but of course I don't want to rely on that. I'm drinking 2L of water, I will increase based on your recs.

Any tips for limiting damage on higher sodium days? I do tend to save calories for occasional movie popcorn, it's like my cheesecake.

Reka said...

Great post and full of information. I have a question regarding the diuretics, especially alcohol: usually after a nigh with a few drinks the next day I drink even more water than usually and hardly piss any, so I guess this is to balance the diuretic effect of the alcohol consumed, so it seems there is a rebound the next day. I may lose the water during the party night but the next day I drink it back anyway... Your insight on this would be more appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Great article Martin
Just one question. Im having an argument with a friend, he though I was crazy when I said I drink 5-10 liters water a day, and that it might be dangerous(water poisoning and so forth). Do you know anything about that, or have some facts on the theme? I know it cant be that harmful, since I have lived like that the 2 last years.

Jack Derges said...

Martin! Second article I have read of yours tonight. Love how you keep it simple. Makes the idea of trying new things with exercise/diet less daunting. Quick question - to get specific with refeed... If I had a shoot in the AM for example, how would you break up the carb intake the day before? And when would you ideally place the full-body workout? Traditionally I have drank shit loads of water for two weeks leading up to it, then halved that two days before, halved again the day before, then no food/water on the day of shoot until I'm done. Want to try something different!! Jack

Anonymous said...

IS it then advisable for someone generally wanting to avoid water retention to habitually consume a high sodium intake (ignoring other health issues) to get the hormones adjusted to excreting a lot? That way, one wouldn't blow up after a deli sandwich?

Anonymous said...

Hey I work out for about 2 hours a day, and I work out hard. I doubt that there are a lot of ppl in the gym that could finish my workout. I've been doing this for about 10 weeks (lifting 6 times a week but then also doing one minute of cardio as my rest). Is this going to result in high cortisol levels? How long do I need to take it easy for the cortisol levels to return to normal? Thanks

My name is Martin Berkhan and I work as a nutritional consultant, magazine writer and personal trainer.

Welcome to the Internet's leading resource on intermittent fasting and all things related.

FeedBurner FeedCount

Google Friend Connect

Join Me on Twitter


Follow Me on Facebook

Recommended Reading

Lame Title, Good Book

Recommended Reading

Intermittent Fasting for Fat Loss

Recommended Reading

Covers All Bases

Recommended Reading

Awesome Recipes for The Paleo Diet
Recipes for the Paleo Diet - Two Cookbooks - 120 Recipes Each!>

Recommended Reading

Fat Loss Made Easy

Great Interval Timer

+1 If You Think Leangains is Awesome