Water retention

General characteristics

General characteristics

Oedema is the medical term used to describe the state whereby the body retains excess water. It is more commonly known as water or fluid retention whilst in older Herbals and medical books it is often referred to as 'dropsy' or 'hydropsy'.

Most people are aware that the body is largely made up of water/fluids (about 70%), much of it contained within the blood and lymphatic vessels but is also a major component of all tissues, organs, spaces and cavities and individual cells. The correct balance of fluids within the body is a complex affair, affected by a variety of factors such as kidney, liver and heart function (i.e kidney infections or failure, heart failure or insufficiency), high blood pressure, congestion or problems in the lymph vessels, being overweight, leading an inactive life, poor diet, high salt/sodium intake, malnutrition (protein deficiency), pregnancy, metabolic diseases (such as diabetes and thyroid disease), salt imbalance, hormonal influences (such as PMS), certain medications (such as steroids and beta blockers), problems with the veins (such as varicosities) and circulatory system, histamine and the inflammatory response, artificial sweeteners, overuse of laxatives, chronic dehydration, chronic constipation, food allergies, low calorie diets, as the result of an injury or severe burns (inflammatory response), very warm weather, extreme altitudes, long haul flights or standing still for very long periods.

Water is a vital component of our body. It is the perfect medium for carrying nutrients and wastes, moistens and lubricates, protects delicate structures and allows minerals and other substances to be dissolved and transported throughout the body. Nutrient rich fluids pass from the tiny blood vessels (capillaries), diffusing into the tissues and then on into the cells. Excess fluids are then taken back up by either the veins or lymphatic vessels. Certain changes within the body or some disease states can cause an excessive amount of fluid to become 'trapped' within the tissues. This excess fluid can accumulate in tissues such as the skin, in cavities between membranes (such as in the surrounding membranes of the lungs) and in and around organs. Excess fluids can accumulate anywhere within the body but most common sites are in the feet, ankles and lower legs, in the fingers and hands, around the abdomen (ascites), in the lungs (pulmonary oedema), in cellulite patches and around the brain (cerebral oedema).

Healing objectives are to determine and treat the causes of the oedema (such as reducing blood pressure or strengthening the heart muscle) and to encourage the normal fluid balance mechanisms to drain the excess fluid from the body. Diuretic herbs can be of great help by stimulating the kidneys to excrete more fluids but this needs to be done gently and gradually to avoid exhausting kidney function and leading to further fluid build up.

Diet and lifestyle

Diet and lifestyle

Limit your intake of salty foods such as bacon, processed meats and other processed type foods that are regularly high in salt.

Avoid all refined carbohydrates and starches, go for whole grains instead.

Limit the amount of diuretic drinks such as coffee, tea and colas as these can dehydrate the body and lead ultimately to further water retention. Try dandelion coffee (available online and from health food shops) instead.

Make sure you drink enough water, at least several large glasses daily, as dehydration can actually encourage the body to store more water.

Avoid alcohol as it is harmful to the liver and kidneys.

Eat foods that are high in potassium such as bananas, citrus fruits, nuts and seeds and dried fruits.

Watery fruits such as watermelon (seeds and all), peaches, plums, apples, culinary herbs like fresh parsley, caraway seeds, coriander seeds and vegetables such as leeks, celery, onions, garlic and cucumber can all help to reduce water retention when eaten regularly.

Useful herbs

Useful herbs

Burdock root, alfalfa leaf, plantain leaves, cornsilk, marshmallow root, ashwagandha, dandelion root and leaves, bilberry fruit, gotu kola, nettle leaf, yarrow, mullein, angelica root and astragalus root are a few good herbs that can reduce water retention without being too forceful on the kidneys. Choose several from the list and take as teas (leaves and berries) or decoctions (simmering the roots in water to release the goodness), using a heaped teaspoon of your chosen mix per cup, up to 3 cups daily. A useful decoction could contain dandelion root, burdock root, astragalus root and marshmallow root. A useful tea could contain nettle, yarrow, gotu kola, bilberries, dandelion leaves and plantain leaves.

Dandelion leaves are a very safe diuretic as they contain and encourage higher concentrations of blood potassium which helps to balance/reduce sodium levels in the body. High sodium is associated with fluid retention.

The diuretic herbs such as buchu, uva ursi, horsetail, juniper berries etc can be used for short periods at a time (a week or so at a time) to help the kidneys to eliminate excess water.

Lady's mantle tea can help eliminate excess water from soggy tissues without stimulating the kidneys.

Ground ivy and agrimony can be combined to stimulate the kidneys into producing healthy urine flow.

Horse Chestnut seeds/fruits (conkers) and mullein leaves are useful for reducing water retention from the lymphatic system when it is caused by venous insufficiency (such as varicose veins).

Hawthorn berries and flowers will provide the heart muscle with nutrients that help to strengthen its function. Take 3 cups daily, crushing a heaped teaspoon of berries and flowers together for each cup.

Avoid using liquorice in medicinal doses and reduce your intake of its confectionery form if you normally eat it. Liqourice encourages greater fluid retention as it encourages sodium retention in the body.

Natural healing

Natural healing

Evening primrose capsules may help if the water retention is linked to hormonal imbalance. Take up to 1000mg daily.

Manual lymphatic massage/drainage can help to clear the tissues of excess fluids. The gentle stroking motion helps to release trapped fluids from the tissues or lymph vessels.

Try to avoid standing around for long periods and keep active wherever possible. Regular movement encourages better circulation of blood and lymph fluids and can help to reduce and prevent fluid retention.

If you are still for long periods (long flights, shop worker etc) try wearing support stockings to prevent the accumulation of fluids in the lower legs and feet. Take them off as soon as you can and put your feet up (above the level of your abdomen) when you get home for as long as possible, to allow gravity to work on your fluid draining lymph vessels.

Child watering plants




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