By Trisha Malhotra
The miserable feeling of having a boulder of air or in your stomach making it hard to even lay on your side has a name: bloating. Bloating sucks. But it is incredibly common with almost 30% of the global population experiencing it at least once. Although often used interchangeably, bloating and water retention are separate things. Water retention can cause your limbs, face, and stomach to swell as your body holds on to water. Bloating, on the other hand, is gas causing your stomach to distend. You don’t need to have IBS or a monthly period to bloat.
But first, let’s tackle water retention. There are two main reasons for water retention. The most notorious offender tends to be — surprisingly — drinking too little water.
How can drinking less water cause water retention?
The more deep-seated reason is that your body’s primitive response to dehydration is to hold onto water as best it can. The best example is that our bodies are like a camel’s hump. However, instead of storing all the water in a single place, water bloat can be seen throughout the body-in the face, arms, legs, belly, and even back. This evolutionary reason is also why an erratic water consumption pattern — drinking too much water at once and then none at all — causes water retention. Your body adapts to your irregular water consumption by preserving the water you drink for as long as it can.
A separate reason that explains the mechanism through which retention occurs is osmosis. Remember 10th-grade biology? Osmosis is the movement of water molecules from an area of higher concentration to a lower concentration region, across a semipermeable membrane, a.k.a your cells. When you drink less water, there is more water inside your cells than outside. The water from inside the cell flows outwards causing swelling.
Hence, when you chug water, osmotically speaking, this might temporarily alleviate the symptoms of water retention. However, if you do not consume water throughout the day, the same process will reoccur. Hence, water retention is not about the amount of water you consume as much as it is about the manner in which you consume water. Spreading your water intake throughout the day rather than all at once is a much better strategy to alleviate water retention than simply drinking more water.
How can chugging water do more damage than good?
Water bloat is not normal bloating — the latter of which is the collection of gas or excess in the stomach — but it still causes stomach distension. Another downside of chugging water is that it can cause water to pool in your stomach directly. Although water bloat is just as uncomfortable, it subsides once water is processed by the body.
So why does it happen?
Upon drinking water, it travels into the stomach through the esophagus. Once in the stomach, the water is gradually absorbed into your bloodstream where it is mainly used for hydrating cells. This absorption process tends to be slow. When you drink too much water at once, particularly after a meal, it can pool in your small intestine while your body is being signaled that it is available. This explains why you feel so full after chugging water. Excess water collecting in the digestive tract can cause stomach distention, which results in the discomfort associated with water bloat.
A host of other factors, beyond your water consumption pattern, can cause your body to hold onto air or water. For instance, certain foods known as ‘FODMAP’ are usually responsible for gas-related bloating. FODMAP is short for ‘fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.’ Essentially, these foods are short-chain carbohydrates.
When FODMAP foods are poorly digested by the body, they ferment in your bowels. The fermentation process releases gas that gets trapped in your stomach, causing you to bloat. High-FODMAP foods include things such as watermelon, mushrooms, cauliflower, and apples. So, an apple a day, if poorly digested, won’t keep the gastroenterologist away.
In a nutshell
Bloating and water retention are dictated by your food and water consumption patterns more than anything else. The age-old advice of drinking 8 glasses of water a day needs more nuance. You might need that amount of water to survive, but as we’ve established, it’s better to consume 8 glasses throughout the day rather than all at once.