The Contrast

The Contrast
Lift Big, Sing Big, Look Great Doing It.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Metabolism Talk: Part 3 - Water Retention

* Make sure to Check out Part 1 and  Part 2*

 Water retention

Water retention is an amazing thing. You can be training in a deficit for a long period of time and you won't see the scale budge an inch. Then out of the clear blue, weight will just spill off of you (The Whoosh Effect...more on that soon.) You'll have something like a 3-5lb drop. Frankly, it's kind of a mind fuck. And, for those of us who don't (or in my case didn't) really understand some of the basic physics of the body, when you suddenly lose 4lbs over night, you think, "I have to replicate what I did yesterday EVERY DAY!!!" Negatory, you've been doing the right things this whole time, but your water fluctuations are just catching up, brah.

Just the other week I woke up at 184lbs after being around 190-94 for weeks. I of course was very depleted after a "low carb day" filled with walking but the number on the scale was real. And I looked like diced cheddar that day.

*The following weekend I had a "lower carb day" and I stayed up till 2:30 am dancing with friends. I woke up the next day really dehydrated and weighing below 180lbs.*
That's a 12lb swing from the day before...that's not fat and not muscle. The culprit? Water.
So, Allow me to try and shed some light on this phenom and help explain why YOU may not be losing weight like you'd like to, even if you are on point with your training and diet.

From The Science of Scale Fluctuations

"A huge amount of your body is made up of water. Lean muscle tissue and blood contain about 80% water, where as a fat cell contains about 20 to 25% water.

Muscle holds a massive amount of water. A lot of times people accuse diets of being “muscle eaters” but this isn’t usually the case. Usually they are muscle drinkers because one of the first things to go when you begin dieting down is the water stored in your muscles, especially if taking part in an extreme diet or one that is very low in carbs (even if higher in calories)."

"That sounds terrible, Ol' Yeargain!"

The screwed up part is that the stress of dieting can make a person retain water because of the elevated cortisol levels (more on that in a moment.)

"Water retention (or edema which is the term used by the medical establishment) is a common, concrete phenomenon that occurs during calorie restriction. It's not just some trivial vanity issue unique to the fitness crowd...

During starvation, inadequate nutrition depresses the pumping mechanisms within the cell that keeps excess salt and water out. The cell deteriorates and the distinction between in and out is lost. However, for the average Joe out there, water retention is more often related to daily shifts in water and salt intake." - Martin Berkhan from Leangains

Water Retention for Women - 

Although Men hold more water than women, that just means that women tend to see lesser variations of the positive scale changes in the depletion department (ie, dropping carbs for a couple of days to shrink up.)

"Men tend to carry more water than women. This has to do with the amount of body fat in a woman versus a man. Women carry more essential fat than men. This is the fat around the body that is necessary, including reproductive fat in the breasts and around the uterus. Men inherently have a larger amount of skeletal muscle. For these reasons, men contain about 60 percent water while women have 55 percent water."

Water retention tends to really affect women and their results (mostly psychologically), and there are a few basic physiological reasons. Alan Aragon jokes about "respect the menstruation" in this video. But when analyzing the difference between the two sexes, a few other important factors should be taken into consideration:

Because blood contains a great deal of fluid, your body instinctively holds on to more water as a means of survival. This combined with the physical and hormonal stresses placed on the individual is basically a recipe for a cortisol cocktail that will make your body hold a significant amount of water. The affect is often a huge fluctuation of numbers on the scale, or a very aggressive stagnation even if you might be killing it in the gym and holding onto a consistent calorie deficit. 

"Estrogen is the name given to a group of hormones of which the primary role is to maintain the growth and function of the uterus so that the sex organs can become adult sized, and prepares the uterine lining to accept an egg.

Additionally, estrogen affects skeletal growth, skin, fat + protein deposition, and electrolyte balance. Men also produce a certain amount of estrogen and as a result can suffer the effects of estrogen dominance too. Estrogen Dominance is caused by either too much estrogen in the body, or an imbalance of estrogen in relation to other hormones, most commonly, progesterone.

Some of the effects of estrogen dominance are water retention, weight gain, breast and uterine cancers, fatigue, mood swings, slow metabolism, excess abdominal body fat in men and PMS to name a few!" - Girls Gone Fit

The following is not research based, but a generalization that could arguably be called sexist. But, know that I don't mean it as such. I know what it's like to be a stress eater, a happy eater, a bored eater, so know that I come from a place of understanding. 

These are behaviors I've noticed in men and women, but are deemed more socially acceptable and at times almost obligatory amongst the female population.

"You've had a bad day at the office, you deserve this triple chocolate cake."

I don't think women binge as much as men, because I don't think most women are physically capable of the extremes (again, a generalization), but when they do binge, the physical affects can seem drastic, the scale can number can appear as though an individual has gained a lot of fat, which is only true if the binge was substantial. This causes guilt, which causes more stress, which makes the individual hold more water combined with the individual trying to play catch up in their calories with their training (probably over training) and then the scale refuses to budge back down because of water retention. It's a vicious fucking cycle.

Cortisol and Water Retention

How cortisol causes water retention:

Cortisol stimulates gluconeogenesis (the making of new glucose) in the liver, using amino acids, lactate, glycerol, and propionate. Cortisol is also involved in glycogenolysis (the breakdown of glycogen stored in the liver and muscle cells), which is necessary as it activates glycogen phosphorylase, an enzyme needed to complete the whole process.

How to reduce cortisol?

"If you’re retaining a lot of water, it may be due to elevated cortisol levels. To get your cortisol back to normal, try the following:
  • Cut back on the exercise. Exercise elevates cortisol levels, and when combined with a caloric restriction, this can be a double-whammy of cortisol for your body. Reduce the frequency and intensity of your training for a week to help bring things back to normal.
  • Make sure you’re not in too severe of a caloric deficit. Go over your diet and compare it against your total daily expenditure using a calculation like the Katch McArdle (and use the “light activity” multiplier–unless you exercise more than 7 hours per week, higher multipliers will have you eating too much). Bring yourself to a 500-calorie deficit to avoid the cortisol issues that come with greater caloric restrictions.


Sodium and Water Retention


People like to say that you need to watch your sodium because it causes you to retain all of this water! So, people go full potato and stop using table salt and eat sodium reduced things like they developed heart problems overnight...c'mon, bros.

"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." - Martin Berkhan of Leangains

So, water retention does also come from sodium, but only significantly when you're doing wide swinging variations of it. Example: Eating dry chicken breast and unseasoned vegetables one night, then the next eating a whole jar of pickles, a shit ton of canned meat, and a bag of table salt with your Margarita.

"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.

The Whoosh Affect


Lyle McDonald explains the phenom as such.

"Many people have noted that fat loss is often discontinuous, that is it often happens in stops and starts.  So you’ll be dieting and dieting and doing everything correctly with nothing to show for it.  Then, boom, almost overnight, you drop 4 pounds and look leaner.

What’s going on?  Back during my college days, one of my professors threw out the idea that after fat cells had been emptied of stored triglyceride, they would temporarily refill with water (glycerol attracts water, which might be part of the mechanism).  So there would be no immediate change in size, body weight or appearance. Then, after some time frame, the water would get dropped, the fat cells would shrink.  A weird way of looking at it might be that the fat loss suddenly becomes ‘apparent’. That is, the fat was emptied and burned off days or weeks ago but until the water is dropped, nothing appears to have happened.

As folks get very lean, down to the last pounds of fat, the skin and fat cells that are left will often change appearance and texture.  It will look dimply (as the fat cells which are supporting the skin shrink and the skin isn’t supported) and feel squishy to the touch. This is bad in that it looks really weird, but it’s good because it means that the fat is going away.  I have nothing truly profound to say about this topic, just realizes that it happens and usually indicates good things are happening."

In My Own Experience...

If you control your sodium, chill out and reduce your cortisol levels, you will all of a sudden drop down to a ridiculous number, then you'll super compensate either into a realm of reality or just below where you were. Again, chill out. I get the whoosh right after a couple of lower carb days that have a lot of steady state cardio demands (walking) and when I introduce my normal amount of carbs back into the diet, I gain back sometimes 10lbs. It's miraculous how much water the human body can hold, and I ain't even that big. I dabble with minor forms of carb cycling, so some days I'm more depleted than others and when I return to my higher level of carbs (as well as my salt/vinegar bomb of a whole jar of pickles) I hoard water like a mutha fucker. I experience a weekly woosh affect when I drop that much sodium from my diet "randomly."

Should You Worry About Water Retention?

Well, honestly, no. Unless you're in a profession where you need to make a certain weight class, or you're looking to compete in a certain aesthetic based competition, there is no real reason to worry about it other than just acknowledging it exists and understanding how it works so it doesn't fuck with your mental health. If you're being active (ideally lifting weights), eating consistently within a certain caloric number, you're going to be healthy (assuming you already are), and if you're not losing weight, try to keep your sodium consistent, make sure your calories are below maintenance and increase your level of activity. If you're holding on to water because you're stressed...try to chill, brah.

Well, that's really all there is to this, until next time (part 4) don't eat a bag of salt, don't stress, and try not to live and die by the numbers on a scale, and as always...

Lift Big, Sing Big, and Look Great Doing it.

The Opera Bro


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