Any woman who’s been pregnant knows all about swollen feet and ankles, a condition referred to as edema. But there are many other causes for this swelling too, like long airplane rides, side effects of medication, infections, high blood pressure, kidney disease, liver disease, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other health conditions.
Edema is the swelling of body tissues caused by fluid retention. In some cases, this can be a good thing, serving as a defense for your body, as when delivering healing properties to a bee sting. Edema also occurs when you sprain your ankle.
But chronic edema can be at the least uncomfortable and at the worst a sign that you have a more significant health problem.
What causes edema?
Capillaries are the very tiny blood vessels that feed your tissues. Their walls are porous and exchange fluids with the body’s cells at all times – fluids leave your capillaries and an equal amount is reabsorbed. The normal exchange is kept in balance by a number of factors, including the lymphatic vessels. But conditions can arise that cause more fluid to leave the capillaries than can be reabsorbed. The tissues swell up with the extra fluids, which is called edema.
Adding to the problem with the faulty capillary exchange are the kidneys. When fluids can’t escape the cells, the kidneys hold back more sodium and water than usual to compensate for the fluid lost from the capillaries. This forces the rest of your body to increase fluid circulation, which also accumulates in the capillaries. The vessels continue to release more fluid than they can reabsorb, perpetuatuating the cycle. This is why edema not caused by trauma can last indefinitely.
How can I avoid edema?
One of the most common causes of this imbalance is gravity, or downward pressure. Even though you may be perfectly healthy, if you stand on your feet all day they might become swollen. Elevate your feet above your heart to reduce the effect of gravity, and the fluids are reabsorbed by the capillaries. Similarly, when obese, the downward weight placed on your feet and ankles doesn’t allow this exchange to function properly, and the feet, ankles, and lower legs swell.
Edema is closely related to the health of the circulatory system, and that’s why diabetics so often have swollen feet and ankles, a sign of vascular damage like that caused by peripheral arterial disease or neuropathies. To avoid the conditions that lead to edema,
- Maintain a proper body weight. Obesity can be a significant cause of chronic edema
- Exercise regularly, as activity helps the body get rid of excess fluids
- Elevate your feet above your heart - this drains fluid buildup from tissues
- Wear comfortable shoes that aren’t too tight – they may restrict circulation
- Use your calf muscles to move your feet. While sitting or laying down, point your toes out, as if you were standing on your tip-toes. Hold. Then point your toes toward the ceiling. Hold. This squeezing of your calf muscles changes the pressure on the capillaries, allowing fluids to be reabsorbed.
Diet can play a big part in avoiding edema
- Drink plenty of water every day to increase urinary output, preventing fluids from accumulating in your feet and ankles
- Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables – not frozen, canned, or processed in any way. Fresh produce has a diuretic effect on your body, moving fluids and sodium through tissues, assisting the capillary exchange. The best produce to stimulate fluids are asparagus, celery, garlic, ginger, grapes, green beans, green tea, melons, parsley, tomatoes, pineapple, and leafy greens
- Ditch the white bread and white rice and choose whole grains like oats, brown rice, and 100% whole grain pastas and breads. Whole grains contain far fewer additives than processed white flour and white rice products
- Avoid salty foods (sodium), as they help you retain water
- Avoid processed foods like those that come in a can or box, as most are loaded with sodium
An occasional episode of edema is within the range of normal, especially if you’re otherwise healthy. But if the edema is frequent, contact your doctor, as it could indicate a much more serious health problem.