You've probably come across commercials that promote water pills as a quick slim-down solution while channel surfing. Whether you want to de-bloat before a big night out, ditch the annoying PMS puffiness, or fit into your skinny jeans once and for all, word is they'll help you shed pounds in no time flat—but do they really work? And more importantly, are they safe?
Here's the good, the bad, and the cray about water pills.
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1. They're Prescribed a Lot
Water pills contain substances that pressure your kidneys into flushing out excess water and salt through your pee. Medical pros call them diuretics, and they're one of the most commonly prescribed medications. Doctors usually give these to people whose bodies suck at regulating fluid intake and who become swollen and bloated as a result. Patients with health issues like hypertension, heart failure, and idiopathic edema (unexplained swelling) take prescription diuretics frequently to reduce their blood pressure, prevent fluid buildup, and reduce swelling respectively, says Linda Anegawa, M.D., founder and medical director of OSR Weight Management in Hawaii. However, these meds are never prescribed to people looking to drop pounds and keep them off because they have no effect on body fat, she says.
2. OTC Water Pills Aren't the Same as What Doctors Prescribe
"Since over-the-counter water pills aren't regulated by the FDA, I actively discourage my patients from taking the diuretics you find at the drugstore," says Anegawa. That's because there's no way of knowing if the ingredients listed on the box are really what's in the pills or how much of each ingredient they contain, she says. They could even be toxic and interact badly with a med you're taking, she says. Many manufacturers of herbal water pills claim that their products have health benefits, but those promises typically aren't studied in research trials, she says.
3. They're Not Addictive But Can Be Dangerous
Water pills aren't habit-forming, says Anegawa. And with routine low doses of the medications, side effects are uncommon in someone who is otherwise healthy, which is probably why many doctors recommend them to their patients.
But even if you're an otherwise healthy person just popping OTC water pills to see the number on the scale change, you run the risk of taking too high of a dose if you down more than the directed amount—and since those drugstore aisle meds probably aren't regulated, it's hard to say if the recommended dose is even safe. Taking water pills in excess can lead to dehydration and loss of electrolytes, which means you might experience scary symptoms like heart palpitations, weakness, confusion, and severe dizziness. Gah.
4. They Don't Really Help You Lose Weight
Sure, water pills help you shed excess water that's making you feel super bloaty—but only temporarily. Once you stop taking them, your kidneys go back to reabsorbing the normal amount of water and salt for your body, so you'll go back to your typical body weight soon after you stop taking them. "The real goal of weight loss isn't just to make the scale go down by two to three pounds but to lose body fat," says Anegawa. "Water pills don't affect excess body fat."
5. They Can Actually Make You Gain Weight
Yep, you read that right. If you take any type of diuretic over a long period of time (how long depends on the person), your kidneys will eventually compensate for their use and you'll end up holding on to more water weight than you did before you started taking them. This disorder is called diuretic-induced edema, which happens when your kidneys start retaining more sodium and water than they need and your body starts to swell, says Anegawa. This chronic swelling is pretty challenging to treat and obviously isn't the desired effect of using a water pill.
6. They Can Be Helpful For Occasional Bloating If...
Though all of the above sound kind of terrifying, healthy women should be fine if they occastionally take water pills to help de-puff unexplained leg swelling or bloating caused by PMS, says Anegawa. However, you shouldn't head to your nearest drugstore for diuretics. Instead, get in touch with your doc for a prescription to take before your period or whenever you tend to feel super-inflated. Since your physician will be keeping an eye on how many de-bloating pills you take, you'll reduce your risk of serious side effects and have someone to call if something feels off. In the meantime, you can continue to roll your eyes at those annoying ads.
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