Natural Diuretics: Your New Go-To Remedy For Bloat & PMS

Image: Alessio Bogani

You've probably heard the word "diuretic" thrown around in the context of coffee, tea, or certain medications. But what are diuretics, really? And are they a good thing—or a bad thing—for your health?

As the health editor at mindbodygreen, it's my job to make sure you can answer all these questions (and more!). Here's your go-to guide to diuretics, what they are, and how we might take advantage of them for better health.

What is a diuretic?

According to PubMed, the definition of a diuretic is "a type of drug that causes the kidneys to make more urine." Diuretics are also commonly referred to as water pills. There are a lot of different types of diuretics, including loop-acting diuretics—which act at the ascending loop of Henle (this is just a specific part of the kidney), resulting in increased urine production and decreased blood pressure—and potassium-sparing diuretics, which are just diuretics that do not cause the body to secrete more potassium into the urine. There are also thiazide diuretics and natural diuretics; the former causes the kidneys to make urine, the body to release salt and extra fluid and is often prescribed for high blood pressure and edema; and the latter includes herbs and dietary supplements that act as diuretics by nature.

As we learned before, a diuretic increases the amount of urine you would normally make on any given day. Diuretics do this by affecting the activity of the kidneys, which keep your body's homeostasis and maintain the amount of water, sodium, and potassium ions in the bloodstream through a series of complex processes. Affecting the kidneys in this way can be a good thing since there are many illnesses that cause a decrease in blood flow to the kidneys, which can cause a person to retain excess amounts of water.

Diuretic benefits: diuretics and blood pressure, PMS, and edema.

So what are the benefits of natural diuretics other than decreased fluid retention? For starters, they're often used to reduce blood pressure, or hypertension. One study that examined the results of 11 different studies on garlic as a diuretic showed "a mean decrease of 4.6 ± 2.8 mm Hg for SBP in the garlic group compared to placebo (n = 10; p = 0.001)." In simple terms, this means there was a statistically significant decrease in blood pressure when patients took garlic in some form.

Diuretics can also be used to treat fluid retention, edema (an abnormal accumulation of fluids in certain tissues in the body), and lymphedema (which is swelling of the arms and legs because of a blockage in a lymphatic vessel). Loop diuretics, specifically, are often used to treat edema.

Another common use of diuretics is to relieve PMS and bloating related to a woman's menstrual cycle. This works because diuretics help shed water weight by making you urinate more often. In fact, the very popular over-the-counter drug Midol contains the diuretic pamabrom.

Finally, diuretics are often used to improve heart health, Crataegus spp., also known as hawthorn, is a natural diuretic used to promote heart health. One study showed that patients who ingested hawthorn by taking it as a supplement or herb experienced an overall protective effect in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. The patients taking hawthorn were also less likely to be prescribed prescription diuretics.

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Natural diuretic herbs & supplements.

Ready to get familiar with some of the most famous and well-studied natural diuretics? We'll start with one of my all-time favorite herbs, dandelion.

1. Dandelion: Taraxacum officinale

Typically, the root of this plant is consumed in a tea or as a supplement in a capsule. Studies have shown that there was a significant increase in the frequency of urination when humans consumed dandelion extract over a single day. This shows promise that dandelion can be used as a diuretic in humans. According to Jolene Brighten, N.D., a naturopathic doctor and women's health expert "Dandelion leaf is an excellent diuretic if water retention is one of your main PMS symptoms. This can be enjoyed dried as a tea or fresh in a salad or stir fry. While you work on the underlying cause of your bloating, include dandelion leaf beginning five to seven days before your period."

2. Hibiscus: Hibiscus sabdariffa

Hibiscus can also be consumed as a tea or supplement. A comprehensive review of animal and human studies showed that hibiscus acted as a diuretic and was able to lower blood pressure in humans who were prehypertensive or mildly hypertensive, as well as individuals who have type 2 diabetes.

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3. Horsetail: Equisetum arvense

Commercially available in tea or capsule form, horsetail is also a promising natural diuretic. A small randomized controlled trial divided 36 healthy male volunteers into three groups. One group took a placebo treatment, one group took horsetail, and the third took hydrochlorothiazide (a diuretic drug). Further research is needed to clarify the mechanism of action, but E. arvense extract produced a diuretic effect that was stronger than the placebo group and equivalent to that of hydrochlorothiazide—without causing significant changes in the elimination of electrolytes.

4. Juniper: Juniperus communis

You've probably heard of juniper before. This natural diuretic can be ingested as a supplement, berries, or even used as an essential oil. It is a diuretic because the presence of the compound terpinen-4-ol, which increases renal glomerular filtration rates.

Natural diuretic foods & drinks.

If you've ever had a few too many cups of coffee and felt like you were dashing to the bathroom all day, you already know about the natural diuretic effects of coffee. Well, caffeine in general has well-known diuretic effects and causes diuresis and natriuresis (excretion of sodium in the urine) completely naturally. Green tea is another good example of a caffeine-containing natural diuretic. One study tested the effects of either a low-dose or high-dose green tea extract in rats and found that both groups showed diuretic effects.

Some natural diuretic foods and drinks include beverages containing caffeine and alcohol, which as we know now have a diuretic effect, and several other diuretic foods including celery, onion, eggplant, asparagus, and watermelon are said to have a diuretic effect. In addition, parsley is used as a diuretic in natural medicine.

Asparagus acts as a natural diuretic, helps flush out the kidneys, prevents the formation of kidney stones, and is beneficial in treating edema. Parsley has been traditionally used as a diuretic in folk medicine, and the mechanism of action has been studied in rats. Rats were given parsley seed extract to drink, and after 24 hours, a larger volume of urine was eliminated than when they were drinking regular water. According to Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., an integrative medicine doctor and go-to mbg health expert, "Some of my favorite natural diuretics include dandelion and foods to eat like cucumbers, watermelon, and asparagus. They keep you hydrated while flushing toxins out the body." She also likes cucumber infused-water and sometimes recommends this juice recipe to her patients for bloat and water retention:

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Natural Diuretic Juice For Bloat & Water Retention

Ingredients:

  • handful of fresh dandelion
  • handful of parsley
  • ½ cucumber
  • full apple
  • green tea or coconut water or water (depending on sweetness)
  • 2-ounce shot of apple cider vinegar 

Method:

Mix in Vitamix or other high-speed blender and drink throughout day. This juice helps flush toxins out of your system and helps reset your gut while improving bloat and water retention. 

Side effects & safety concerns of natural diuretics.

Because they're not particularly well-studied, it can be difficult to find research on the negative side effects of many of the natural diuretics we've learned about already. You should still know, however, that diuretics can cause changes in the body that can lead to side effects like skin rashes, nausea, dizziness, and lethargy. One study specifically showed that diuretics can cause nausea and headaches in women using them to treat bloating. They can also leave you with low sodium levels or a decreased volume of blood circulating in the body.

Hawthorn can interact with some heart medications and has been known to cause symptoms like dizziness, nausea, and digestive upset. Horsetail can also interact with some medications, and taking large amounts of it could potentially decrease potassium levels in the body too much. That's why if you have a chronic health concern or are taking any medications, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor before taking diuretics—natural or otherwise. Because while these natural diuretics can be used to relieve occasional symptoms of fluid retention and bloating, maintaining an appropriate water balance in the body is a very important part of the puzzle.

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