Truth About Water Pills

This article was originally featured on the ShareCare site, which Dr. Brengman contributes to.

When it comes to weight loss, many people turn to diuretics, or water pills, for quick results. They buy them at the nearest drug store, order them online or in some cases, even take someone else’s prescription.

According to bariatric surgeon, Matthew Brengman, MD, of Advanced Surgical Partners of Virginia and HCA Virginia, diuretics are any type of medication, prescription or over-the-counter, that forces the body to get rid of fluids it wouldn’t otherwise do on its own. Seeing that lower number on the scale from losing water weight is appealing, and that’s what makes them so tempting to people trying to lose a few pounds fast.

But is using a diuretic really the best way to slip back into those skinny jeans? Read on as Dr. Brengman helps sort out fact from fiction.

Myth: Taking water pills for weight loss is completely safe.
Fact: Whether they’re prescription or the kind you buy at the drug store, water pills are not explicitly safe. And taking them without the guidance and supervision of your physician can dangerously alter your body chemistry.
What Dr. Brengman says: “The first thing is that you shouldn’t be taking someone else’s water pills, and they aren’t safe to take without the care of the doctor. Secondly, when you take a water pill and it causes you to urinate out the fluid in your body, it’s not just water. The fluid also contains important electrolytes like sodium and potassium. So unless you’re being monitored for those electrolytes and having replacement if necessary, it’s very easy to get your body chemistry out of whack. Electrolyte imbalance can cause a whole set of complications that can be life threatening. You have to be very careful when you start messing around with your body’s mechanisms of retaining water.”

Myth: Over-the-counter water pills are the same as what you’d get from your doctor.
Fact:  Diuretics from the drug store are different than the medications that a doctor would prescribe. Prescription water pills are much more potent than their OTC counterparts and should only be used for the conditions they’re meant to treat.
What Dr. Brengman says: “Water pills come in different varieties and some are prescription medications. Like all other prescription medications, they are given by a physician for a specific illness or disorder – most commonly, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. Obesity is not one of the conditions that we generally treat with water pills. Over-the-counter water pills are mostly caffeine or herbal remedies. Caffeine by itself is a very weak diuretic, and herbal remedies are unregulated and can have dangerous interactions with other medications.”

Myth: Water pills are a good option for permanent weight loss.
Fact: Unfortunately, while taking a water pill may move the needle on the scale, the effect won’t last.
What Dr. Brengman says: “Losing water weight is not the same thing as losing weight. Just because we lower the number on the scale by three or four pounds, that doesn’t mean we’ll see the health benefits of losing weight because we haven’t altered the amount of fat in the body. When people are looking to lose weight to be healthier – to treat their diabetes or high blood pressure or cholesterol, water pills aren’t going to affect any of those things. It’s not true weight loss, and its effects are temporary.”

Myth: Water pills won’t interact with other medications.
Fact: Water pills can alter the way other medications work in your body, which can cause harmful and dangerous side effects.
What Dr. Brengman says: “Water pills can interact with other medications, especially heart medicines. Heart medications affect our blood chemistry, and when you alter the blood chemistry by taking a water pill, you can alter the effects of these medications. Other medicines are also eliminated from your body by urinating them out, and if you are causing the body to urinate more, the level of the medicine in the blood can get low, and that can affect the underlying disease that’s being treated.”

The bottom line?

“While it’s tempting to take that pill to fit into the dress that’s one size smaller, or the pants that are one size smaller, it’s probably not worth the risk of the side effects that can occur,” says Brengman.

For healthy weight loss that lasts, talk to your doctor about starting a program that focuses on eating well and exercising. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to lose one or two pounds a week, you’d need to cut out 500-1,000 calories per day from your diet. And to maintain that healthy weight, they recommend being physically active most days of the week for about 60-90 minutes.

The important thing to remember is that true weight loss is about committing yourself to a healthier lifestyle, not popping a (sometimes dangerous) quick fix.

If you would like to speak with Dr. Brengman, please send him a note here.

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