Gee, That’s Swell: The Solution to Swollen Feet

Beat the Heat and Check Your Feet

It’s been said by fans of summer that “Life is better in flip-flops,” and you have to admit there’s nothing quite like the feel of warm sea water washing over your toes or a cool breeze caressing your feet on a hot day. If there’s any part of your body that deserves a vacation this summer, it’s your hardworking feet. So while you’re flip-flopping around and enjoying all the sensations that summer has to offer this year, take the opportunity to assess the health of your lower extremities.

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It’s always a good idea to check for typical foot issues such as blisters, corns, calluses, ingrown toenails or toenail fungus, and wounds that aren’t healing properly (the latter can indicate type 2 diabetes). Specifically, however, we want you to check for signs of swelling in your feet and ankles. If your skin appears shiny and tightly-stretched, you may be experiencing edema, the medical term for swelling. Can’t tell? Try pressing your thumb gently against your skin for 15 seconds and then letting go. If your thumb leaves an indentation, you’re probably swollen.

Sodium, Salt, and Swelling

There are many potential causes of foot and ankle swelling, and some are far more serious than others, so it’s important that you see a doctor as soon as possible after you’ve identified swelling in your own feet. That being said, the most common cause of edema is too much sodium in the bloodstream—a severe and widespread problem that’s nonetheless solvable.

Sodium’s purpose in the body is to help maintain blood volume and blood pressure by regulating how much water the body takes in and holds on to. An excess of sodium causes the body to retain more water than usual, which causes tissues in the legs and feet to swell. Extra fluid in the body also causes blood volume to increase, which raises blood pressure by making the heart work harder.  

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It looks so innocent… but it’s a killer!

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend a daily intake of only 2,300 mg of sodium, and the American Heart Association recommends even less: 1,500 mg for optimum heart health, especially for seniors, African Americans, and anyone with a chronic illness like diabetes or high blood pressure. However, according to the CDC, the average American consumes at least 3,300 mg of sodium per day—and that’s not even counting salt added to food after it’s been prepared.

Obviously sodium doesn’t just come from added salt. The AHA estimates that 75% of the sodium we consume comes from foods served in restaurants and the processed foods that make up such a big part of the typical American diet. In fact, the most common sources of sodium include breads and rolls, cheese, lunch meat, pizza, soup, snack foods, and fast food meals.

As you can see, simply taking the salt shaker off the table won’t reduce your sodium intake enough to stop your feet from swelling (although it’s definitely a step in the right direction). So how can you fix your poor, puffy feet and ankles?

A “Swell” Solution

Cutting back on sodium doesn’t have to be hard, and it doesn’t mean your food now has to be totally bland, but it does mean making a change in the way you approach food selection and preparation. Fortunately, your “salt tooth” will go away in time as your body adjusts to new, lower levels of dietary salt and sodium.

Here at 2YourHealth, we’ve covered easy ways to begin a low-sodium diet in a previous blog post (see “Shake It Up: 7 Delicious Ways to Replace Salt and Sodium”). Want to know even more? Check out this ultimate in-depth, step-by-step guide to going low-sodium from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which includes information about how to interpret sodium-related food labels and how to choose the right foods to treat edema.

In addition to consuming less sodium, you may find it helpful to consume more potassium. Potassium helps conduct electricity in the body to power smooth muscle contraction, enabling the heart to beat and the digestive tract to function. It also relaxes blood vessels, decreasing blood pressure and easing the heart’s workload, and helps the body eliminate excess sodium via urine.

If your ankles and feet are swollen and you typically have high blood pressure, a potassium-rich diet may prove beneficial. Good sources of potassium include bananas, citrus juices, avocados, tomatoes, and potatoes. Too much potassium may be harmful to those with chronic kidney disease or taking certain medications, so talk to your doctor first before changing your diet.

Suddenly, This Summer

If you happen to notice one summer day that your flip-flops don’t quite fit, don’t let yourself panic. The good news is that, even if they are an indicator of something serious like kidney disease or congestive heart failure, swollen feet are usually a very early indicator—meaning that once you notice them, you’ve still got time to take action and potentially turn things around. Just be aware that it’s important to take the health of your feet as seriously as you would take the health of the rest of your body.

We here at 2YourHealth sincerely hope your summer is long and pleasant, and that you get the chance to find out if life really is better in flip-flops. Have a wonderful week, and join us next time for more helpful, healthful information!

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Author: Carla Spencer

Carla Spencer is a Registered Dietitian and founder of 2 Your Health. Her extensive career working with individuals with health challenges led her to create this site dedicated to helping people enjoy their lives while working to prevent or minimize the impact of kidney disease.

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