Sudden and unexpected changes in the body such as unintentional weight gain can be alarming. But rather than launch into the latest weight-loss diet trend, it’s important to understand the underlying causes of the weight gain.
Sudden weight gain can be caused by lifestyle circumstances, such as stress or lack of sleep, or it may occur as the natural result of a life stage, such as pregnancy or aging. It may also be a medication side effect, or a warning sign of a medical condition caused by imbalanced hormones.
The weight itself may result from increases in muscle, fat, or fluid and may concentrate in different places on the body. It may go away relatively quickly or stick around.
Depending on the cause, putting on weight is not inherently unhealthy, but on the flip side, being overweight does increase the risk of developing many diseases, and rapid weight gain (or any weight gain for that matter) can indicate a health condition that needs attention.
As so often happens with the complex system that is the human body, a change such as sudden weight gain can have multiple, interconnected causes. Understanding the underlying cause of the weight gain will help you decide what kind of treatment, if any, is recommended to lose weight.
Lifestyle Factors in Weight Gain
Lack of sleep: Sleeping less than 7 hours a night can lead to putting on weight. Sleep deprivation causes the body to produce less of the hormone leptin and more of the hormone ghrelin. Leptin is the hormone that tells your body when to stop eating. On the other hand, ghrelin is the hormone that sends the “I’m hungry” message, so it’s no surprise that, when ghrelin increases, you reach for another snack when what you really need is a nap. To make matters worse, sleep deprivation slows down your metabolism, so your body is unable to process calories quickly and efficiently.
Anxiety or depression: People with anxiety or depression are more likely to become obese than people in good mental health. These conditions can result in overeating and unhealthy food choices, as well as a less active lifestyle, all of which can lead to weight gain. Antidepressant medications can also add pounds.
Stress: Long-term stress increases appetite. The body’s biological response to stress is to prepare for physical fight-or-flight situations that would demand high levels of energy―and therefore increased intake of calories. But these days our stress usually comes from situations that don’t actually call for increased physical activity. Consequently, all those extra calories are converted into fat cells that accumulate in the body.
Fluid retention: Sudden weight gain can occur when the body retains extra water. Standing or sitting for long periods of time can lead to fluid retention, as can flying in an airplane. Excess consumption of sodium can also be a cause. Fluid retention often manifests as puffiness in the face or swelling in the legs and ankles. Retained fluid can go away on its own, depending on the cause, but exercise to increase blood circulation can help. Reducing sodium intake may also solve the issue.
Weight Changes at Certain Stages of Life
Menstrual cycle: Weight fluctuations throughout the menstrual cycle are normal for women, caused by natural changes in hormones over the course of the cycle. Fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone can cause fluid retention, leading to as much as several pounds of weight gain. This weight is mostly water and will usually disappear within a few days.
Pregnancy: Pregnant women can expect to gain anywhere from 15 to 40 pounds during pregnancy, depending on their original body weight. An average woman will gain two to four pounds during her first trimester and one pound a week throughout the rest of the pregnancy. Pregnancy weight is important for the health of both mother and baby. Women should not try to lose weight during pregnancy except in rare cases, and then only under a doctor’s supervision.
Aging: Many people experience weight gain as they get older. For women, it’s possible that this weight gain is linked to changing hormone levels, but studies have shown that other factors connected with aging are likely. Both women and men tend to become progressively less active as they age, and, combined with reduced muscle mass, that leads to fewer calories burned.
Earlier in life, women are more likely to gain weight around their hips and thighs. Post-menopause, weight is more likely to develop around the abdomen. Older women are also more likely to gain what is called “visceral fat”― that is, fat that collects around the organs. Visceral fat is not as visible as subcutaneous (just beneath the skin) fat, but it can be more of a health concern. Visceral fat can cause inflammation and insulin resistance, and increase the risk for diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
Medications That Cause Weight Gain
Antidepressants: Depression itself can cause weight gain, but drugs that treat depression may do the same. Antidepressants, including Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, Nardil and Elavil, cause weight gain in up to 25 percent of people who take them, especially long-term. It is not clear whether the drugs themselves cause the weight gain, or if the gain is attributable to recovery from depression and increased appetite. Switching drugs has been shown to help, but the most effective treatment found so far results from lifestyle changes, such as adopting a healthy diet and regular exercise. These alterations help with both the weight and the depression, and they may enable a decrease in the medication that caused the weight gain.
Steroids: Corticosteroids, also known simply as steroids, are anti-inflammatory medications used in a variety of forms to treat conditions varying from asthma to arthritis. They may be inhaled, applied as a topical cream, injected, or taken in pill form, and can be extremely effective in reducing pain and allergic reactions. Many people use corticosteroids without negative side effects, but long-term use sometimes may lead to weight gain.
Other medications: Other medications such as antipsychotic drugs and medications for diabetes and high blood pressure can contribute to weight gain. Some of these drugs can cause weight gain by increasing your appetite, while others affect your metabolism or the way your body processes and stores calories.
Hormones and Weight Gain
Imbalances in various hormones can cause sudden weight gain.
Thyroid: The thyroid gland, a butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck, produces hormones that regulate metabolism, body temperature, and growth and development. Hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid does not produce enough thyroid hormones, can lead to weight gain. Other common symptoms include thinning hair, fatigue, muscle weakness, dry skin, and increased sensitivity to cold.
Cortisol: Overproduction of cortisol, sometimes known as the stress hormone, can lead to weight gain. Cushing’s syndrome, also known as hypercortisolism, is a health condition that can result from long-term exposure to high cortisol levels, either as a side effect of medication or as a hormone imbalance in the body. Weight gain as a result of Cushing’s syndrome is usually from fatty tissues that concentrate around the face, between the shoulders, and around the midsection. Other symptoms include easily bruised and slow-to-heal skin, acne, and pink or purple stretch marks on the thighs or abdomen. Cushing’s syndrome can also cause depression, fatigue, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance, and puts people at increased risk for heart disease, bone loss and diabetes. Cushing’s syndrome can be difficult to diagnose because many of its symptoms are common to other conditions as well.
Estrogen, progesterone and testosterone: Estrogen (oestrogen in British usage), progesterone and testosterone are known as the sex hormones because their primary role in the body is to regulate the reproductive system and reproductive processes. But estrogen, progesterone and testosterone also play a role in metabolism and weight regulation. Imbalances in these hormones can cause weight gain or prevent weight loss.
Although estrogen is associated with women and testosterone with men, women produce some testosterone and men produce some estrogen, and both hormones, in proper ratios, are essential to healthy body function.
Excessive levels of estrogen, also known as estrogen dominance, increase appetite and lead to fluid retention. Weight fluctuation from fluid retention due to change in estrogen levels is a natural part of a woman’s menstrual cycle, but sustained high estrogen levels can lead to more permanent weight gain, as well as increased risk of some cancers.
Low testosterone levels in men are linked with increased body weight, and increased body weight is linked to high estrogen levels. Testosterone can convert into estrogen because of aromatase, an enzyme contained in fat cells. In men, estrogen dominance is often connected with increased fat in the breast area, known as gynecomastia.
Women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) have imbalances in testosterone, estrogen and progesterone that can lead to weight gain, which in turn can lead to insulin resistance and heart disease.
Leptin: Fat cells produce a hormone called leptin. A mentioned earlier, leptin’s main role is to regulate consumption of food by letting the brain know when the body has enough calories stored up. However, both inflammation due to an unhealthy diet and high levels of leptin over an extended period of time can lead to leptin resistance. A leptin-resistant brain fails to get the message to suppress the appetite, and overconsumption of calories continues, leading to an increase in fat cells and more leptin, continuing the cycle of high leptin and leptin resistance.
The Weight Loss Basics: Exercise and Healthy Diet
The basic building blocks for maintaining a healthy weight in every situation are regular exercise and a nutritious diet with an adequate supply of all the vitamins and minerals the body needs to function properly.
Studies show that just 30 minutes of light to moderate exercise at least five days a week is extremely effective in combating metabolic syndrome, a term for the cluster of conditions that increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Exercise can also reduce the risk of some cancers, as well as alleviate depression and boost energy.
If reduced mobility or other circumstances prevent you from taking a walk, playing a sport or going to the gym, you can still take advantage of the health benefits of exercise by moving your body as much as possible throughout the day and avoiding long periods of inactivity.
A healthy diet does not mean following a calorie-counting, restricted-intake “weight loss” program. Research shows that 95 percent of people who follow such diet programs to lose weight end up gaining as much or more weight back in the long term. This is because a sudden reduction in food consumption triggers a starvation response in the body, leading to increased appetite and cravings, and a slowed metabolism that causes the body to burn fewer calories. Abrupt food reduction also triggers a stress response that will increase weight gain in the long term. Weight-loss-focused diets can also lead to eating disorders.
Rather than trying to limit your caloric intake, cut out these bad habits and fill your plate with whole, unprocessed foods such as organic vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and unprocessed meat. Avoid cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, which are added to many processed foods, including breakfast cereals, salad dressings, and snack foods. Especially avoid soft drinks; one study showed that consuming a single 12-ounce soda a day can add up to 15 pounds of weight gain over the course of a year. Calories from sodas and juices are not filling, making calorie overconsumption more likely.
Hormone Treatment for Sudden Weight Gain
If you already eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and minimize stress, but have experienced sudden, unexpected weight gain, you may be experiencing an imbalance of hormones caused either by a medication or a disorder in the body. A blood or urine test can analyze your thyroid, cortisol, testosterone and estrogen levels. Once you and your doctor determine which hormones are at play, bioidentical hormone replacement therapy may be the recommended treatment.
Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy can treat hypothyroidism, PCOS, estrogen dominance, and possibly even Cushing’s syndrome, returning the body to hormonal balance and facilitating weight loss.
BodyLogicMD-affiliated practitioners are skilled at optimizing hormone levels for women in perimenopause, menopause, and any other stage of life, as well as men, who may suffer from the effects of low testosterone, especially in middle age and beyond. Using bioidentical hormone replacement therapy, practitioners within the BodyLogicMD network work to bring your hormones back into balance and reverse bothersome symptoms, such as weight gain, that can take over your life. They also monitor your lipid levels and other markers of heart disease to ensure that your cardiovascular risk remains low.
Contact the BodyLogicMD-affiliated practitioner nearest you to schedule an appointment and learn more about how bioidentical hormone therapy can help reduce your unwanted symptoms.