5 Medical Issues That Can Cause Weight Gain

Elizabeth Millard
by Elizabeth Millard
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5 Medical Issues That Can Cause Weight Gain

As everyone who’s worked to lose weight knows, it can take a while to see momentum, particularly if you’re making sure to lose at a steady pace. But what about if you feel stuck in the same place, no matter how much food and exercise tracking you do?

Or even more frustrating, you might be gaining weight when your goal is to head in the opposite direction.

In some cases, it’s not your strategy that’s the culprit — weight gain may actually be a symptom of a larger issue. Here are five top conditions that tend to cause weight gain, along with tips on next steps.

ADRENAL FATIGUE

As part of the endocrine system, your body has two adrenal glands near the top of each kidney, and they secrete hormones that help control heart rate, blood pressure and corticosteroids.

When they’re not working well, that can create an imbalance that may lead to adrenal insufficiency. Subsequently, this leaves you feeling depleted and at greater risk for fibromyalgia, says Dr. Luiza Petre, an assistant clinical professor of cardiology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

“For some people, this can lead to sudden weight loss, while for others, it might go in the other direction,” she says. Not only is your metabolism potentially affected, but you may find yourself craving more sugary or comforting food that can speed up weight gain.

CUSHING’S SYNDROME

Stress is often linked to weight gain because the surge in cortisol — the hormone related to your “fight-or-flight” response — tends to cause fat storage, particularly in the belly. When this situation becomes particularly chronic, it can cause the body to overproduce cortisol even when stressful events have passed.

That can lead to Cushing’s syndrome when the body can’t seem to downregulate cortisol production. The issue can also result from taking certain drugs like glucocorticoids, often used to treat conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and asthma.

DEPRESSION

When dealing with depression, there are two main factors that can raise the risk of weight gain. One is that emotional eating is more likely, according to a study that looked at long-term weight changes for those with depression. This might be accompanied by being more sedentary as well.

The other is that the most-prescribed medications for the condition are notorious for having weight gain as a side effect. This includes serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Celexa, Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil.

HYPOTHYROIDISM

When there’s significant weight gain or loss, especially within a short timeframe, one of the first conditions considered is thyroid disorder. With hypothyroidism, when your thyroid gland isn’t producing hormones, weight gain can be a symptom along with fatigue, mood swings, feeling cold and having stiff joints.

“This condition can slow your metabolism, and that often results in weight gain,” says Dr. Benjamin O’Donnell, an endocrinologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Often, people might feel stressed or frustrated by that, which can worsen the problem.”

POLYCYSTIC OVARY SYNDROME

Known as PCOS, this condition affects how the ovaries work, according to Dr. Sherry Ross, an OB/GYN at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. Although it can cause loss of periods or irregular cycles, it can also lead to heavy flow due to hormonal shifts, and can be exacerbated by weight gain.

With PCOS, women can have insulin resistance, leading them to put on weight in the abdomen. This can be exacerbated by the overproduction of androgen, a male hormone connected to weight in the midsection.

In addition to weight, Ross says common symptoms include excess body hair, missed or irregular periods, oily skin or acne, and dark patches of skin on the back of the neck, in the armpits, and under the breasts.

NEXT STEPS

Even if you don’t have concerns about any of the conditions on your list, there are others that might be in play. For example, bloating may be caused by a breadth of potential issues, from irritable bowel syndrome to ovarian cancer to kidney disease. Even lack of sleep, stress and poor liver function could be factors.

Dr. Michelle Ogunwole, a specialist in internal medicine and research fellow at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, suggests making a list of symptoms, including weight fluctuations, water retention or bloating, headaches, energy levels, food changes and allergies. It’s also important to jot down your medications — both prescription and over-the-counter — because some of them can play an outsized role in weight gain.

“Coming to a doctor’s appointment with as much information as possible is always very helpful, because it helps to identify trends, and that can narrow down what’s going on,” she says. “It’s a great first step in taking charge of your health and being an active member of your healthcare team.”

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About the Author

Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard

Elizabeth is a freelance journalist specializing in health and fitness, as well as an ACE certified personal trainer and Yoga Alliance registered yoga teacher. Her work has appeared in SELF, Runner’s World, Women’s Health and CNN.

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