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Weight Gain: Symptoms, Causes, and When To See Your Doctor

Metabolic weight gain can occur naturally, oftentimes because of hormonal changes, but there are also reasons that can cause unintentional weight gain that you should be concerned about. Here are tips on what to look for and when to see a doctor.

7 minute read

Last Updated September 20, 2021

Weight Gain: Symptoms, Causes, and When To See Your Doctor

When you put on weight without trying, this is said to be unintentional weight gain. This type of weight gain occurs without eating or drinking more than usual, so there appears to be no obvious reason for the extra weight. 

It can be periodic, where weight fluctuates such as during a menstrual cycle. It can also be continuous or rapid, which is typical of the use of some medications. Unintentional weight gain is typically harmless, but if additional symptoms are present, it could signal an underlying health condition.

Symptoms of Unintentional Weight Gain

Unintentional weight gain is a symptom of health conditions, but it also comes with other symptoms such as abdominal pain and bloating. Weight gain, along with any of the symptoms below, is cause for concern and immediate medical attention.

♦ Fever
♦ Skin sensitivity
Heart palpitations
♦ Shortness of breath
♦ Changes in vision
♦ Sweating

Causes of Unintentional Weight Gain

The common causes of weight gain not related to a medical condition include:

Hormonal changes: Your menstrual cycle, as well as menopause, are both centered on hormonal changes, and these can trigger unintentional weight gain. Drops in estrogen are specifically responsible for excess weight, especially around the abdomen and hips. Hormone changes also slow your metabolism, which causes weight gain too. 

Pregnancy: Women not only put on weight as the baby grows during pregnancy, but they also eat more during this period. Depending on how much additional weight is gained, it can be lost after the birth of the baby with a healthy diet and exercise. 

Medications: Certain drugs can cause weight gain, such as corticosteroids, antidepressants, birth control pills, and antipsychotic drugs. 

Slowed metabolism associated with aging: As you get older, your metabolism starts to slow down, which means it is easier to gain weight. As you get older, you should monitor your food carefully, and reduce your caloric intake to match your activity to avoid putting on unnecessary weight. 

Being less physically active: When you live a sedentary life and are less physically active, you are more likely to gain weight. Even with a balanced diet, your body still requires exercise to maintain a healthy metabolism. Without this, your body will store more fat, and you will put on weight. 

♦ Fluid retention: Fluid retention causes swelling (edema), which causes your limbs, face, and abdomen to look bigger than normal. Fluid retention is usually the result of an underlying condition such as liver or kidney disease. 

Lack of sleep: This causes inflammation and excess cortisol levels. As a result, your body stores fat and you put on weight. The hormones that control hunger suppression are reduced when you are sleep deprived, and this causes you to eat more and gain weight.

There are also medical conditions that are associated with unintentional weight gain that require medical attention.

Anxiety (high stress): Anxiety causes the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Elevated levels of this hormone, as a result of chronic stress (anxiety), cause fat to build up around the stomach. This additional fat causes weight gain. Some people who are anxious also eat more when they are feeling stressed. 

Hypothyroidism: Hypothyroidism is an underactive thyroid. This gland is responsible for releasing hormones, and when the gland is underactive, metabolism slows down. Slower metabolism causes weight gain as food is not processed into energy as quickly as you are consuming it. 

Cushing’s syndrome: When your body produces too much cortisol over an extended period of time, Cushing’s disease develops. This condition develops as a result of a trigger or stressful event. It is also a common side effect of glucocorticoids, which is medication taken for rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus, and asthma. Weight gain will be noticeable in the abdomen, face and neck, and upper back.

Hyperaldosteronism: This disease causes your thyroid gland to make too much aldosterone, which causes high blood pressure. This condition is more common among individuals who are overweight or obese.

Kidney disease: When your kidneys are damaged or diseased, they cannot function efficiently, and the body may retain fluids. This contributes to weight gain because waste and fluids are not excreted as they should be. Swelling occurs in the feet and legs, and you will be fatigued and have a loss of appetite. 

Liver disease: Liver disease, or cirrhosis, is a condition marked by excessive scarring of liver tissue. As scar tissue replaces liver tissue, it causes fluid to build up around the abdomen, causing your stomach to look bigger and weight gain. 

Heart failure: Heart failure is characterized by an inability for the heart to pump blood efficiently. Swelling in different areas around the body can occur as a result of fluid retention, and you can also gain weight. Gaining five pounds in a week, along with noticeable swelling, could be a sign of heart failure.

Polycystic ovarian syndrome: This condition causes the ovaries to produce excessively high levels of male sex hormones, and as a result, weight is easily gained around the middle. There is no cure for this, but there are lifestyle changes you can try to reduce symptoms. 

When to See Your Doctor

If you notice that you are gaining weight rapidly without any obvious reason, you need to see your doctor. It is also important to seek medical attention if other symptoms, such as chest pain or shortness of breath, are also occurring. 

Some cases of weight gain are temporary or fluctuate, but others are more serious as they persist. Unintentional weight gain can be treated once a diagnosis of the cause has been made. With treatment and lifestyle changes, you can reduce your weight and maintain a healthier weight moving forward.