What causes unintentional weight gain? 19 possible conditions
Unintentional weight gain occurs when you put on weight without increasing your consumption of food or liquid. It is often caused by:
- fluid retention
- abnormal growths
Unintentional weight gain can be periodic, continuous, or rapid.
Continuous unintentional weight gain is often the result of pregnancy. Periodic unintentional weight gain includes regular fluctuations in weight like those experienced during a woman’s menstrual cycle. However, rapid unintentional weight gain usually indicates a serious medical condition. Rapid unintentional weight gain may also be caused by medication side effects.
Although many cases of unintentional weight gain are harmless, the symptoms experienced in conjunction with rapid weight gain may signal a medical emergency.
The most common cause of unintentional weight gain is pregnancy. During pregnancy, most women put on weight as the baby grows. This extra weight consists of:
- the baby
- amniotic fluid
- increased blood supply
- enlarging uterus
Between the ages of 45 to 55, women enter a non-fertile stage called menopause. During a woman’s reproductive years, estrogen—the hormone responsible for menstruation and ovulation—begins to decline. Once menopause occurs, estrogen is so low that it isn’t sufficient to induce menstruation. A decrease in estrogen can cause women in menopause to experience weight gain around the abdominal region and the hips.
Aside from the hormonal changes of menopause, women diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) may also experience weight gain.
Other, additional medical conditions affecting the hormones can cause weight gain in both genders. They include:
- Cushing syndrome
- increased cortisol (stress hormone) production
Hormonal changes in your middle years can cause your metabolism to slow down, causing weight gain.
Unintentional weight gain can also be cause by certain medications, including:
- anti-psychotic medications
- birth control pills
Periodic weight gain is often caused by the menstrual cycle. Women may experience water retention and bloating around the time of their period. Changing levels in estrogen and progesterone may cause some women to gain weight. Normally, this is a weight increase of just a few pounds.
This form of weight gain subsides when the menstrual period ends for the month. However, it often reappears the next month when the menstrual period starts again, and sometimes during ovulation.
Unexplained rapid weight gain may be caused by fluid retention. Fluid retention is also referred to as edema. It causes your limbs, hands, feet, face, or abdomen to look swollen. People with heart failure, kidney failure, or those taking certain medications may experience this type of weight gain. Rapid weight gain and fluid retention should always be reported to your doctor even if no other symptoms are present.
Depending on the cause, symptoms of unintentional weight gain can differ from person to person. Symptoms often associated with this type of weight gain include:
- abdominal discomfort
- abdominal pain
- flatulence (gas)
- visible swelling in the abdomen or other areas of the body
- swollen extremities (arms, legs, feet, hands)
If you experience any of the following serious symptoms, seek medical care immediately:
- skin sensitivity
- shortness of breath
- difficulty breathing
- swollen feet
- heart palpitations
- changes in vision
- rapid weight gain
Your doctor will ask several questions regarding your symptoms, lifestyle, and medical history to pinpoint what might be causing your weight gain. Your doctor also may take a blood sample to test for the presence of infection. He or she will also likely check your blood for hormone levels.
An imaging test such as an ultrasound, X-ray, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), or CT scan (computed tomography scan) may be necessary. These tests help to determine whether a fracture, abnormal growth, rupture, or inflammation is to blame.
There are several ways to treat unintentional weight gain. The best method of treatment for you depends on what caused the unintentional weight gain.
If a hormonal imbalance is to blame, your doctor may prescribe medication to balance your hormone levels. The type used depends on which hormones are affected. These medications are often used long-term.
If medication is causing the problem, your doctor will possibly recommend alternative treatments.
In severe cases, when organ failure is to blame, you may need an organ transplant. Here, a surgeon removes the affected organ and replaces it with a donor organ. After having the transplant, you’ll have to take medications to keep your body from rejecting the donor organ. Swelling and unexplained weight gain are signs that your body may be rejecting the organ.
In some cases, other surgeries may be necessary. Cysts, tumors, ruptures, and fractures may all require surgery for repair or removal. The type of surgery needed depends on the nature of the condition.
- Fluid Retention. (n.d.). Better Health Channel. Retrieved July 3, 2012, from http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Fluid_retention
- Heart Failure. (December 23, 2011). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 3, 2012, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/heart-failure/ds00061/dsection=symptoms
- Menopause Weight Gain: Stop the Middle-Age Spread. (September 11, 2010). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 3, 2012, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/menopause-weight-gain/HQ01076
- Oedema. (n.d.). National Health Services. July 3, 2012, from http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Oedema/Pages/Introduction.aspx
- Ovarian Cysts Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Womenshealth.gov. Retrieved July 3, 2012, from http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/ovarian-cysts.cfm
- Unintentional Weight Gain. (n.d.). Tufts University. Retrieved July 3, 2012, from http://www.tufts.edu/med/nutrition-infection/hiv/health_weight_gain.html
- Water Retention: Relieve This Premenstrual Symptom. (November 12, 2011). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 3, 2012, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/water-retention/WO00130
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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