8 medical conditions that could cause sudden weight gain

Woman's feet on a domestic weight scale and measuring tape around them. [Photo: Standard]
Weight gain can be associated with hormonal conditions, mood disorders, or other physiological factors. A sudden and unexplained weight gain could be your body’s way of signalling an underlying medical issue that needs to be addressed. For the sake of health and long-term well-being, it is important to differentiate between a few harmless extra kilos and a fluctuation that could be hiding a bigger problem. You can only be certain after consulting a healthcare practitioner.

If the weighing scale says your numbers are up but you haven’t changed your eating and exercise habits, you might consider any of the 8 medical conditions:

1.     Hypothyroidism

The American Thyroid Association reveals that one in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime. Hypothyroidism refers to an underactive thyroid. The thyroid controls several body functions and your metabolism is one of them. If you’re not producing enough thyroid hormone your body can’t burn as much energy. Symptoms appear throughout your system. They include: weight gain, exhaustion, drier skin, thinner hair, bloating, muscle weakness, constantly feeling cold, and constipation. Once diagnosis is confirmed a doctor can prescribe an oral replacement for thyroid hormone that can relieve symptoms within weeks.

2.     Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

One in 10 women of childbearing age undergoes PCOS. It is an endocrine disorder characterised by an imbalance in the sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone.  This results in irregular periods, acne and even facial hair growth. The disorder also disrupts the way the body uses insulin — which is the hormone responsible for converting carbohydrates into energy. As a result the sugars and starches you consume are stored as fat instead of energy, thus, weight gain. PCOS has no cure but women who have it can manage their symptoms with lifestyle changes and medication. A doctor’s consultation will help you find an appropriate method.

3. Insomnia

Sleep deprivation can negatively impact both your metabolism and your hunger hormones. Sleeping too little increases ghrelin, the hormone that signals the body that it’s time to eat, while lowering leptin, the hormone that says you are full. The result: increased cravings and snacking to get more energy through the day. Insomnia increases impulsive eating. A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the right amount of sleep could mean consuming up to 10 fewer grams of sugar throughout the day.

4.     Tumours

Weight gain around your belly as opposed to your lower body or other areas can be more dangerous to your health. Large pelvic area tumours like uterine or ovarian tumours can inflate the abdomen the way excess fat does. In some cases they can also be cancerous. In addition to weight gain, symptoms of ovarian or uterine tumours include vaginal bleeding, lower back pain, constipation and painful intercourse. But these signs are common for other conditions as well so it‘s worth confirming with a doctor to rule out any possible complications.

5. Peri menopause and menopause

Perimenopause -the transition period to menopause can start as early as a woman’s mid-thirties, but usually starts in their forties. This period triggers hormones like oestrogen to rise and fall unevenly, which can cue weight gain in some women. Genetics are a good starting point on how your body experiences these changes, so it would be helpful to look into how it affected your mother and other older women in your family. Other signs of perimenopause are mood swings, irregular periods, hot flashes, and changes in libido. Age also contributes to loss of muscle mass and increase in body fat. An Ob-Gyn should be able to talk you through these changes and recommend management options.

6.     Mood disorders

Depression and anxiety can result in fatigue, lack of focus and irritability. Some people cope with anxious or sad feelings by mindlessly munching on food they don’t really need. Additionally chronic stress throws your body into fight-or-flight mode, leading to a surge of adrenaline, as well as a heavy dose of the hormone cortisol –responsible for restoring energy reserves and storing fat.

7. Cushing syndrome

Sometimes tumours on the pituitary or adrenal glands can contribute to a condition known as Cushing’s disease which is characterised by high levels of cortisol in the blood. Taking long term steroids could also result in this disease. Patients with Cushing syndrome will experience rapid weight gain in the face, abdomen and chest. They also display slender arms and legs compared to the heavy weight in the core of the body. Other symptoms include: high blood pressure, mood swings, osteoporosis, discoloured stretch marks, acne, and fragile skin. Depending on the cause, Cushing‘s disease can be treated in a different ways.  

8. New medication

Before starting on any new prescription medication, ask your doctor if weight gain is a possible side effect. Birth control pills may lead to weight gain depending on the brand, dosage, and the person’s hormonal levels. Psychiatric medications, especially for depression and bipolar disorder, have been known to cause weight gain, as they target the brain. Similarly, taking insulin to manage diabetes or medications that treat high blood pressure can also lead to extra kilos, so staying active and sticking to a strict meal plan can help you take insulin without unnecessarily weight gain.

Polycystic ovary syndromeHypothyroidismInsomniaTumoursPeri menopause and menopauseMood disordersCushing syndromeWeigjht gain