Hidden Causes of Weight Gain
Are your clothes getting tighter and you don’t know why?
Here are some possible reasons.
By Linda Melone
After overeating on vacation or during the holidays, it’s no surprise to step on the scale and find you’ve gained weight. But sometimes the scale creeps up without any obvious reason. Lost sleep, undiagnosed health issues and even allergies may be responsible for those additional pounds. The following are some likely explanations for unexpected weight gain.
Failure to get enough sleep has been linked to many health problems, including obesity. A review published in the journal Sleep (5/08) found that getting less than five hours of sleep per night for adults (10 hours for children) increases obesity risk by up to 80%.
“Hormones are certainly one part of the puzzle, with leptin and ghrelin as key components,” says Allen Towfigh, MD, a board-certified sleep medicine specialist affiliated with Weill Cornell Medical Center/New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. A hormone released by the GI tract, ghrelin stimulates feelings of hunger. Ghrelin levels increase when you’re sleep deprived, says Towfigh. Meanwhile, leptin is released by fat cells and signals our bodies to stop eating. This hormone becomes suppressed when someone is short on sleep. “Anyone who has experienced the all-too-familiar cravings for a midnight snack has seen this biology in action,” says Towfigh. He adds
that sleep deprivation can also lead to poor decision-making, such as having a cookie instead of an apple when you’re hungry.
If you need an alarm clock to wake up in the morning, hit the snooze button often, feel tired in the mornings or fall asleep unintentionally throughout the day, Towfigh says you probably need more sleep. One solution is to set an alarm for the evening as a bedtime reminder and another alarm for the morning. “If you still feel tired in the mornings, push up your bedtime by 15- or 30-minute increments,” he suggests. If you work at night, plan a nap during the day when you can (and pack a healthy snack for work).
Not sure how much sleep you need? Add up how many hours of sleep you get over 14 consecutive days (including any naps) and divide by 14; that should give you good idea of how much shuteye your body requires.
Diet is another sleep factor. Almonds, whole grains, pumpkin seeds, turkey and cheddar cheese contain compounds that foster sleepiness; snacks such as cheese on whole wheat bread eaten just before bedtime may help. A diet with plenty of produce supplies sleep-critical nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium and vitamin D. And three supplements used in tandem—lactium, melatonin and 5-HTP—provide additional sleep support.
Intolerance and sensitivities to certain foods, along with food allergies, can cause intestinal discomfort as well as unwanted weight gain. “Lactose intolerance often contributes to bloating,” says Clifford Bassett, MD, allergist and fellow of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (www.acaai.org). People with lactose intolerance are unable to fully digest the milk sugar (lactose) in dairy products due to deficiency of lactase, the enzyme responsible for lactose digestion. This results in gas and bloating.
“Lactose intolerance is the most common food intolerance, along with gluten and wheat intolerance,” says Bassett. Bloating symptoms more likely relate to an ‘intolerance’ versus a full-blown allergy. Food allergies differ from intolerances or sensitivities in that allergies create an immune-system reaction in response to food; sensitivities to food do not. For people without allergies, food is simply eaten and processed. When you have a food allergy the body perceives food as an infection or an invader, and produces chemicals such as histamines to fight it off. Hives, itchy skin and even death can result. “The body reacts to something it doesn’t normally react to,” says Bassett.
In addition to gluten, a known troublemaker, wheat contains components that can induce weight gain. Amylopectin-A is a protein that rapidly converts to blood sugar, creating a hormonal imbalance that increases both appetite and unhealthy abdominal fat. Another wheat protein, gliadin, also stimulates appetite. Avoiding wheat altogether may help you manage your weight more easily.
Although it’s more of a digestive than an allergy issue, the bacteria Helicobacter pylori can also cause abdominal pain, bloating and fullness. H. pylori is also the number one cause of gastric cancer worldwide. A simple breath test can determine its presence.
See your primary care practitioner or an allergist if you suspect a food sensitivity or allergy, suggests Bassett. Supplements that promote overall digestive well-being include beneficial probiotic microbes and short-chain fatty acids, which promote proper microbial health, as well as enzymes taken from sources such as papaya and pineapple.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
An imbalance in sex hormones, menstrual cycle changes, trouble getting pregnant and difficulty losing weight are signs of a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), in which cysts develop in the ovaries. “The cause is not very well understood,” says Christine O’Connor, MD, gynecologist with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. “It includes a spectrum of symptoms that can range from mild to severe.”
The symptoms of PCOS mimic those of several other conditions, including problems with the adrenal, pituitary or thyroid glands. That makes getting a definitive diagnosis crucial; find an endocrinologist who specializes in this disorder.
Difficulty losing weight and keeping it off is a major PCOS symptom. While medication is often required, exercising and dietary changes can help resolve some of the problems associated with PCOS. O’Connor suggests avoiding concentrated sweets and high carbs, and keeping portions under control. “Lifestyle changes can keep PCOS symptoms under control, but know that they can still crop up over time,” O’Connor says.
Women with PCOS typically have a horrible time with belly fat, says Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN nurse practitioner and author of Is It Me Or My Hormones? (Hay House). Pick recommends including protein at every meal to curb appetite. Cutting back on carbs also helps; Pick suggests limiting carbs to 16 grams per meal and 7 grams per snack. “You can have a third of a cup of pasta, for example,” says Pick, who adds that when you cut back on carbs you’re cutting back on sugar, which stabilizes blood sugar and keeps hunger in check.
Chromium taken prior to a meal may help stabilize blood sugar, as may cinnamon, which has been found to reduce the insulin problems associated with PCOS. And omega-3 fatty acids have helped clear liver fat in women with this disorder.
The thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland located in the neck above the collarbone, controls the rate of metabolism, including heartbeat and how fast you burn calories. Unexplained weight gain can be a sign the thyroid gland may not be functioning normally. Called hypothyroidism, a reduction in thyroid gland activity slows metabolism.
About 5% of the US population over age 12 has hypothyroidism, according to the National Institutes of Health. “Weight gain and feeling tired all the time are symptoms it may not be working up to par, especially after menopause,” says Sherry Thomas, MD, urogynecologist and surgeon at Mission Community Hospital in Panorama City, California.
A family history of thyroid disease, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, and a diet deficient in iodine, increase the risk of hypothyroidism. “People who do not eat iodized salt cannot make enough thyroid hormone,” says Thomas. Getting enough iodine was not a concern until recently, as many people have switched to different forms of non-iodized salt, Thomas says. In addition to weight gain from an underactive metabolism, a deficiency of iodine can result in a goiter, an abnormal enlargement of the thyroid.
Thomas recommends people over 50 have their thyroid hormone levels checked once a year. Foods containing iodine include cheese, cow’s milk, eggs, frozen yogurt, ice cream and iodine-containing multivitamins.
If your thyroid is found wanting, work with a trained practitioner to develop a suitable treatment program. Minerals such as magnesium, selenium and zinc, along with vitamins A and B, provide a solid base.
The body’s reaction to stress may also contribute to unexplained weight gain. Chronic stress can lead to increased appetite, especially a craving for sweets, in response to increased levels of cortisol, a hormone that plays a role in insulin release and the maintenance of blood sugar levels and how fat is stored. During times of stress, excess cortisol may be released and increase fat storage around the midsection. This abdominal fat has been associated with a higher risk of developing heart disease and increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day. That’s why many complementary practitioners recommend testing saliva samples several times a day versus a one-shot blood test to get a better picture of your cortisol situation.
Exercise is a tried-and-true stress reduction method, and the best exercise, especially for beginners, is walking. Start with some light stretching and an easy pace, and then step it up to a brisk walk. “You should be walking at a pace so intense that it is difficult to carry on a conversation,” says Dee McCaffrey, CDC, nutritionist and author of The Science of Skinny (Da Capo). “The distance you walk is not as important as the length of time.” She recommends starting at 25 minutes (remember to include a short cooldown period towards the end) and working your way up to 30 then 60 minutes a walk. Practices such as meditation, journaling and prayer also help reduce stress levels.
Herbs known as adaptogens, such as ashwagandha, eleuthero and rhodiola, are used in traditional medicine systems around the world for their ability to help the body adapt to both physical and psychological stress; all support healthy hormonal balance. Nutritional weapons in the war on stress include the vitamin B complex, known as the “stress vitamins,” and vitamin C for adrenal support. Some practitioners recommend branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) to counteract cortisol and build muscle.
If you have gained weight unexpectedly, it’s time to look beyond your diet at other possible causes. Addressing problems such as too little sleep and too much stress, as well as hidden disorders such as an underperforming thyroid, can go a long way in helping you trim unwanted pounds.
Depression and Weight
Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place: Both depression and some of the prescription medications used to treat it can lead to weight gain.
Up to 25% of people who take antidepressants—including medications in the widely prescribed SSRI class, such as Prozac—gain 10 or more pounds, particularly when the drugs are taken for six months or longer. Researchers aren’t sure why this happens; it is possible that both metabolism and appetite are affected. In some cases, people may consume more as the depression lifts and they rediscover things that produce pleasure, such as eating.
In the case of depression itself, the connection isn’t quite as clear; some people lose interest in food and actually lose weight. But some studies have found that being depressed increases the risk of becoming obese, especially among adolescent girls. And as in the case of stress, depression is linked to imbalances in cortisol and its accompanying increase in fat storage.
There are ways to help lift depression naturally. In addition to increasing your fitness level, exercise can elevate your mood as well. A diet based on whole grains, fresh produce and fish supplies key brain-health nutrients. These include calcium, chromium, iron, magnesium, omega-3 fatty
acids, the amino acid tryptophan, vitamin D and vitamins B1, B3 and B6 (and the B vitamin folate).
In addition to long-time complementary medicine standbys such as St. John’s wort and SAM-e, researchers have also discovered that the corn-leaf extract 6-MBOA, available as Maizinol, promotes healthy balances of the brain chemicals that control mood, especially when combined the zinc, vitamins B6 and B12, the herbal remedies rhodiola, velvet bean and green tea compound L-theanine, and the amino acids L-tryrosine and cysteine (available in supplement form as NAC) along with 5-HTP, a form of tryptophan. (Consult a healthcare professional if you are currently taking prescription medication; seek help immediately if you are having suicidal thoughts.)