If you’ve ever noticed slight weight gain after a long vacation or holiday season, or a sudden drop in weight after an illness, you’ve experienced unintentional weight loss fluctuations. But if you can’t point to something that may have caused the changes, a sudden unexpected change in weight can be very scary–especially if you’re not trying to drop pounds and the scale is dipping lower and lower.
It is normal for weight to fluctuate, typically between five to 10 pounds, and can be due to how much you’re eating, drinking, and moving in a given time period.
But any more than that, and you haven’t changed your diet, it could be a sign of something bigger.
If you drop at least five percent of your body weight in less than six months—and you can’t pinpoint a good explanation for that weight loss—it’s time to let your doctor know what’s up. That means if you’re 150 pounds, a weight fluctuation of about seven or eight pounds in a short amount of time should be a red flag.
CAUSES OF UNEXPLAINED WEIGHT LOSS
Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland produces more hormones than the body requires. People sometimes refer to this condition as an overactive thyroid.
The thyroid produces certain hormones that regulate the body’s metabolism, so an excess of these hormones often causes the body to burn more energy than usual. Burning more energy and calories can lead to unintentional or unexplained weight loss.
Other symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:
- tremor with shaking hands
- muscle weakness
- difficulty sleeping
- rapid heartbeat
- changes in mood, such as an increase in irritability or nervousness
- a swelling in the neck, called goiter
The symptoms of depression can also cause weight loss.In a 2017 prospective , researchers examined the causes of unexplained weight loss in 2,677 adults. They identified depression as the underlying cause in 7% of the participants.
According to the researchers behind a 2016 studyTrusted Source, there is evidence to suggest that people with depression may have associated suppressed interplay among the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands, which may affect the function of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Changes to the hypothalamus and pituitary gland can also affect the adrenal glands, which produce multiple hormones. These hormones include cortisol, which helps regulate blood pressure, blood glucose level, and metabolism.
Other symptoms of depression include:
- persistent or recurring feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or apathy
- changes in appetite, such as eating more or less than usual
- unintentional weight loss or weight gain
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that makes your immune system attack the lining of your joints, leading to inflammation. Chronic inflammation can speed up metabolism and reduce overall weight.
Symptoms of RA include joint swelling and pain. It usually affects the same joints on both sides of your body. If you have RA, your joints might feel stiff if you don’t move for an hour or more.
The exact cause of RA is unknown. It may be linked to:
- hormonal changes
- secondhand smoking
Treatment of RA typically begins with medication. Medications include disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs, corticosteroids, biologics, and Janus associated kinase inhibitors.
Another cause of unwanted weight loss is type 1 diabetes. If you have type 1 diabetes, your immune system attacks cells in your pancreas that make insulin. Without insulin, your body can’t use glucose for energy. This causes high blood glucose.
Your kidneys remove unused glucose through urine. As sugar leaves your body, so do calories.
Type 1 diabetes also causes:
- frequent urination
- blurry vision
- excessive thirst
- excessive hunger
Treatment of type 1 diabetes includes insulin, blood sugar monitoring, diet modifications, and exercise.
Celiac disease—an autoimmune disorder in which ingesting gluten causes damage to the small intestine—can lead to a drop in weight, and tends to be accompanied by other GI symptoms like bloating and diarrhea.
Why? If you have celiac disease and eat gluten, your immune system freaks out a bit. This reaction can mess with the lining of your small intestine, hampering its ability to help you absorb nutrients properly. Inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease can also result in unexplained weight loss due to malabsorption as well.
Problems with your pancreas, which produces enzymes that aid in digestion, can also lead to unexplained weight loss. People with chronic pancreatitis—a disease in which the pancreas becomes inflamed—tend to lose weight quickly (even if they are eating normally) because the body simply doesn’t produce enough enzymes for proper digestion of food to occur, according to The National Pancreas Foundation. Look for symptoms like stomach pain, discolored (or oily) poop, diarrhea, or nausea after eating fatty foods.
Unexplained weight loss has many potential underlying causes, which range from inflammatory conditions to psychological disorders.
People can help their doctor identify the exact cause by recording any additional symptoms that they are having.