15 Signs Your Weight Gain Means Your Health Is in Trouble
Weight gain doesn't just limit your wardrobe and dash your self-esteem—it can be a symptom of some serious health conditions. Here's what to watch for.
Your fat is around the middle
All weight is not created equal—and if you have belly fat or a “spare tire,” it could be a marker for cardiovascular problems. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2016 found that the more abdominal weight, the greater the risk of heart disease. “Fat cells in the abdomen are associated with worsening insulin resistance, which in turn is associated with high blood pressure, higher cholesterol, and higher risk for type 2 diabetes mellitus,” says UPMC endocrinologist and internist Jason Ng, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. “All of these risk factors increase the risk of heart disease.” Try these home remedies to help you lose belly fat.
You eat lots of sweets
Some research suggests that sugar intake itself actually triggers diabetes—but eating too many sweets definitely causes weight gain, a major risk factor for the disease. “Approximately 90 percent of type 2 diabetes patients are overweight or obese,” says Mohammad Kawji, MD, doctor of endocrinology and metabolism disorders at Spectrum Health. “Weight gain is associated with metabolic changes, mainly insulin resistance, which increases the risk to develop diabetes in the future.” As the pancreas has to secrete more insulin to balance blood sugar, it eventually fails, blood sugar rises, and diabetes develops. A simple blood test can check to see if your blood sugar is elevated. Unfortunately, Dr. Ng says that diabetes medications can also cause weight gain since they allow the body to absorb more sugar. Check out how much soda it takes to increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.
Your period is irregular
For women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), high insulin levels produce more male hormones called androgens, which not only affect your menstrual cycle but also can lead to weight gain, acne, and excess hair growth. “PCOS causes weight gain through dysregulation of insulin,” says OB/GYN Jane van Dis, MD, Medical Director for Business Development at OB Hospitalist Group in Burbank, California. Women with PCOS who are overweight or obese are at risk for developing insulin resistance, meaning that their cells can’t accept glucose (blood sugar), and the glucose instead gets stored as fat—and the cycle continues. This is also why women with PCOS are seven times more likely to develop diabetes, says van Dis. If you have irregular periods, talk to your doctor to be assessed for PCOS. Here’s how to lose weight if you have PCOS.
You have no energy
One of the medical reasons you’re tired all the time could be hypothyroidism. And it may also be messing with your weight, according to the Mayo Clinic. “Thyroid hormone affects every single tissue in a human,” Dr. Kawji says. So if the thyroid isn’t producing enough hormone, the body’s processes start slowing down. “Hypothyroidism, or low thyroid status, presents with slow metabolism that leads to weight gain and abnormally high cholesterol levels,” he explains. Although there is no cure, treatment is available to regulate the thyroid, and diagnosis can be made with a simple blood test. Here are some other medical reasons you might be tired all the time.
You’re feeling down
Research suggests that obesity increases the risk for depression—and that depression also increases the risk for obesity. People suffering from depression may not eat, sleep or exercise to maintain good health, says psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, author of Living with Depression. That, of course, can lead to weight gain. It also can also brain functioning and, as a result, cause fatigue. “More specific research into understanding depression and weight gain have suggested hormones in the HPA axis—hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands—create weight gain by releasing too much cortisol, which stores fat,” Serani says.
You’re being treated for depression
Ironically, taking meds to treat your depression can also cause weight gain. “Antidepressant medication works to chemically alter neurotransmitters in the brain—by doing so, these medicines help reduce the symptoms of depression,” Serani says. “However, for many, taking these antidepressant medications also causes other metabolic changes in the body, which result in weight gain.” Along with your doctor, you have to decide if the trade-off is “worth the weight”—and if so, make sure to balance it by eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising. These are the silent signs that you need depression medication.
It’s true: Body pain and weight gain are actually signs of stress. And you can thank biology for that, says Serani. “Back in the Neanderthal days, if it was too dangerous to go search for food or food was scarce to find, the stress hormone cortisol would slow our metabolism down and help store fat so we wouldn’t starve,” she says. “Nowadays, stress isn’t filled with life-or-death situations, but the daily grind still raises our cortisol levels.” Serani advises stress-management techniques like aromatherapy, meditation, yoga, listening to soothing music, or taking a walk.
You’re not getting enough sleep
Research has shown that sleep loss is associated with a wide range of health problems, including weight gain. “People who have poor-quality sleep have higher levels of ghrelin, the hormone that increases appetite, and lower levels of leptin, the hormone that decreases appetite,” says sleep expert Richard Shane, PhD, creator of the Sleep Easily program. Plus, he adds, “when you sleep better, you will also have more energy and motivation to exercise and to follow through with steps to lose weight.” Check out what else happens to your body when you don’t get enough sleep.
You have trouble breathing at night
Another sleep issue associated with weight gain is obstructive sleep apnea, in which the upper airway becomes blocked during sleep, reducing or stopping airflow. “Weight gain includes weight gain in the neck, which can narrow your airway, increasing the risk of developing sleep apnea,” Shane says. A sleep study can assess whether you have sleep apnea and should receive treatment. “When you sleep better, your body will be more responsive to whatever ways you use to lose weight,” Shane says. Don’t miss the silent signs of sleep apnea you’re ignoring.
Your joints are stiff
According to the CDC, 23 percent of adults in the United States have arthritis, and the most common type is osteoarthritis, caused by wear and tear on the joints. Symptoms like pain, aching, stiffness, and swelling in your joints can be made worse by excess weight—and weight itself can actually contribute to the development of the disease, according to the National Institute on Aging. “Weight gain and obesity are important risk factors in increasing the risk of osteoarthritis development in the hands and knees,” says Dr. Ng. Losing weight can help: One 2005 study found that each pound of weight lost relieves four pounds of pressure on the knees, and the Arthritis Foundation further backs up the benefits of weight loss in relation to arthritis. Here are some clear signs your mystery back pain is actually arthritis.
You’re gaining weight in weird places
Cushing’s disease can also slow metabolism. This disorder causes the adrenal gland to release too much cortisol into the body, often causing a “hump” around the neck, a round “moon face,” and abdominal weight. People at risk include those taking high doses of corticosteroid medication for a long period of time. “Cushing’s disease is a systemic disease that affects multiple organs, causing an increase in adiposity (obesity), fat accumulation, and abnormal weight gain,” Dr. Kawji says. “The most common symptoms are central obesity, redistribution of fat around the neck and face, muscle weakness, hypertension, and bruising easily.” Treatment is available to return your body’s production of cortisol to normal levels, so if you have the symptoms, talk to your doctor. Don’t miss these other medical causes of a slow metabolism.
You have abdominal pain
According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer accounts for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system; yet its symptoms in the early stages are nonspecific, so it’s hard to detect. “Common symptoms for women with ovarian cancer are abdominal pain and swelling or bloating,” says Dr. van Dis. “Sometimes this is due to collection of fluid, or ascites, in the abdomen; but even in women without fluid collection, [those] in early stage disease reported bloating and abdominal distention.” Any sudden or unexplained weight gain should be reported to a physician for testing, she says. These are more signs of ovarian cancer you might be ignoring.
You have painful periods
Non-cancerous growths called fibroids could be behind your abdominal distention, a heavy feeling in your belly, and heavy periods. “Women with fibroids, or benign muscle tumors, in their uterus can experience weight gain,” Dr. van Dis says. According to estimates, between 40 and 80 percent of women have fibroids. Luckily, they don’t usually cause harm, and they often go away after menopause, when the female hormones that feed them stop being produced. But if they are causing unwanted symptoms like weight gain, you might want to have them treated with medication or surgery. Here are more silent signs you have uterine fibroids.
If you’re backed up, you could also be holding on to excess weight. “Constipation is defined as any two of the following: straining, hard stools, sensation of incomplete defecation, anorectal obstruction, and frequency of less than three bowel movements per week,” says Mehwish Awan Khan, MD, a family medicine physician with PIH Health in Santa Fe Springs, California. “Such symptoms can cause weight gain due to prolonged delay in stool transit throughout the colon.” Proper hydration, stool softeners, and a high-fiber diet are the most common ways to improve symptoms of constipation, she says, and help you lose the extra weight. However, constipation can also be a sign of more serious problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or colon cancer, so if it persists, call your doctor. Find out more surprising reasons you’re constipated.
You have other GI issues
When the collection of “good” bacteria in your gut gets off track, it can cause something called small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO). “Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth is characterized as colonization of excessive microbes in the small intestine that are part of the normal colon flora,” Dr. Khan says. “Many patients with SIBO have symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, abdominal pain, or diarrhea. Some of these symptoms can cause weight gain.” Diet, probiotics, and possibly antibiotics can help treat SIBO. Don’t miss these silent signs that your microbiome could be in trouble.
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: "Association of Changes in Abdominal Fat Quantity and Quality With Incident Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors"
- UPMC endocrinologist and internist Jason Ng, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh
- PLOS ONE: "The Relationship of Sugar to Population-Level Diabetes Prevalence: An Econometric Analysis of Repeated Cross-Sectional Data"
- Mohammad Kawji, MD, doctor of endocrinology and metabolism disorders at Spectrum Health
- Office on Women's Health: "Polycystic ovary syndrome"
- OB/GYN Jane van Dis, MD, Medical Director for Business Development at OB Hospitalist Group in Burbank, California
- Mayo Clinic: "Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)"
- Psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, author of Living with Depression
- Nature and Science of Sleep: "Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption"
- Sleep expert Richard Shane, PhD, creator of the Sleep Easily program
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Sleep Apnea"
- CDC: "Arthritis"
- National Institute on Aging: "Osteoarthritis"
- Arthritis & Rheumatology: "Weight loss reduces knee-joint loads in overweight and obese older adults with knee osteoarthritis"
- Arthritis Foundation: "Benefits of Weight Loss"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Cushing's Syndrome"
- American Cancer Society: "Key Statistics for Ovarian Cancer"
- InformedHealth.org: "Uterine fibroids: Overview"
- Mehwish Awan Khan, MD, a family medicine physician with PIH Health in Santa Fe Springs, California