When It's Not Obesity: Other Conditions That Can Cause Weight Gain
Many of you, who regularly read my blog, know that I encourage frequent visits to primary care providers to make sure your health is good and you have nothing that requires urgent medical attention. That said, many complain that “no matter what [they] do, [they] cannot seem to lose weight.” While most of the time this represents failure of taking in fewer calories than are burned, there are rare instances where there is something wrong and you are advised to seek medical attention immediately.
Firstly, if you find you are gaining weight, feeling tired, having changes in bowel habits and feeling cold all the time, get yourself to your doctor. You may have an under active thyroid gland. Your thyroid gland is a small organ that sits in front of your wind pipe in the front of your neck. It basically controls the body’s metabolism. It is not that uncommon to have disorders of the thyroid gland. An under active thyroid gland (also known as hypothyroidism) slows your metabolism and leads to weight gain. Depending on the cause of hypothyroidism, treatment is usually simple and involves taking synthetic oral thyroid hormone.
Another common cause for weight gain and perceived obesity is edema or swelling. Some commonly refer to this as “water retention”. Edema can have many different causes. It can be anything from benign dependent edema, where the legs swell from standing too long or remaining in one position, to congestive heart failure, cirrhosis and kidney failure. The latter three are very serious and can be life threatening. Some individuals notice that they have difficulty fitting into their shoes while others report that their legs and abdomen are “getting fat”.
Disorders of the adrenal gland can cause “centripetal obesity”. Centripetal obesity is when excess fat is stored around ones mid section, sparing the legs, shoulders, and arms. The adrenal glands are two small glands that sit atop the kidneys. Over active adrenal glands secrete too much of the hormone cortisol. This condition is also known as Cushing’s disease. In addition to causing weight gain, cortisol causes blood glucose and blood pressure levels to rise. Moreover, oral steroids that are prescribed for a variety of medical illnesses, such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, can cause a syndrome similar to over active adrenal glands called Cushing’s syndrome.
There are numerous other diseases that can mimic garden variety obesity but are beyond the scope of this blog. The bottom line, however, is that you need to be vigilant about your health. If you are gaining weight, chances are, you’re eating more than you need to and not exercising enough. While nine times out of ten that will be the case, you must see your doctor before starting a diet or exercise program. Certainly, if you have any of the other associated symptoms mentioned above, you may need to see your doctor sooner, rather than later, to rule out more serious medical causes for your weight gain.
Jeffrey Heit is an internist in Burlington, Massachusetts and is affiliated with Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for Obesity.