Losing weight without trying sounds very appealing if you are struggling to shift excess pounds, but significant weight loss can signal an underlying medical problem. While stressful situations, such as a bereavement, divorce, or job loss, can trigger sudden weight loss, if you aren’t under stress and you haven’t intentionally cut your food intake or increased your exercise levels, you should see your doctor.
Concerning weight loss
Everyone’s weight fluctuates, but if you lose five percent of your body weight or more over a six to twelve-month period, this level of weight loss is a concern. With unintentional weight loss over five percent, you may have malnutrition, where there is a shortfall between your intake and requirements for energy, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. When significant weight loss is a sign of ill-health, you will usually have other symptoms, such as poor appetite, tiredness, digestive upset, and altered mood.
Unintentional weight loss causes
A common cause of unplanned weight loss is an overactive thyroid gland, where your thyroid increases production of hormones that increase your metabolism. Anxiety, insomnia, palpitations, trembling, and heat sensitivity are additional symptoms of hyperthyroidism. These symptoms are telling of an overactive thyroid, especially if you also have a swelling in your neck, which could be a thyroid goiter. However, a blood test to check thyroid hormone levels is necessary to confirm hyperthyroidism.
Serious infections, for example, TB and HIV, and inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, also raise your metabolic rate and induce weight loss. Your doctor can assess your symptoms and check your blood for markers of infection and inflammation to rule out infective or inflammatory causes of weight loss.
Cancer is another condition that increases your body’s energy requirements and results in weight loss if your increased requirements aren’t met. Unintentional weight loss in cancer is usually accompanied by additional unexplained symptoms like a lump, altered bowel habit, breathlessness, or blood in your urine, sputum, vomit, or bowel movements. Your symptoms will then inform your physician’s choice of tests to investigate cancer as a possible cause of your weight loss.
Additionally, digestive health problems can lead to unintentional weight loss. For example, in Crohn’s disease, nausea and diarrhea can reduce your appetite, while your body struggles to absorb nutrients, making it difficult to meet your nutritional requirements. Celiac disease is another digestive disorder with weight loss as a symptom, as damage to your intestinal lining by gluten hinders nutrient uptake. If you have digestive-related symptoms, your doctor may order tests for Crohn’s disease and celiac disease.
Undiagnosed diabetes is a further cause of unexplained weight loss. When your body produces insufficient insulin, you are unable to use glucose for fuel, so you use your muscle and fat stores for energy. Sudden weight loss is more common in Type 1 Diabetes, though weight loss as a symptom is also seen in Type 2 Diabetes. Additional diabetes symptoms include increased tiredness, thirst, and urination, as well as blurred vision and recurrent yeast infections. If you have suggestive symptoms of raised glucose levels, a blood test from your doctor can diagnose diabetes.
Mental health and weight loss
Physical health problems are not the only cause of weight loss, as conditions affecting your mental wellbeing may also explain unexpected weight loss. For instance, if you suffer from depression, it is common to lose your appetite and interest in food, so losing weight is often a symptom of depression. Low mood, low self-esteem, and lack of motivation, along with feelings of hopelessness, irritability, and anxiety are additional symptoms that would accompany weight loss in depression.
Unintentional weight loss can also be a symptom of dementia. Significant weight loss in dementia may stem from reduced dietary intake as a consequence of difficulties feeding, chewing, and swallowing, as well as increased energy expenditure from wandersome behavior. Besides memory loss, further symptoms of dementia include difficulty with planning, language, and concentration, as well as confusion, hallucinations, altered mood, and personality changes.
Alternatively, malnutrition may occur if you are dependent on alcohol or drugs. Weight loss is associated with alcohol dependence, as when drinking heavily, alcohol may replace food while interfering with nutrient absorption and increasing metabolic rate through inflammation. Meanwhile, dependency on stimulants, such as cocaine and crystal meth, can suppress your appetite, while addiction to any drug can reduce your interest in eating once drug-seeking becomes your main focus.
Although unexplained weight loss doesn’t necessarily have a sinister cause, you should always see your doctor to investigate sudden weight loss that you can’t account for. If you are losing weight due to a health problem, seeking early medical help allows timely diagnosis and treatment, giving you the best chance of managing your symptoms and minimizing complications.
Make an appointment today with your primary care provider if you are experiencing unintentional weight loss. To become a patient, visit the Locations Page to find a Family Medical Center provider near you.