By Linda Melone
If you’ve gained weight over the past few months because you haven’t been moving around as much, don’t feel so bad. You have plenty of company!
But sometimes the number on your scale creeps up without any obvious reason. Here are some possible explanations for unexpected weight gain.
Failure to get enough sleep may help explain those excess pounds.
A hormone released by the GI tract called ghrelin stimulates feelings of hunger; levels increase when you’re sleep deprived, says sleep medicine specialist Allen Towfigh, MD. Meanwhile, another hormone called 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,” notes 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. And a diet with plenty of produce supplies sleep-critical nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium and vitamin D.†
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, of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. 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.
Food allergies differ from intolerances or sensitivities in that allergies create an immune-system reaction in response to food; sensitivities to food do not.
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. “The body reacts to something it doesn’t normally react to,” says Bassett.
Wheat is a common troublemaker. In addition to gluten, a combination of problematic proteins, wheat contains other components that can induce weight gain. Avoiding wheat altogether may help you manage your weight more easily.
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 the amino acid glutamine, 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.†
Two hormonal dysfunctions can trigger weight gain.
Menstrual cycle changes and trouble getting pregnant are signs of a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), in which cysts develop in the ovaries.
Difficulty losing weight and keeping it off is a major PCOS symptom. Gynecologist Christine O’Connor, MD, suggests avoiding concentrated sweets and high carbs, and controlling portions. “Lifestyle changes can keep PCOS symptoms under control, but know that they can still crop up over time,” O’Connor says.
The symptoms of PCOS mimic those of several other conditions. That makes getting a definitive diagnosis crucial; find an endocrinologist who specializes in 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. A reduction in thyroid gland activity, called hypothyroidism, 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.
A family history of thyroid disease, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus increase the risk of hypothyroidism, as does a diet deficient in iodine.
Thomas recommends people over 50 have their thyroid hormone levels checked once a year. Foods that supply iodine include cheese, cow’s milk and eggs; high-quality multivitamins also contain iodine.
If your thyroid is found wanting, work with a trained practitioner. Minerals such as magnesium, selenium and zinc, along with vitamins A and B, provide solid support.†
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 the hormone cortisol. During times of stress, excess cortisol may be released and increase fat storage around the midsection.
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, help the body adapt to both physical and psychological stress. 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.
†The information provided is not an endorsement of any product, and is intended for educational purposes only. NaturesPlus does not provide medical advice and does not offer diagnosis of any conditions. Current research on this topic is not conclusive and further research may be needed in order to prove the benefits described.
The conditions and symptoms described may be indicative of serious health problems, and therefore should be brought to the attention of a qualified healthcare practitioner.