20 Reasons Unexpected Weight Loss Could Be a Serious Problem
Dropping pounds unexpectedly? Before you do a happy dance, make sure one of these diseases isn’t the reason.
A whopping 50 percent of hospital patients worldwide aren’t adequately nourished or are at risk of malnutrition, which means they’re not getting proper nutrients in the right amounts. “Hospitalization can lead to malnutrition because, while in hospital care, patients may not get the right nutrients to live a healthful life,” says Abby Sauer, a registered dietitian for Abbott. If malnutrition goes on long enough, it can have a significant impact on a person’s health—including unexplained weight loss. While older adults are at risk because of medications or natural appetite loss, a nutritionally imbalanced diet can contribute to malnutrition in younger, presumably healthy people. The best way to prevent malnutrition is to eat well-balanced meals with the right mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Make sure you know the 42 strange symptoms that could signal a serious disease.
Muscle loss (sarcopenia)
Research shows about 45 percent of older U.S. adults experience muscle loss as they age because they neglect to maintain muscle health. “This kind of muscle atrophy is sarcopenia, which can begin as early as your 40s and cause unexplained weight loss and reduced strength, energy, and mobility,” Sauer says. While hormonal changes can contribute to how your body builds and stores muscle as you age, most cases of sarcopenia are linked to poor nutrition as well as inactivity. One of the best ways to prevent and treat muscle loss: Add more protein and vitamin D to your diet. “Older adults often require more protein to build the same amount of muscle, since the body becomes less efficient at processing protein,” Sauer says. Plus, adding weights to your workouts helps build muscle mass and strength.
Cancer in general can cause weight loss, but there are several types of cancer, such as lung, pancreatic, biliary, and colon, that are known to lead to unexplained weight loss. “Abnormally functioning cancer cells grow out of control, speed up your metabolism, and wear out your entire body by using its resources, which causes weight loss,” says Michael Russo, MD, a general surgeon who specializes in bariatric surgery at MemorialCare Center for Obesity at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. Cancer treatments can also lead to weight loss. Radiation and chemotherapy often cause a decrease in appetite, and it can lead to side effects, including nausea, vomiting, and mouth sores that discourage eating. Find out the 15 symptoms of cancer that too many women ignore.
Unexplained weight loss could be one of the signs of a thyroid problem. “Also known as Graves’ disease, hyperthyroidism is a type of autoimmune disease causing the thyroid gland to produce excessive amounts of the thyroid hormone, which speeds up the metabolism to the point where the body is burning more calories than it can consume,” says Sherry Ross, MD, an ob-gyn and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Causes of hyperthyroidism include Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, certain medication such as lithium, radiation treatments to the neck, thyroid surgery, pregnancy, and iodine deficiency.” You can identify an overactive thyroid by making sure your thyroid is evaluated with blood tests. Check out these 10 skin problems that could be a signal of something much more serious.
HIV and AIDS
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, also known as AIDS, is a chronic, potentially life-threatening disease that’s caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). “HIV can make it harder for your body to absorb nutrients, which causes malnutrition and can lead to a decreased appetite,” says Lisa Ashe, DO, a board-certified internal medicine physician. While there’s no cure for HIV or AIDS, there are medications that can dramatically slow the progression of the disease and allow you to live an otherwise healthy life.
Peptic ulcer disease
“Peptic ulcers are open sores that develop on the inside lining of the stomach as well as on the upper portion of the small intestine. They cause pain and increase acid production, leading to reflux. Because the main symptom of peptic ulcers is stomach pain, they often cause decreased appetite,” says Dr. Ashe. Lifestyle modifications in combination with different medications are the best way to treat the disease and any weight loss associated with it.
You probably know that depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest in most things—even ones that the person previously enjoyed. You might also know that weight gain is a common symptom associated with depression, but it can also lead to weight loss. “Unfortunately, one of the many side effects of this debilitating disease is loss of appetite, which naturally causes a person to lose weight,” says Dr. Ashe. While there’s no one single cause of depression, many cases can be treated effectively with medication and therapy—although some antidepressants can also contribute to further weight loss.
Congestive heart failure
This deadly disease, which occurs when the heart is unable to pump enough blood and oxygen to the heart and the rest of the body, affects more than five million Americans. An important indicator of this condition, or a worsening heart condition in general, is the rapid unexplained weight loss (a loss of at least 7.5 percent of normal weight within six months), known as cardiac cachexia. “Since the intestines require proper blood flow just like the rest of the body’s organs, researchers have speculated that reduced blood flow might be to blame for gastrointestinal and weight-loss symptoms associated with heart failure,” says weight-loss expert Adrienne Youdim, MD. If you or someone you know experiences rapid weight loss along with shortness of breath, chronic coughing, fatigue, and nausea, seek medical attention immediately, since all are signs of this disease. Make sure you know these 10 signs of congestive heart failure.
We often associate diabetes with weight gain or obesity, but weight loss can actually be a surprising diabetes symptom. When the body is no longer able to produce insulin sufficiently, glucose is no longer making it into the bloodstream to be used as energy. “When there is an insufficiency in insulin, the body starts burning fat and muscle for energy, causing a reduction in overall body weight,” says Dr. Ashe. See your doctor if you think diabetes may be to blame for unexplained weight loss.
Alcohol might be loaded with calories and cause bloating, but being an alcoholic can also cause a person to lose dramatic amounts of weight. “This tends to happen because there’s an increased fullness and early satiety that comes along with drinking to the point of excess,” says Dr. Ashe. “Additionally, alcoholism can lead to peptic ulcer disease, which also causes weight loss.” Don’t miss these 15 silent signs your body might be in trouble.
Celiac disease is an immune disorder that causes damage to the small intestine. “When celiac is at its worst, it destroys the lining of the intestine, which causes people to stop absorbing nutrients and, over time, stop absorbing calories as well,” says Niket Sonpal, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. This leads to weight loss. In fact, research published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology found that weight loss is one of the most common symptoms, experienced by 23 percent of patients with celiac disease who were studied. Watch for these additional symptoms of celiac disease.
Tapeworms, roundworms, hookworms, pinworms—thousands of people pick up these and other parasites each year, usually after ingesting contaminated food or water while traveling abroad or right here in the United States. The parasites busy themselves absorbing nutrients in the body and reproducing. Decreased appetite and weight loss can result, but the parasites’ human hosts may not realize it because they picked up the bugs so long ago. “Parasites can take weeks and months, sometimes years, to reveal themselves,” says Dr. Sonpal. Eventually, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea set in, and these can also contribute to weight loss. Check out these 8 silent signs you could have a parasite.
It makes sense that people in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia often lose weight—they may be unable to communicate their food needs. But other factors contribute too. Those with dementia can become socially isolated or simply forget to eat regularly. “The breakdown of neurons in the brain dulls the senses of taste and smell, so food becomes less appealing,” says Dr. Sonpal. In addition, research points to weight loss as a possible indicator of dementia developing in the future. In one study, Mayo Clinic scientists found that women who develop dementia had lost weight ten years prior to the onset of symptoms. In another study, weight loss in mid- to late life was found to be a marker for dementia. Check out these 16 hidden signs you’re not as healthy as you think.
Malnutrition and weight loss are common in people with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory condition in the gastrointestinal tract. As with celiac disease, their bodies don’t absorb nutrients properly and they’ll begin to eat less because food can trigger intestinal distress and other symptoms. In addition, patients with Crohn’s disease may have ulcerations throughout their body, including the mouth and stomach. “This causes pain when eating and subsequent aversion to food,” says Dr. Sonpal.
Most people think of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) as a chronic condition that causes painful, stiff, and swollen joints. But RA can also cause unintended weight loss. The disease spurs inflammation, which leads to an overproduction of a group of proteins called cytokines and an increase in the resting metabolic rate. “So the body burns more calories and fat, and patients end up losing weight without meaning to,” says Dr. Sonpal.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease like RA, but it wreaks havoc throughout the body—from kidney damage to thyroid disruption to rashes. “So many organ systems are affected that people do end up experiencing weight loss,” says Dr. Sonpal. Lupus can also cause acid reflux; sufferers will feel burning pain in the chest area, often after eating—which in turn causes some patients to avoid food. The gastrointestinal problems that often accompany lupus—including stomach cramps and diarrhea—can also lead to weight loss, as can the medications used to treat it. Don’t miss these 15 symptoms of lupus you should never ignore.
When a person has Addison’s disease, the adrenal glands are damaged and don’t produce the stress hormone cortisol in sufficient quantities. “If you get stressed out, your body struggles in the absence of enough cortisol,” says Dr. Sonpal. “So instead of experiencing the normal stress response, you get sick with nausea, dizziness, and lightheadedness. You burn calories and muscle mass and you lose weight.” One telltale sign of the disease, in addition to gastrointestinal upset, is hyperpigmentation of the skin, which appears as “bronzing” on such areas as the knees and elbows.
The body needs numerous vitamins and minerals, including zinc, to operate at its best. Most people get enough zinc through food, but—for those who don’t—a deficiency can cause a decrease in appetite and weight loss, according to the National Institutes of Health. “Zinc deficiency causes a constant bad taste in your mouth, which leads to not eating and losing weight,” says Dr. Sonpal. Zinc deficiency can also occur as a result of taking certain medications, including some antibiotics, and certain diuretics prescribed for high blood pressure. Good sources of zinc include oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, and nuts. Read about the 8 clear signs you’re on a bad diet.
The two most common symptoms of this immune system disorder, also called Sjogren’s syndrome, are dry eye and a dry mouth, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can occur in conjunction with other autoimmune disorders like RA and lupus but can also occur on its own, according to research published in the Journal of International Oral Health. “The salivary glands become destroyed, and people have trouble eating and swallowing,” says Dr. Sonpal. Despite having good oral hygiene, people with this disease may have numerous cavities and even lose their teeth, according to research in the Journal of Dental Research.
This disorder damages the esophagus, the tube that connects the back of your throat to your stomach. “The nerves at the end of the esophagus are supposed to relax when you eat food so the food can go into your stomach,” says Dr. Sonpal. “But in people with achalasia, the nerves die off and food can’t get into the stomach.” (In fact, achalasia is Latin for “failure to relax.”) The result: extreme pressure in the chest that causes people to become averse to eating. “Over time, this gets worse and worse, and people develop significant weight loss,” he says. Now check out these 15 signs that weight gain means your health is in trouble.