When you are on a weight loss journey, the shedding of every inch and kilo must be celebrated as it comes with a lot of effort. But if you are losing weight unintentionally and without any effort along with experiencing a series of worrisome symptoms, you must investigate the reasons behind it as it could indicate a disease that may be ruining your physical or mental health. According to the Mayo Clinic, losing more than 5% of weight in the span of 6-12 months without doing any exercise or following a diet especially should be a cause of concern and may indicate a problem. Experts say unintentional weight loss is something that happens when you lose weight without changing your diet or exercise routine and could indicate stress or a serious disease.
“While typical weight loss is due to a change in lifestyle habits, decreased caloric intake, or an increase in physical activity but unexplained weight loss, or losing weight without trying, can be a cause for concern. It might indicate an underlying medical or disease. That is why one should take unexplained weight loss seriously,” says Deepti Khatuja, Head – clinical Nutritionist, Fortis memorial research Institute, Gurgaon.
“Many a time, a patient is brought into the hospital with a symptom of weight loss, which appears to be of great concern to the patient or his or her accompanying relatives. Unintentional weight loss is when you lose weight without changing your diet or exercise routine. It can be a sign of stress or a serious illness. Weight loss can occur in patients with normal appetites or decreased appetites.
When to see a doctor
A good rule of thumb is to see your doctor if you have lost a significant amount—more than 5 percent of your weight—within 6 to 12 months. There are numerous medical conditions that cause sudden, unexplained weight loss,” says Dr. Hyacinth Peninnah Paljor.
Common reasons for unexpected weight loss
Some of the common reasons for unintentional weight loss are:
1. Diabetes: One of the major causes of unwanted weight loss is Type 1 diabetes (juvenile diabetes) although can may happen in Type 2 also. If you have Type 1 diabetes, your immune system attacks cells in your pancreas that make insulin. Without insulin, your body can’t use glucose for energy. This results in high blood glucose. Our kidneys remove unused glucose through urine. As sugar leaves your body, so do calories, says Deepti Khatuja.
“Symptoms associated are frequent urination, dehydration, fatigue, blurry vision, excessive thirst, excessive hunger. Treatment of type 1 diabetes mellitus includes insulin, blood sugar monitoring, diet, and exercise,” says Dr. Paljor.
2. Cancer: Cancer is a disease that causes abnormal cells to quickly divide and spread. According to the American Cancer Society, one of the first signs may be unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more.
“This is common with cancers of the pancreas, lung, stomach, and esophagus. Cancer increases inflammation. This promotes muscle wasting and disrupts appetite-regulating hormones. A growing tumor may also increase your resting energy expenditure (REE), or how much energy your body burns at rest. Cancer cachexia is a wasting syndrome that is linked to many cancers. It’s most common in gastric and pancreatic cancers, as well as some lung, head and neck, and colorectal cancers in their later stages,” says Khatuja.
“Early symptoms may be fever, fatigue bleeding from any site, changes in moles, lump in the breast, hoarseness of voice or there may be no symptoms other than weight loss. Treatment depends on the type of cancer. It may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy,” says Dr Paljor.
3. Tuberculosis: Another cause of unexplained weight loss is tuberculosis (TB), a contagious condition that usually affects the lungs, says Khatuja.
“It’s caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria. Weight loss and decreased appetite are some of the common symptoms of TB. Although TB can be at different organs of the body like abdominal TB etc and unexpected weight loss is quite common,” adds the Fortis expert.
TB is life-threatening and requires timely intervention. One is detected with TB while having symptoms such as constant cough, chest pain, and even unintentional weight loss. So, don’t forget to take charge of your health, says Dr. Aniket Mule, consultant internal medicine, Wockhardt Hospitals, Mira Road.
4. Hyperthyroidism: “As the thyroid oversees your metabolism, it’s understandable that thyroid problems could lead to weight gain. While having a fast metabolism can help you lose weight, having one that is too fast can be harmful. Rapid weight loss and sometimes additional complications, such as a raised heart rate, more anxiety, jitters, tremors, or insomnia, are all symptoms of an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism),” says Khatuja.
“When the thyroid gland starts releasing an excess of its hormones which can be due to either its hyperfunctioning state or thyroid gland damage due to infections or antibodies. Diagnosed by a simple thyroid function test,” says Dr. Johann Varghese.
5. Gut diseases: Weight loss is caused by conditions such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, lactose intolerance, and intestinal damage, which can cause malabsorption. Malabsorption occurs when something prevents your gut from absorbing essential nutrients. In most cases, such as celiac disease, the gut disease can be easily treated with a gluten-free diet and healthy weight gain can be promoted, says Khatuja.
“IBD also disrupts ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and leptin, the satiety hormone. This results in decreased appetite and weight loss. Additional symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, bloody stools, and fatigue. Treatment consists of nutritional support, medication, and, in some cases, surgery,” says Dr Paljor.
6. Depression: “Depression is defined as feeling sad, lost, or empty for at least two weeks. These emotions interfere with daily activities such as going to work or school. Depression affects the same part of the brain that controls appetite, so this can lead to a loss of appetite and weight loss. Other symptoms include constant sadness, loss of interest in hobbies, low energy, poor concentration, sleeping too little or too much, thoughts of death or suicide, and irritability. Behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, and antidepressants are used to treat depression,” says Dr. Paljor.
7. Eating disorders: “Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted perception of weight. These patients severely restrict the food they eat or control the calories by inducing vomiting or misusing laxatives, diuretics, and enemas. Symptoms and signs include extremely thin individuals, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness and fainting, absence of menstruation, constipation, intolerance to cold, dry or yellowish skin, thin hair that breaks, and low blood pressure,” says Dr. Paljor.
“Psychiatric conditions like anorexia nervosa could also read to weight loss in which the person perceives themselves to be fat and restricts food intake when in reality they are thin,” says Dr. Varghese.
8. Rheumatoid arthritis: “Arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder impacting the joints of the body. Moreover, one can also lose weight due to it as there is inflammation in the body and more calories and fat are burned each day. It is better to watch your weight when you have been diagnosed with it. Take the help of an expert regarding what you should eat and delete it from the diet,” says Dr Mule.
9. Dementia: Having dementia can also lead to constant weight loss. Since dementia affects one’s memory, one may forget whether he/she ate food and this can induce weight loss. So, it is essential for family members to take utmost care of the person detected with dementia, says Dr. Mule.
10. HIV infection and malignancy: Any unexplained weight loss after ruling out the above causes needs to have a comprehensive evaluation to rule out HIV infection (diagnosed by a blood test) and occult malignancy. May require blood tests and imaging, says Dr. Varghese.