When you step on the scale and discover you’re five pounds heavier, you might wonder what’s wrong. After all, you’re eating right, watching your portions, and doing cardio and strength training. You’re also sure that you’re challenging yourself enough. You might be tempted to blame your increase in body weight on being older or on genetics. Not so fast! Instead, make sure one of these six causes of weight gain isn’t making it harder for you to lose weight.
If you’ve put on weight recently, look at your medications. Have you started a new one? Unfortunately, a long list of prescription and non-prescription drugs can cause weight gain. Medications known to cause significant weight gain include drugs prescribed for mood disorders and medications that treat seizures and migraines. Even some diabetes and high blood pressure medications can cause your weight to drift upward.
Another common culprit is steroids, including prednisone. Doctors sometimes prescribe steroids short-term for severe allergic reactions, inflammation, and autoimmune conditions. Medications in the steroid class trigger weight gain by causing you to retain more water and by increasing appetite. Surprisingly, even over-the-counter medications you get at the drugs store can trigger an increase in body weight. For example, some antihistamines used to treat allergy symptoms cause a weight increase over time.
In some cases, the increase in weight is water weight, due to water retention. This is common with steroids, although steroids can also increase your appetite. If you think you’re taking a medication that’s causing weight gain, talk to your health care provider. They may be able to switch you to a comparable medication that doesn’t cause weight gain. Don’t discontinue the medications yourself. You may need to taper slowly to avoid serious side effects.
An Undiagnosed Thyroid Problem
Up to 10% of people have an underactive thyroid and don’t know it and women are at higher risk than men. The only way to find out is to get tested. Thyroid testing should include a complete thyroid panel, including TSH, free T3, and free T4. Ask your practitioner to also check for thyroid peroxidase antibodies as a screen for Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the most common cause of thyroid problems in women.
Some experts believe the normal range for TSH is too wide and that people with marginally high levels of TSH, yet still within the normal range, may have an underactive thyroid or are in the process of developing this condition. Always ask to see your test results too rather than accepting your doctor’s assurance that they’re “normal.” If you’re at the high end of normal for TSH or the low end for free T3 or free T4, you need close follow-up.
Too Much Light in Your Bedroom
We know sleep is an important part of the weight control equation – but the environment you sleep in may impact your body weight as well. Studies show snoozing in a room with artificial light, even small amounts of it, can disrupt your body’s internal clock and throw off your circadian rhythms. When mice are exposed to light at times when they would normally be sleeping, their circadian rhythms get out of sync. The result is they burn fat more slowly. Plus, the rodents can’t activate brown fat, a type of fat associated with fat loss. Preliminarily, research also finds this may be true in humans as well.
In addition, exposing your eyes to light at night when you would normally be sleeping can disrupt key hormones involved in metabolic health, including melatonin, growth hormone, and insulin. These disruptions can negatively impact your metabolic health. Some studies show shift workers that sleep during the night and work at night are at higher risk of health problems, including weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.
As an aside, a study also showed that dropping the temperature of your bedroom to 66 degrees or below may help with weight control as well. Exposure to slight cold activates brown fat. You want that since brown fat is metabolically inefficient and turns calories from the food you eat as heat. Plus, a cooler room makes it easier to fall asleep.
What can you take away from this? Sleep in a pitch-black room free of electronic devices. Even small amounts of light can disrupt your normal nighttime rhythms. Go to bed no later than 10:00 P.M. and establish a sleep schedule that you follow even on the weekends. Your body thrives on routine. Also, eat your biggest meal early in the day and avoid snacking before bedtime.
The connection between obesogens and weight gain is less well established. However, some experts believe that chemicals in the environment contribute to the growing epidemic of obesity. Scientists believe these chemicals, nicknamed obesogens, disrupt hormones that help with weight control. The obesogen you’re probably most familiar with is BPA, a resin in materials made of plastic. However, a number of chemicals in the food we eat, the air we breathe, and in personal care products are suspected obesogens as well. Examples are pesticides, flame retardants, phthalates, and some heavy metals. These chemicals potentially disrupt normal metabolism and make it easier to gain weight.
How can you reduce your exposure? Use organic personal care products, whenever possible. Eat more organic food, especially for the “dirty dozen,” most heavily sprayed fruits and vegetables. Always wash produce thoroughly before using it, regardless of whether it’s organic. Don’t store food or beverages in plastic containers. Use glass or stainless steel containers.
Stress can trigger weight gain in several ways. Some people eat more when they’re under stress and choose more sugary or fatty comfort foods. Chronic stress can also disrupt the stress hormone cortisol as well as hormones, like leptin and ghrelin, that control your appetite. That’s why stress management is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. How you choose to deal with stress can take a variety of forms – yoga, meditation, walking outdoors, listening to music, or engaging in a hobby you enjoy. Make sure you have a tactic or tactics to help you better deal with stress.
The Bottom Line
Sometimes weight gain is not due to overeating and under-exercising. These are six causes of weight gain you might not have considered – but keep them in mind if your weight is creeping up and you have no other explanation.
VeryWell.com. “Undiagnosed Thyroid Disease and Women”
Drugs.com. “Can Prescription Drugs Cause Weight Gain?”
NewsMax Health. “Bedroom Lights Can Cause Weight Gain: Study”
The Scientist. “Obesogens”
Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Feb; 120(2): a62–a68. Published online 2012 Feb 1. doi: 10.1289/ehp.120-a62..