What does unexplained weight loss indicate?

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Its natural for your weight to fluctuate throughout the year. Maybe you eat a bit too much during the holidays and gain a bit of weight, or you come down with the stomach flu and end up dropping a few poundsa slight swing on the scale is normal and nothing to worry about.

But if you drop at least five percent of your body weight in less than six monthsand you cant pinpoint a good explanation for that weight lossits time to let your doctor know whats up, says Anne Cappola, M.D., an endocrinologist and professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. That means if youre 150 pounds, a weight fluctuation of about seven or eight pounds in a short amount of time should be a red flag.

Its not common to lose a significant amount of weight without an obvious reason, Dr. Cappola says. If youre losing weight and nothings changed with your diet or activity, you need to worry about that a little bit.

In fact, unexplained weight loss could be an early sign of a serious health condition, says Kerry Hildreth, M.D., an assistant professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Colorado. Here, eight health issues that could explain why youre losing weight so suddenly.

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1 You have an over-active thyroid.

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Weight loss is a common symptom of hyperthyroidismor an over-active thyroid, Dr. Cappola says. This means your thyroidthe butterfly-shaped gland in your neck that helps regulate your metabolism and growthis pumping out too many hormones, resulting in a slew of body changes.

If I suspected a thyroid issue, Id probably look for increased hunger or heart palpitations, she explains. Sleeping problems or feeling hot all the time are also common symptoms of an over-active thyroid, she says.

2 You're not eating enough.

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Dr. Hildreth mentions something experts refer to as the obesity paradox. Later in life, weight lossnot weight gainis associated with a greater risk of death. As we age, the stomach empties more slowly, which makes you feel fuller longer, she says. Also, some of the brain signals that control appetite and fullness become attenuated, Dr. Hildreth adds. All of this can lead to older adults eating less, losing weight, and failing to get enough nutrients to support their bodies needs. Be sure you're eating enough protein to help your body carry out important bodily functions, like curbing hunger, stabilizing blood sugar, and building muscle masswhich people lose as they get older. Many medications can also affect your appetite, so you need to pay attention to how much and how often youre eating, Dr. Hildreth adds.

3 You have celiac disease.

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Celiac diseasean autoimmune disorder common in white people in which ingesting gluten causes damage to the small intestinecan lead to a drop in weight, and tends to be accompanied by other GI symptoms like bloating and diarrhea, says Jamile Wakim-Fleming, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic.

Why? If you have celiac disease and eat gluten, your immune system freaks out a bit. This reaction can mess with the lining of your small intestine, hampering its ability to help you absorb nutrients properly, according to the Mayo Clinic. Inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohns disease can also result in unexplained weight loss due to malabsorption as well.

4 You're struggling with depression.

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Loss of appetite is a common side effect of clinical depression, and one that can promote unexplained weight loss if youre unaware that your mood swings are something a bit more serious. In a lot of cases, the person doesnt even notice theyre losing weight because theyre mired in the depression, Dr. Cappola explains. Irritability, heavy drinking, indecision, and problems sleeping are other common symptoms of depression. Black women, says Erica Martin Richards, M.D., Ph.D., Chair and Medical Director, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, DC, are half as likely to seek help for mental health issues as white women.

5 You may have pancreatitis.

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Problems with your pancreas, which produces enzymes that aid in digestion, can also lead to unexplained weight loss, Dr. Wakim-Fleming says. People with chronic pancreatitisa disease in which the pancreas becomes inflamedtend to lose weight quickly (even if they are eating normally) because the body simply doesnt produce enough enzymes for proper digestion of food to occur, according to The National Pancreas Foundation. Look for symptoms like stomach pain, discolored (or oily) poop, diarrhea, or nausea after eating fatty foods.

6 You've developed diabetes.


Especially early on, new-onset diabetes can cause weight loss, Dr. Cappola says. You may also feel crazy thirsty and notice youre peeing all the time. Your body is literally peeing out glucose because you cant absorb it, and that drives thirst, she explains. Diabetes also causes your body to suck nourishment from your muscles, which fuels the sudden weight drop. One note: Black people are 60% more likely to have Type 2 diabetes, and so should ask a doctor about this possibility.

7 You have rheumatoid arthritis.

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Dr. Hildreth says inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritisa condition in which your immune system attacks your healthy tissues by mistakeor some types of infection can knock out a sufferers appetite, causing a drop on the scale. These conditions can also cause inflammation in your gut, which could mess with nutrient absorption, leading to unexplained weight loss before diagnosis.

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Several types of cancer, as well as a tumor or ulcer in your stomach or intestines, can cause inflammation or malabsorption issues that may lead to a drop in weight, Dr. Wakim-Fleming says. If someone comes to me with unexplained weight loss, Ill check their stomach and colon and bowels for tumors or inflammation, she says. Ill als0 look for tumors in the esophagusthe tube that connects your throat and stomachwhich can make it hard to swallow.

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