Unexplained weight loss sounds like a good thing. After all, deliberate weight loss is a lot of work – and much of it is guesswork, as we often must experiment with different regimens to find one that works for our particular body.
But it is precisely because intentional weight loss is so challenging that you need to worry when it happens unexpectedly. Losing more than 5% of your body weight over a period of six months, with no changes to diet and exercise, often signals illness.
Following are some of the most common causes of unexplained weight loss. Each one requires treatment, but some are downright deadly.
Diabetes is a condition in which the body becomes unable to properly process glucose, or sugar, in the bloodstream. There are two primary types – Type 1 and Type 2 – that differ in their mechanism. In Type 1 diabetes, insulin-producing cells in the body are destroyed and can no longer produce insulin. With Type 2 diabetes, the body may not produce enough insulin, or the insulin is unable to process glucose sufficiently.
Both types of diabetes have similar symptoms and risks. Unexplained weight loss is one of the big ones, but others include frequent urination, excessive thirst, blurry vision, and a sweet smell to the breath.
Diabetes often causes poor circulation, and one of the signs of that is when sores or cuts, especially on the extremities, take a long time to heal. If left untreated, diabetes can lead to sepsis, a potentially deadly blood infection.
There are many different types of cancer, but they all cause the rapid spread of abnormal cells that disrupt your body’s systems. And because of the fast and intense process of cancerous cell division, a lot of your body’s energy stores are used. For that reason, unexplained weight loss may be one of the earliest signs of cancer.
Losing weight is most common in cancers of the stomach, esophagus, lungs, or pancreas. There are a few reasons that this happens. Part of it is the amount of energy that a growing tumor demands. But cancer may also promote muscle wasting or disrupt the hormones that regulate appetite.
Fever and fatigue are other early signs of cancer, but some cancers are asymptomatic in early stages.
Endocarditis is a serious inflammation of the lining around your heart, the endocardium. It occurs when bacteria enters the bloodstream and eventually collects in the heart. Unexplained weight loss occurs in endocarditis patients as a result of two other common symptoms: fever and poor appetite.
Having an elevated body temperature over a long period time can increase metabolism and cause your body to burn fat. Poor appetite is generally related to feelings of discomfort that accompany the condition.
Other symptoms of endocarditis include coughing, pain in the abdomen, chest, or back, headache, difficulty breathing, night sweats, and red or purple spots on the skin.
Note that endocarditis is rare in a heart that’s healthy. People with pre-existing condition have more cause for concern, including folks with congenital heart defects, artificial heart valves, or damaged heart valves. Treatment can be done with antibiotics, but surgery may also become necessary.
4. Overactive thyroid
The thyroid gland plays a part in several bodily functions, metabolism being one of them. When the thyroid produces too much hormone, your calorie burn skyrockets and unintended weight loss is the result. You may find the pounds falling away, even if you eat a lot.
If you have hyperthyroidism, you may also experience a fast and irregular heart rate, trouble sleeping, hand tremors, anxiety, or heat intolerance. There are several potential causes of hyperthyroidism, so treatment may involve attention to the underlying condition.
Common approaches to treatment include thyroid medications, beta-blockers, radioactive iodine, or even surgery.
Tuberculosis is less common in the United States today but still kills approximately 1.5 million people per year worldwide. It is caused by a contagious bacteria that tends to affect the lungs. For reasons that are unclear, decreased appetite and unexplained weight loss are common symptoms of the disease.
Tuberculosis spreads through the air, but not everyone who is exposed to it will become ill. If your immune system is able to fight the bacteria, it becomes latent, or inactive. However, exposed people retain a 5-15% chance of becoming seriously ill with tuberculosis at some point in their lives.
Other symptoms of an active TB infection include a bad cough, often producing blood, for more than three weeks. You may also experience fatigue, night sweats, chills, fever, and chest pain.
People with cancer, diabetes, HIV, or a substance abuse disorder are most at risk for an active TB infection. Unexplained weight loss can factor into each of these underlying conditions, too.
Unexplained weight loss can occur for many reasons, but none of them are good. It’s important to get checked out if you’re experiencing this symptom, because in many cases the proper treatment can get you quickly back on the road to wellness. Only once the underlying issue has been corrected can you look at the weight loss as a positive springboard to better health.