January 21, 2010

The Not-So-Usual Suspects: Some Surprising Weight Gain Causes

The Unusual Suspects.
Photo: exquisitur

Aiding and abetting weight gain – there ought to be a law. But until the scales of justice catch up with these nefarious no-goodnik reasons for gaining weight, we’ll just have to write about them instead. You might be surprised at some of the things out there that could be working against your efforts to get fit.

This article cited a study in which subjects only got 4 hours of sleep as compared to people who got a good night’s sleep. It was found that the sleep-deprived study subjects had an 18% decrease in leptin (the hormone that signals satiety or fullness) and a 28% increase in ghrelin (the hormone that triggers hunger). Overall, sleep deprivation led to a 24% increase in appetite. Not enough zzzzz’s, it appears, could lead to inhaling too many m&m’s. And if that weren’t bad enough, not getting adequate sleep could also impair glucose metabolism which could lead to Type 2 diabetes.

I know what you’re thinking – I can always catch up on my sleep over the weekend. Fresh research shows that this may not be as simple as previously thought. It is recommended that you get around 7 to 9 hours of sleep. Be careful to avoid any stimulants like high sugar or carbs before bedtime. And make sure to have a good sleep-inducing environment: no TV, bright lights or distracting technology. Petula Clark said it best: Don’t sleep in the subway, darlin’.

Dudes, you're doing it all wrong!
Photo: wOOkie

A lot has been written about the effects of stress and how it can hinder weight loss. A little stress is okay and generally pretty easy to deal with once the stress-inducing event has passed – like a close call in traffic or the babysitter canceling at the last minute. However, chronic stress – like a job loss, financial troubles or health worries – starts pumping high doses of the stress hormone, cortisol, through your body which elevates your appetite, which leads to overeating. It also shifts our food preferences over to the Dark Side: high fat, sugar and salt. And how’s this for a double whammy: Fat cells produce cortisol, too. Cortisol coupled with insulin produces visceral fat, which is more dangerous than regular fat in terms of increased heart attack and stroke risk. Where’s a Jedi knight when you need one?

Not everybody loves a clown.
Photo: Photo Denblow

There are some steps you can take to help relieve some of the stress. Yoga is highly recommended, as are deep breathing exercises. Also suggested has been 20 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation in which you cycle through the various muscle groups, alternating tensing and relaxing each one. Regular exercise will also help lighten the burden of chronic stress. But to really alleviate stress, the stressor itself must be addressed and reconciled as much as possible in order to keep us from reaching for the temporary food fix. Professional help might be called for if the stress is overwhelming. Taking care of your mental health is just as vital as taking care of you physical health and generally covered under many health insurance plans.

Don’t use this as justification for going off your meds without checking with your doctor, but some medications – for one reason or another – may have weight gain as a side effect. Generally speaking, they include: steroids, antidepressants, antipsychotics, oral contraceptives, and medications for diabetes, high blood pressure and heartburn.

Every drug is a little different, as is the person taking it so not everyone is going to be affected in the same way – if at all. If your meds are causing weight gain (putting on 5 or more pounds in a month without having changed your routine), they could be doing so by increasing your appetite, storing fat in a different way or interacting with insulin levels.

An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) could also be working against you. This is caused by too little thyroid hormone being produced. Signs of hypothyroidism include lethargy, fatigue, sleeping too much, sensitivity to cold, swelling, hoarseness or headaches. Your doctor can conduct a simple blood test for this.

Ladies, menopause will eventually rear its ugly head and cause your body to go to war against itself – or at least it will feel that way. As you endure your own personal version of climate change, courtesy of hot flashes and night sweats, you’ll also be treated to a “naturally” slowing metabolism, although trust me – nothing about this feels natural at all. The hormonal changes you go through will interrupt your sleep, trigger your appetite and alter your moods (and not for the better – you might actually consider changing your name to Sybil just to cover the variety of personalities that emerge during this blissful time). Ain’t nature grand? Stress-busting speaker, Loretta Laroche, has a great line that encapsulates all the wonders of menopause: “I’m out of estrogen and I have a gun.” ‘Nuff said.

To counter some of the effects of menopause, increasing lean body mass through lifting weights and strength training can be helpful. Other suggestions included taking calcium and vitamin D. I’m generally not a fan of hormone replacement therapy but that’s a conversation you should have with your doctor.

Do you have any of these – or other unusual suspects – working against you in your efforts to get fit? And if so, how are you dealing with them?


  1. Something else surprising... watching too much TV increases weight. TV encourages calories to build up and disrupts sleeping schedules.

  2. Hi,

    Want to share something about Weight Gain with all blog visitors which I read few day ago,

    "Chronic stress and cortisol can contribute to weight gain" said by Sir Elizabeth Scott

    -- Fitness Tips

    --- Baiju Dixit - One Health Conscious Guy

  3. yesyesyes on the sleep.
    My child, husband and dayjob are all conspiring against me with this one---but Im fighting back :)


    sign me:


  4. Definitely the first two. Plus I just hate exercising. I do it anyway, but most times I'm not happy about it.


  5. Thanks Gigi - I had just recently heard about a couple of these, while trying to figure out my lull. The sleeping one and the oh so natural one! Guess its time to start lifting weights....Or just hit myself in the head with the dumbbell.

  6. Yip, I write about these in The Joy-Filled Body. I've written about the fascinating research showing that 'sleep is the royal route to obesity' (to borrow a pharise) and along with it come some free sleep tips over at my ditch diets site.

  7. I am so glad that you mentioned sleep disturbances associated with menopause. I didn't know that this was one of the symptoms, but as an almost 45 year old woman, I am finding that happening more and more. (Lack of sleep might be the reason so many woman become as ornery as a snake during menopause.) Now I just need a solution. Got any?

  8. Oh no. Today I am STRESSED about being lethargic from NOT ENOUGH SLEEP, so I'm seeking caffeinated MEDICATION to correct my PHYSICAL CONDITION.

    What does all this mean? I really need to start going to be earlier. I don't exercise when I'm sleep deprived = weight gain.

  9. A big fat yes to the stress. I'm not sure about my cortisol levels (wish there was an app for that) but I can tell you I eat a lot more--and work out a lot less--when I'm stressed out.

  10. Sleep and stress. *sigh* and they're related which makes them extra special. I'm always stressed when I get too little sleep, and I have sleeping problems when I'm stressed. What to do?

    My biggest problem is Mike's suggestion: tv. I fall asleep to it (hence maybe sleep issues?) and have it on when I'm at home as background noise. Evilness.

  11. 4 hours of sleep? Bleh.

    I had one of those bounce back punching clowns as a kid...loved it.

  12. I used to be really good about following relaxation and stress reduction tips, and now I've gotten out of the habit.

    But what I need to remind myself is that if you invest a little time in teaching yourself how to relax your muscles, slow your breathing, and stop obsessing, over time you get quicker and quicker at it. So spending maybe 20 minutes a day for a few weeks can pay off with the ability to de-stress when you need it, by just taking a couple minutes every now and then to close your eyes, slow your breath, and cue the relaxation response.

    It's hard to find the time for relaxation training, but I know it buys you so many health benefits.

    OK, that's it, I've convinced myself. I'm gonna start working on this again.

  13. Agggh, sleep and stress, why are you so hard to manage?!?!

  14. Menopause DEFINITELY contributes to weight gain (and overall crankiness!) I'm living proof. I've got it all - the hot flashes and night sweats, lack of sleep, etc.

    Love the line about being out of estrogen and having a gun. I'm totally stealing that!

  15. I suffer from an acute case of oversensitivity to stress. Yoga has helped me with that a lot.

    I also, for many many years, took birth control pills. Over the period of time I took them, my weight steadily increased, despite my best efforts to loose weight. I'm no longer taking birth control pills, and have found that I can now, slowly, start loosing the weight (as long as I stick to the plan!)

  16. It's my firm belief that the reason they tell new mothers not to expect to really lose weight until 3 months are the top two - lack of sleep and stress. Because nothing stresses you out like a newborn. And nothing robs you of sleep faster either. *sigh*

    Now would someone please tell my 3 month old that 3 am is not play time? *yawn*

  17. Yes, you should definitely avoid stimulants like high sugar before bed time because stimulants like that just make you want more and more...

  18. All good advice! And I know way more about the hormone probs as anyone that reads my blog knows as I was blogging about it today AND I did a giveaway the other day on a book about hormone issues! Perimenopause should be included in that menopause talk too as the change can be anywhere from 4- 10 years in the making.. OH NO! I have been going thru it for 4-5 years & it gets worse, then better than worse & so on.. UGH! You do have to work hard to get thru that!

    I don't do HRT but I have read & seen really good reports on bioidentical HRT but once again, something you need to discuss with your doctor.

  19. I read about the sleep connection not too long ago and am trying to get more than my traditional 2.5 hours before waking up...darn my perimenopausal body!

  20. Stress! Definitely doesn't surprise me there. While I don't pig out when I'm stressed, I do tend to go for sweets and junk food so that really attributes to any weight gain on my part.

  21. One weight loss physician pointed out that all the drugs for mens ailments seem to lead to impotence, and all the drugs for problems women suffer from most lead to weight gain.

    I do notice that when I am sleep deprived, I simply want to eat more, as my body tries to find the energy to stay awake.

  22. Lack of sleep is doing me in. It hard to workout when I'm tired. And it's hard to manage my stress unless I workout. It's all connected. I work out anyway even if it's a lame effort. Something is better than nothing. And exercise helps me sleep.

  23. lack of sleep always bites me in the ass...am trying real hard to get between 7-9 each night, it's hard!

  24. So, does menopause disrupted sleep EVER go back to normal? I'm really really tired (so to speak) of waking up every hour all night long. Six and a half naps do not add up to a good night's sleep.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  25. I have no chronic stress at the moment, which is fantastic, since the last 7 or so years were filled with it. My biggest source of chronic stress for the past 2 years moved out about four months ago (alcoholic ex). Before that, I just really didn't grasp how to manage stress so everything seemed like a catastrophe. Dealing with MAJOR stress for a prolonged time makes normal stress seem... normal! What's great is that weight has become much easier to lose, and I've been able to sleep! Not a stress management path I would recommend to anyone, but it's nice to know you can come out of something that sucked so much as a more balanced person.

  26. Hmmm. I actually have some working against my efforts towards weight loss.

    1.) lack of sleep. I always wake up after 6 hours of sleep. I get more than that if I'm super exhausted. How do I deal with this?
    2.) Hypothyroidism. I definitely need to get checked. Maybe that's why I get cold easily.
    3.) Stress. I'm still adjusting to a new work schedule. Once I actually find a pattern (soon I hope!), I will get back to Yoga.

  27. Hysterical about the feminization. Totaly cracked me up :)


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