It’s Not Your Thyroid: Surprising Reasons You Might Be Gaining Weight

October 28th, 2015

Gaining weight, losing sleep, and a general feeling of malaise? Some would be quick to point the finger at your thyroid, but that’s not necessarily the culprit. 

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located below the Adam’s apple; it’s responsible for many of the body’s biochemical reactions. Most famously, it has a huge impact on a person’s metabolism and energy levels.

And that’s why often when unexplained weight-gain or fatigue occurs, people are quick blame the poor little thyroid. Some 20 million people have thyroid issues, but many of the common symptoms of thyroid disease are actually indicative of other problems in the body. Think something’s up, but can’t quite put your finger on what the problem is? It may not be your thyroid, but the cause might be right under your nose.

Polycystic ovary syndrome

A staggering one in ten women are diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. An endocrine system disorder, PCOS affects women of reproductive age; basically, cysts grow on the ovaries and alter the hormonal balance in a woman’s body.  The symptoms of PCOS are different for everyone, but weight gain, acne, irregular or painful periods, and excess hair growth due to overproduction of male hormones are typical indicators.

Often sudden weight gain is the first noticeable symptom of PCOS, although more symptoms can occur at once. Polycystic ovary syndrome is notoriously sneaky to diagnose, and many women live with it for years without knowing why they’re dealing with massive breakouts, painful periods, and infertility. PCOS can’t be self-diagnosed, so if you suspect that you might have it, head to the doctor. Have a PCOS diagnosis? Studies show that in addition to prescription meds, eating a lower carbohydrate diet (similar to the Paleo diet) can seriously help with symptoms and regulate hormones.

Adrenal fatigue

A somewhat trendy diagnosis as of late, overstressed millennials blame everything from salty food cravings to difficulty waking up in the morning on “adrenal fatigue”. While some in the medical field bemoan the adrenal fatigue diagnosis as bunk, functional medicine practitioners argue that the name “adrenal fatigue” has become the laymen’s term for hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) dysregulation.

HPA axis dysregulation is a mouthful, but it’s pretty simple to explain. Essentially, the hormones involved in the HPA axis control the body’s reaction to stress, but when the body is overstressed for long periods of time, the hypothalamus stops producing the correct amount of hormones.  The result?  A whole host of symptoms like weight gain or loss, fatigue, anxiety, food cravings, depression, food allergies, poor memory, and insomnia.

If you think you might have HPA axis dysregulation, first consider what’s going on in your life. Anything from overtraining in the gym  to being in a difficult relationship to working a high-pressure job can be stressful enough to cause hormones to go haywire. Head to your doctor to get your hormonal levels checked if you suspect HPA axis dysregulation is an issue, and try an adrenal supplement to support your thyroid in the meantime.

Celiac disease

Going gluten-free has never been easier, but that doesn’t mean that a Celiac disease diagnosis is easy to hear. Those with Celiac can’t digest gluten protein, which is found in wheat products, rye, and barley.  The body views gluten as a threat and launches an immune response in the small intestine which results in some pretty serious damage to the intestinal walls where nutrients are absorbed.

Because of this damage, people with Celiac disease are unable to absorb or retain nutrients from their food. Along with a whole host of nasty reactions to gluten protein that include skin reactions and digestive issues, a gluten allergy may cause fatigue. This is simply because the body isn’t getting the vitamins and minerals it needs to function and thrive. In many cases a side effect of Celiac is also difficulty gaining weight, but some see weight gain due to higher cortisol levels in the body.

If you think you might have a gluten allergy, the best way to get a diagnosis is to do a blood test with your doctor. You can also try cutting gluten out of your diet on your own—there are so many gluten-free products available that it’s pretty painless to switch over—but sometimes this can affect the outcome of a blood test, so it’s best to check in with an MD first.

Estrogen dominance

One of the most common hormonal dysfunctions that can occur in a seemingly healthy woman’s body is estrogen dominance, or a lack of progesterone. Symptoms of estrogen dominance include fat gain, fatigue, aggravated PMS symptoms, depression and irritability, and even thyroid dysfunction. So your thyroid does come into play here, but it isn’t all to blame!

There are many reasons that a woman can become estrogen dominant. Estrogen and progesterone are the two hormones that work together to balance a healthy menstrual cycle—and these hormones work together to keep each other in balance. It’s when the body stops producing enough progesterone that estrogen dominance becomes an issue. There are plenty of reasons that this happens, from exposure to hormone disruptors to HPA axis dysregulation.

A test from your doctor should be able to tell you if you have elevated levels of estrogen, but this hormonal issue is relatively easy to treat naturally. Start eating a diet based on whole, unprocessed foods; by eliminating excessive toxins and eating clean, the liver will have a better chance to organically process excess estrogen. Switch over to safe beauty products too, because skin can absorb chemicals that affect hormones.

If you think that you might have any of these issues, it’s best to head to your doctor to make sure you’re tested for all of the possibilities. From there, you can get a diagnosis and a treatment regimen that will get you back to feeling energized and vibrant!
Illustration by Karley Koenig

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This article is related to: Health, Nutrition, Weight Gain, Weight Loss Tips

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Michelle PellizzonCertified health coach and endorphin enthusiast, Michelle is an expert in healthy living and eating. When she's not writing you can find her running trails, reading about nutrition, and eating lots of guacamole.

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