Unexplained weight: causes and treatments

  • Causes

Unintended weight loss might have various underlying causes. It could be a sign of a serious disease, or it could be something very minor. Determining the underlying cause is the most important step in management of unexplained weight loss. Some of the possible reasons of unexplained weight loss are:


  • Diabetes Mellitus: Diabetes mellitus is common in middle aged and elderly people. Diabetes type 2 is marked by the classic symptoms of weight loss, tiredness, polydipsia (excessive thirst) and polyuria (increase in amount of urine).Weight loss is one of the early signs of Diabetes Mellitus and it should not be ignored. The weight loss in diabetic patients is partially due to the sugar (glucose) that is eliminated through the urine.
  • Hyperthyroidism: Hyperthyroidism is a medical condition in which the thyroid hormone called thyroxine is produced in excess. The elevated hormone level in the body fastens the normal physiological functions. It may result in symptoms like irritability, nervousness, anxiety, decreased sleep, sweating, palpitations, tremor and diarrhea. Even though hyperthyroid patients experience increased appetite, weight loss will be significantly present. Weight loss is a warning sign which will appear in the initial stages of hyperthyroidism.
  • Cancer: Occurrence of weight loss is the first noticeable symptom in most types of cancers. Other symptoms depend on the type and site of cancer. In some cases weight loss occurs secondary to malignancy. The weight loss is accounted to the amplified activity of cancer cells in the body that require nourishment.
  • Depression: Depression is present with wide variety of symptoms. But most people would not realize that they have depression. Patients having depression will not be eating right amount of food, which further leads to weight loss. It is sometimes due to weight loss that the friends or family will in fact notice that a person might be having depression.
  • Eating disorders: Eating disorders are mainly of two types namely anorexia (due to under eating) and bulimia (caused by over eating).They are common in adolescents. Anorexic patients would compulsively control food intake. Decreased caloric intake along with rigorous exercise in such patients lead to drastic weight loss. If ignored anorexia leads to malnutrition and can be highly fatal.
  • Chronic infectious diseases: Weight loss is a classical symptom related to severe infectious diseases like tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS. Viral infections tend to damage the fat cells to release fatty acids and utilize them for their replication. This leads to subsequent weight loss.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is linked to weight loss. COPD patients experience diminished muscle mass. This is mainly due to poor appetite related to restricted activity, added energy required for breathing, and the difficulty of eating combined with stressful breathing.
  • Digestive Disorders: Weight loss is a common symptom in diseases like diarrhea, ulcers and crohn’s disease. These diseases disturb the normal absorption of food from the body to the gut. Thus malnutrition leads to weight loss.
  • Use of Alcohol: Alcoholics tend to consume fewer calories. They will not stick to a nutritious diet. This may eventually lead to weight loss.
  • Dementia: Dementia patients will not be able to follow a proper diet. This is a cause for malnutrition. Weight loss is common in most of the dementia patients.
  • Adverse effects of medication: Many drugs can cause weight loss as a side effect. Weight loss may not be evident initially. Common side effects like poor appetite, heart burn etc. will affect the food habits of the patients and leads to weight loss.
  • Surgery:

Weight loss is common after surgery. The post-operative pain can cause loss of appetite. Surgery has a direct effect on dietary status if the procedure permanently changes the digestive system.

  • Diagnosis:

The doctor will gather all the necessary medical details from the patient or the family. If any psychiatric issue like depression is suspected, the patient will be referred to a psychiatrist. The doctor will order blood tests, urine analysis etc. to find the root cause of the disease. Vital signs like heartbeat, blood pressure and temperature are also assessed. The doctor may ask the following details to find out the exact cause:

  • About the diet, food intake and appetite
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Changes in bowel movement
  • Changed clothing size
  • Presence of weakness, malaise, fevers, and night sweats
  • Pre-existing medical conditions
  • History of any weight loss episodes
  • Medication history of the patient – including prescription, over-the-counter, recreational drugs and herbal products used by the patient.
  • Enquire about the personal issues of the patient (for example, death of a loved one, loss of job, academic failure etc.)


  • Treatment

Nutritional deficiency could be treated with the guidance of a dietician. Eating a nutrient rich diet can help to gain adequate weight. Weight loss due to digestive disorders requires specific diet and some supplements in order to contribute for the lost weight. Weight loss that is connected to hyperthyroidism requires certain medications. Weight loss associated with general weakness can be corrected with proper diet, adequate fluid intake and appropriate rest.


During teenage years, there is increased chance for developing eating disorders like anorexia which will lead to unexplained weight loss. Younger generation is often obsessed with their body image and will be under unhealthy diet due to fear of weight gain. Weight loss may occur as a result stress caused due to personal or professional issues. These issues could be reviewed by a psychologist. Counseling will be helpful to overcome the issue and restore the mood of the person. The person will regain the weight once the mental issues are resolved. A relaxation technique like meditation also helps in such situations.

It is very important to maintain a healthy weight according to one’s Body Mass Index. Drastic weight loss and weight gain is equally fatal. Rapid weight gain may sometimes require Liposuction – a surgery to remove excess fat from body.




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