WHEN TO SEE YOUR DOCTOR
* You're not trying to lose weight.
* You're trying to lose weight and suddenly lose more than ten pounds.
What Your Symptom Is Telling You
Sounds like a dream symptom—weight loss. No plump paunch, no sagging bottom. ("Whatever it is, Doc, I don't want to be cured, because I'm looking great in my swimsuit.")
Hold off on that delight for just a minute. Unintentional, unexplained weight loss is a serious symptom, according to Richard L. Atkinson, M.D., associate chief of staff for research and development at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Hampton, Virginia, and professor of medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. "You need to see your doctor for a checkup," he says. "And that's particularly true if you're attempting to lose weight and you lose a lot of weight very suddenly. You may be mistaking a serious disease for success in dieting."
The only time weight loss isn't a serious symptom is if you have truly altered your lifestyle—adopting a nutritious, low-fat diet and maintaining a regular schedule of exercise and physical activity—and the weight loss is gradual.
A lot of health problems can result in sudden, unexplained weight loss. Any condition in which you lose your appetite for an extended period of time—a chronic illness like cancer, for example—can strip you of pounds. One of the most common of these anti-appetite diseases is a chronic infection. (AIDS and tuberculosis are two of the worst appetite assassins.)
Some glandular diseases make you hungrier—but also eat up your body. An overactive thyroid speeds up your metabolism, causing weight loss (and sweating, tremors, weak muscles and nervousness). In diabetes—a disease of the pancreas gland that ruins the body's ability to regulate blood sugar, a main source of fuel—the body burns off fat trying to meet its energy needs.
Some diseases of old age—Parkinson's and Alzheimer's—can steal pounds. In Alzheimer's, people can simply forget to eat. And older people often lose weight just because they're getting old—their metabolism slows, their taste sensations become dull and appetite itself can decrease, says Donald S. Robertson, M.D., medical director of Southwest Bariatric Nutrition Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, and coauthor of The Snowbird Diet.
But it's not only physical illness that causes weight loss. Mental illness can affect appetite, too. Some people with depression are disinterested in eating and lose weight, says Dr. Robertson. And anorexia—a psychological disorder in which a person eats almost nothing because of a distorted perception of their body—also leads to rapid, excessive weight loss.
Unwanted or unintended weight loss is not a problem that can be solved by eating—it's probably a symptom of a serious disease, and you need to see your doctor. Here's what might turn up and what your doctor might suggest.
Treating TB. Tuberculosis isn't a death sentence—it's very treatable. Antibiotics can knock it out, says Dr. Atkinson, but you must stick with your treatment, which lasts months.
Calming an overactive thyroid. Doctors treat an overactive thyroid with medication, surgery or with a dose of radioactive iodine, which destroys part of the gland, says Dr. Atkinson. After your treatment you may have to take thyroid pills, which will provide normal amounts of thyroid hormone.
Disciplining diabetes. If your doctor diagnoses diabetes, you'll need a personal program of diet, exercise and medication (taken either orally or by injection) to regulate it.
Detecting cancer. The sooner cancer is detected, the better the chances of a cure, says Dr. Atkinson. Treatment may include surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.