There's nothing more frustrating than gaining a few pounds, especially when you can't determine the cause. Most people who gain weight are consuming more calories per day than they are burning, but sometimes unexplained weight gain occurs despite a healthy diet and regular exercise. Here are four reasons the scale may be going up when it should be level.

Hypothyroidism

Hormones can affect body weight in a number of ways. One hormonal cause of unexplained weight gain is hypothyroidism, which is the result of a deficiency in thyroid hormone. Playing a key role in energy production and metabolism, the thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck just below the Adam’s apple. Hypothyroidism can slow metabolism and increase weight gain. Symptoms include fatigue, swelling, intolerance to cold temperatures, headaches and a hoarse voice.

What can help?

People who suspect hypothyroidism should visit a health care professional for easy confirmation. Dietary recommendations include a reduction or elimination of caffeine and sugar, including refined carbohydrates like white rice, bread and pasta, which quickly convert to sugar in the body. Experts also suggest fewer grain-based carbohydrates in general, more non-starchy vegetables and a little protein with every meal, as it helps transport thyroid hormone to body tissues. Nuts, nut butters, legumes, quinoa, free-range eggs, grass-fed meats and wild-caught fish are all ultra-healthy sources of protein.

Menopause

When women hit menopause, they begin to lose estrogen, which causes weight to distribute around the middle, as opposed to the hips and thighs. Hormonal fluctuation before and during menopause can increase appetite, affect the quality of sleep, lower metabolism and bring on feelings of depression—all factors that influence body weight and can contribute to unexplained weight gain.

What can help?

Supplements like flaxseed oil, fish oil and maca powder can help balance hormones and reduce hot flashes, which interfere with sleep. In addition to relieving menopausal symptoms, these supplements offer a range of other health benefits. Flaxseed can help stabilize the mood, fish oil is beneficial to the heart and maca can boost the body's defenses against physical and mental stressors. In addition to supplements, experts also recommend regular cardiovascular exercise and strength training for women in menopause. Increased lean body mass helps strengthen the bones and boost metabolism for more calories burnt and a trimmer waistline.

Medications

Weight GainPeople who have gained five or more pounds within one month without changes in diet or exercise may find the cause inside their medicine cabinet. Weight gain is an unfortunate side effect of certain medications used to treat depression, seizures, migraines, diabetes, heartburn and high blood pressure. Other common medicines that can put on weight are oral contraceptives, hormone replacement therapy and steroids.

What can help?

Certain medications can cause fluid retention, which shows up as weight on the scale, but is not due to excess body fat. Water weight is easily corrected through natural or prescribed means. Individuals experiencing unexpected weight gain should consult a health care professional, especially if taking any of the medicines described above. While there may be an option to change medications, it is important to consider how the medicine affects overall health. Feeling good may be a sound trade-off for a bit of weight gain, and it is very important not to stop taking medication without guidance from a medical professional.

Stress

Day-to-day life is more stressful than ever, and although a certain amount of stress is good for the body, persistent stress is not. Stress triggers a biochemical "fight-or-flight" response and if this response is ongoing, the body reacts by slowing metabolism, storing fuel and releasing cortisol from the adrenal glands. This directly affects fat storage and body weight and can cause unexplained weight gain. In fact, animal and human studies have shown that supplementing with cortisol is associated with increased appetite, cravings for sugar and weight gain. While many people turn to food for help in dealing with stress, this is a double-edged sword. Eating doesn't help in addressing stressors and dealing with them. In addition, stress-relieving foods are often high in calories, unhealthy fats and sugar—all the things people shouldn't consume during periods of high stress. While these foods can stimulate the release of calming serotonin in the brain, this effect is only temporary, and the body eventually suffers physical consequences.

What can help?

Experts recommend relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, tai chi, soothing music, or guided imagery for dealing with chronic stress. In addition, physical exercise can offer the same temporary calming effect as sugary, high-calorie foods, but with far better results.

By guest contributor Jillian Fritsen

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