What Can Cause Abdominal Swelling and Weight Gain?


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Gillian Vann/Stocksy United

Bloating or swelling around your stomach or abdomen can have many causes, including digestive conditions, hormonal changes, and even some medications.

In addition to abdominal bloating or swelling, it’s possible that you may have noticed that you’ve also gained some weight without changing your exercise routine or diet.

So, what does it mean when these two symptoms — stomach bloating and weight gain — occur together?

In this article we’ll take a closer look at what can cause stomach swelling along with unexpected weight gain, and discuss when it’s a good idea to see your doctor.

Causes of swollen stomach and weight gain

Outlined below are possible causes of a swollen stomach and weight gain that can affect both men and women. Some of these causes are related to lifestyle factors while others may be a symptom of a more serious medical condition.

Stress

It’s possible that high levels of stress can cause weight gain and bloating. Too much stress can have a variety of negative effects on your body, including on your digestive symptom.

When you’re stressed, you can experience gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms like bloating, abdominal discomfort, and diarrhea. Additionally, some researchers believe that stress may contribute to your perception of abdominal bloating.

Stress can also cause some people to “stress eat.” In fact, about 40 percent of people increase food intake when they’re feeling stressed. It’s also possible that stress may lead to a decrease in physical activity. Along with stress eating, this can cause weight gain.

There are steps you can take to help reduce your stress levels. For instance you can try:

  • getting regular exercise
  • prioritizing your sleep and aiming for at least 7-8 hours rest each night
  • relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises
  • listening to music or writing down your thoughts
  • indulging in a favorite hobby

Alcohol consumption

Alcohol is an inflammatory substance that can affect many parts of your body, including your digestive system. Alcohol consumption can lead to several unpleasant GI symptoms like bloating, gas, and abdominal discomfort.

Alcohol is full of empty calories. Per gram, it has almost twice as many calories as carbs or protein, yet provides no nutritional value. Because of its calorie content, increased alcohol intake can lead to weight gain.

You can prevent alcohol-related bloating and weight gain by drinking in moderation. This means one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. A standard drink is considered to be:

  • 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol)
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol)
  • 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces of liquor (40 percent alcohol)

Medications

It’s possible that some types of medications can cause abdominal bloating and weight gain. Some examples include:

Corticosteroids

Corticosteroids are used to reduce inflammation in your body. Fluid retention as well as weight gain, particularly around the abdomen and face, are potential side effects of oral corticosteroids. Other possible side effects include:

  • high blood pressure
  • swelling of the lower legs
  • mood swings
  • increased eye pressure (glaucoma)
  • slow wound healing
  • increased risk of infections

Oral contraceptives

Oral contraceptives can also cause bloating. While you may gain some weight on these medications, studies have indicated that they don’t lead to major weight gain. Other possible side effects of oral contraceptives include:

  • spotting between periods
  • breast tenderness
  • nausea

Antibiotics

Antibiotics treat bacterial infections. Because they can also affect bacteria in your digestive tract, they can cause GI symptoms like bloating. Other potential side effects of antibiotics include:

  • diarrhea
  • nausea or vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • reduced appetite

Because GI bacteria can play a role in weight gain, it’s also possible that changes to GI bacteria through the use of antibiotics may contribute to weight gain. However, more research is needed in this area.

Ascites

Ascites is a condition that’s characterized by fluid buildup in your abdomen. It’s the most common complication of cirrhosis, a condition that’s caused by scarring or damage to your liver.

In addition to cirrhosis, additional causes of ascites can include:

  • some types of cancer, such as ovarian, liver, colorectal, or pancreatic cancers
  • heart failure
  • kidney failure
  • pancreatic disease
  • tuberculosis

Ascites happens when high blood pressure in the veins of the liver (portal hypertension) is combined with reduced liver function. This causes fluid to accumulate in the abdomen. Symptoms can include:

  • swollen or distended abdomen
  • weight gain
  • abdominal pain or discomfort
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling full quickly after eating (early satiety)

The overall goal of ascites treatment is to limit the amount of fluid that builds up in the abdomen. Treatment options can involve:

  • diuretic medication, which helps remove water from the body through increased urination
  • insertion of a temporary drain in your abdomen to remove fluid
  • placement of a shunt within your abdomen that reroutes blood flow around the liver
  • liver transplant

Cushing’s syndrome

Cushing’s syndrome is a condition in which your body produces too much cortisol. You may be familiar with cortisol as your “stress hormone.” Cortisol can impact all areas of your body and is important for processes like:

  • responding to stress
  • maintaining blood pressure
  • reducing inflammation
  • regulating the way nutrients are turned into energy

Most of the time, Cushing’s syndrome develops due to the prolonged use of corticosteroids, which are used to treat conditions like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Specific types of tumors can also cause the condition.

Because of the broad action of cortisol throughout the body, Cushing’s syndrome has a wide variety of symptoms. Two of them are weight gain and accumulation of fat around the abdomen. Other symptoms include:

  • round face (moon face)
  • thin arms and legs
  • fat accumulation at the base of the neck
  • easy bruising
  • poor wound healing
  • stretch marks, particularly on the abdomen
  • muscle weakness
  • excess hair on the face, chest, and abdomen (women)
  • periods that are irregular or absent (women)
  • reduced libido (men)
  • erectile dysfunction (men)

If Cushing’s syndrome is caused by corticosteroid medications, your doctor will likely reduce the dose or recommend an alternative medication. Surgery can be performed to remove tumors that are causing Cushing’s syndrome.

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is when your thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormone helps your body utilize energy. When there’s not enough of it, your body’s processes can slow down.

This includes processes like metabolism. In fact, one of the symptoms of hypothyroidism is weight gain. Your digestive system can also be impacted, slowing the movement (motility) of your intestines.

This decreased motility can increase the risk of a condition called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). SIBO often causes bloating, gas, and abdominal discomfort. Some research has linked it to hypothyroidism.

In addition to weight gain and, potentially, bloating, other symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

  • fatigue
  • constipation
  • body aches and pains
  • dry skin
  • thinning hair
  • sensitivity to cold
  • reduced sweating
  • slowed heartbeat
  • depression
  • irregular periods (women)
  • problems with fertility (women)

Hypothyroidism is treated with a medication called levothyroxine. This is a hormone medication that works to replace the missing thyroid hormone.

Causes that affect women only

Now let’s examine some causes of weight gain and stomach swelling or bloating that can be the result of conditions that specifically affect women.

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)

PMS is a collection of symptoms that happen in the days prior to your period. The symptoms of PMS can be both emotional and physical. They’re caused by changes in hormone levels that occur during your menstrual cycle.

Two of the physical symptoms of PMS are bloating and weight gain. Bloating occurs due to water retention, which, like many other PMS symptoms, is caused by hormonal changes.

Weight gain may be associated with other PMS symptoms, such as:

  • water retention, which can slightly increase your weight (“water weight”)
  • food cravings that may cause you to overeat or eat unhealthy foods
  • fatigue and abdominal cramps, which may lead to a decrease in physical activity

Additional physical and emotional symptoms of PMS can include:

  • breast tenderness
  • headache
  • body aches and pains
  • GI symptoms like constipation and diarrhea
  • acne
  • altered sleeping patterns
  • feeling irritable
  • emotional outbursts
  • feelings of anxiety or depression

Many PMS symptoms can be eased with lifestyle changes like regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and getting enough sleep. Medications like NSAIDs, oral contraceptives, and antidepressants can also help reduce symptoms.

Pregnancy

Bloating is a potential early sign of pregnancy. This often feels similar to the bloating that you experience prior to getting your period. Other early pregnancy symptoms include:

  • missed period
  • breast tenderness and swelling
  • morning sickness
  • frequent urination
  • fatigue
  • constipation
  • abdominal cramping
  • sensitivity to odors

Unexpected weight gain is also a symptom of pregnancy. However, it may not be noticeable early on. During pregnancy, most women gain the majority of their pregnancy weight after week 20.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

PCOS happens when levels of androgens (male sex hormones) are higher than normal. This can have a variety of effects on your body, such as interfering with your cycle and causing excess hair growth.

Another potential side effect is weight gain. Weight gain due to PCOS often happens around the abdomen, which may cause your stomach to appear distended or bloated.

Other symptoms of PCOS can include:

  • cysts that form on your ovaries
  • irregular periods, which can include:
    • very heavy periods
    • frequently missed periods
    • absent periods
  • infertility
  • thinning hair
  • acne
  • darkened patches of skin, particularly on your neck and under your breasts
  • skin tags

There’s no cure for PCOS, but medications can help reduce symptoms. Some medication options include:

  • hormonal birth control, which can help keep your cycle regular and reduce symptoms like acne and excess hair growth
  • metformin, a medication that’s typically used to treat diabetes, but may also help with PCOS
  • clomiphene (Clomid), a medication that helps you ovulate

Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a condition in which the lining of the uterus (endometrium) grows outside of your uterus. Because this tissue is in an area where it doesn’t belong, it can cause inflammation, pain, and bleeding between periods.

Endometriosis can also cause abdominal bloating. This may be due to:

  • growth of endometrial tissue within your abdomen, which can cause swelling and fluid retention
  • endometriomas, a type of ovarian cyst that can develop with this condition
  • other GI symptoms that often happen with endometriosis, such as constipation and diarrhea

Weight gain itself isn’t a symptom of endometriosis, but it can occur in some women. This may be due to several factors associated with endometriosis, including:

  • Water retention: Retaining extra fluid can lead to a slight increase in weight.
  • Medications: The side effects of some medications used to treat endometriosis, such as hormonal birth control, may lead to weight gain.
  • Hysterectomy: Hysterectomy, a surgery to remove the uterus, is sometimes used to treat endometriosis. One 2009 cohort study found that women gained an average of 3 pounds in the year after their hysterectomy.

Endometriosis is treated with medications, which can include hormonal birth control, gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) agonists, and pain relievers. In cases where symptoms are severe, surgery may be an option.

When to get medical attention

In some cases abdominal swelling with weight gain can signal an underlying condition that needs medical attention. See your doctor if you experience swelling and weight gain that:

  • comes on suddenly
  • is severe
  • is prolonged
  • can’t be explained by an existing health condition
  • occurs along with additional symptoms like abdominal pain or shortness of breath
  • happens along with changes to your menstrual cycle, such as very heavy periods, irregular periods, or absent periods (women)

Additionally, if you’re taking a medication that’s causing unwanted side effects like bloating and weight gain, speak with your doctor. They may be able to recommend an alternative medication or treatment.

The bottom line

Stomach swelling that happens with weight gain can have several causes. Some causes may be related to stress, alcohol consumption, or medications. Other causes can be a result of health conditions like hypothyroidism or PCOS.

Many causes of stomach swelling and weight gain can be treated with lifestyle changes and medications. However, others, such as ascites, can be serious.

See your doctor or healthcare provider as soon as possible if you have stomach swelling and weight gain that comes on suddenly, is severe, or happens with other concerning symptoms. Your doctor can work with you to determine what may be causing your condition, and prescribe the right treatment plan for you.


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