Is Medicine Making You Fat?

Many of today’s medications deal safely and effectively with the illnesses and symptoms for which they were developed, but some of them have a less desirable side effect weight gain.

Medications for common health problems can cause bloating, increased appetite or slow down our metabolism, all leading to extra kilos. “Over a month, if you haven’t eaten or exercised differently and you have put on 3kg or more, then suspect any medication you are taking may be a factor in that weight gain,” says John Bell, a pharmacist and member of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia. “But you shouldn’t just stop taking that medication. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist for advice.”

Blood pressure medication

What happens: About 3.7 million Australians have high blood pressure that places them at risk of heart attack and stroke. A range of medications helps manage high blood pressure. ACE (angiotensin converting enzyme) inhibitors work through the kidneys as these play a pivotal role in monitoring blood pressure and regulating the contraction of blood vessels and how much fluid your body retains, says Professor Simon Stewart of the Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute. “Beta blockers work by slowing the heart rate and are also rumoured to slow your metabolism,” says Stewart.

Possible weight gain: Beta blockers may cause a weight gain of about 2kg, but some specialists believe prolonged use leads to weight gain of 5kg to 9kg. ACE inhibitors have less of an impact.

Managing it: “You can do more damage by not taking your blood pressure medication than by putting on a small amount of weight,” says Stewart. “If you lower your blood pressure and your heart and kidneys work better your metabolism will improve and you shift fluid that makes you heavier.”

Diabetes drugs

What happens: Diabetes Australia says 275 people are diagnosed with diabetes every day, mostly with type 2 diabetes, but up to 60 percent of cases could be prevented with a healthy, low-GI diet and exercise. As diabetes progresses tablets are needed to control blood glucose levels, and eventually people may need insulin to control blood glucose when their body stops producing enough insulin of its own. About five different types of tablets are prescribed in Australia to control blood glucose levels. In some cases, weight gain may be a side effect. “It’s an internal mechanism, not to do with people feeling hungrier,” says Stewart. “There is a shift in how your body processes food and how it stores and uses glucose.”

Possible weight gain: Diabetes Australia says that generally weight gain linked to diabetes medication is “small”. In some cases fat that is usually stored around the abdomen which is more dangerous shifts to the hips and thighs which is less risky.

Eating a diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer high-energy foods help counter weight gain.

Managing it: “Anyone taking tablets needs to lead a healthy lifestyle by exercising more and eating a good balanced diet to offset the effects of medication,” says Stewart. “There is no better pill than exercise and a healthy diet.”

Allergy treatments

What happens: Around 20 per cent of Australians have at least one allergy. A study of 867 adults in the US found that those using prescription antihistamines to combat allergies were more likely to be overweight.

Blocking histamine helps relieve allergy symptoms. But some cells in the brain have histamine receptors that may affect appetite and how fast we burn fat. Researchers think antihistamines interfere with these receptors, making us hungrier and slowing our metabolism.

Possible weight gain: The US study found 45 percent of people who used antihistamines were overweight, compared to 30 percent of people in the study who didn’t use the drugs.

Managing it: “Old style antihistamines used to make people sleepy and less inclined to move, but the newer ones don’t have that sedating effect, so are less likely to lead to weight gain,” says Bell.