Appetite is “the desire to fulfill a bodily need.” The type of appetite we are most familiar with is hunger — which drives us to eat so we obtain enough calories, get essential vitamins and minerals, and experience satiety/satiation (the feeling of fullness during and after eating).
What does it mean when you lose your appetite? There are many reasons for not feeling hungry at all, or for getting full quickly once you start eating. For example, constipation, certain diseases, stomach viruses, eating disorders, and even cancer can all cause decreased hunger. To boost your appetite and keep your body in balance, there are many natural remedies that can be helpful. Below you’ll find lots of tips for regulating hunger by improving your diet, stress levels, exercise and eating habits.
What Is Loss of Appetite?
Loss of appetite is defined as “absent hunger” or “when your desire to eat is reduced.” (1) Technically, anorexia is the medical term that describes loss of appetite. However this usually refers to unintentional appetite loss, which is different than the eating disorder anorexia nervosa that is associated with intentional food restriction.
Appetite regulation is a complex process that is controlled by communication between different systems in the body. This includes the central nervous system (especially the brain), digestive system, endocrine system and sensory nerves, which together govern short-term and long-term appetite. A healthy, balanced appetite helps the body stay in a homeostatic state, meaning you’re able to meet your needs for energy (calories) and nutrients while still maintaining a healthy body weight.
Even though many people struggle with cravings and have a hard time with weight/fat loss, experiencing a temporary loss of appetite from time to time is a common problem. Is losing your appetite dangerous or something to worry about? A short-term loss of appetite isn’t necessarily a problem, and often is a natural reaction to being sick, overfed, very busy or emotionally stressed.
Ongoing appetite loss, on the other hand, can lead to serious complications if you develop nutrient deficiencies or rapidly lose too much weight. When you don’t eat much for several days or more, you aren’t able to obtain enough macronutrients (carbs, protein or fat that provide energy) or micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). This leaves your body feeling tired and stressed out, plus it can lead to loss of muscle mass, a decrease in strength, and poor cognitive function.
In the elderly, malnutrition due to loss of appetite is associated with problems including: impaired muscle function, decreased bone mass, immune dysfunction, anemia, reduced cognitive function, poor wound healing, delayed recovery from surgery, and, ultimately, increased morbidity and mortality. If you’ve lost your appetite due to being sick or having an underlying illness, this can be problematic because poor nutrient intake can slow recovery and limit improvements from treatment. (2)
Signs and Symptoms
Losing your appetite can result in symptoms that you’d probably expect, like not wanting to eat, not feeling hungry despite going for a long period without food (fasting), and possibly unintentional weight loss. Other symptoms that might occur at the same time as loss of appetite include:
- Feeling full after eating only a small amount
- Having a bloated stomach, feeling nauseous or having other symptoms of indigestion like heartburn/upset stomach
- Feeling fatigued and weak
- Having trouble concentrating and focusing or experiencing brain fog
- Trouble sleeping
- Swelling and fluid retention
- Mood changes, including low motivation and depression (3)
- Developing a fever, having chills or experiencing body aches if you’re sick
Will loss of appetite always lead to weight loss? It can if it persists for more than one to two days. If you temporarily lose your appetite due to something like emotional stress or an illness, chances are you will feel hungrier once you’re feeling better. This can lead to increased hunger for several days as you recover, so sustained weight loss is not very likely in this situation. On the other hand, if you lose your appetite for weeks or months due to an underlying physical or mental health condition, then weight loss is much more likely. For example, depression and inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) can cause decreased hunger that lasts for many weeks.
If you’ve lost your appetite due to a specific health condition (more on this below), then you’re likely to experience many other symptoms besides those mentioned above. For example, it might seem counter-intuitive, but struggling with an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa can actually cause you to lose your appetite due to a slowdown in metabolism and changes in the digestive system. This can be very unhealthy because it leads to very low calorie intake, causing deficiencies and changes in basal metabolic rate, heart health, bone density and hormone levels.
Causes and Risk Factors
Many factors influence how hungry, or not hungry, you feel. Some examples are: (4)
- Activities of sensors in your gut that respond to the physical presence or absence of food.
- The level of hormones being secreted by your gut. This includes ghrelin (increases appetite and is secreted by the stomach in response to fasting), peptide-YY (suppresses appetite and secreted by the ileum and colon in response to food intake), and cholecystokinin (suppresses appetite and secreted by the small intestine in response to the presence of fat and protein).
- Your mood and how stressed you feel.
- How tired or energized you feel based on your sleep.
- The reward you get from food that’s available to you (based on the hedonic system).
- Different components in foods you’ve recently eaten, such as sugar, carbs, fat or protein.
- Your current body weight.
- Your thyroid health and metabolism.
- Inflammation affecting your digestive system.
- Levels of reproductive hormones, such as testosterone, estrogen or progesterone that can fluctuate throughout the month/menstrual cycle. (5)
- Levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol.
- The time of day, which affects your circadian rhythm and hormones.
- Poverty, loneliness and social isolation are social factors that have been found to contribute to decreased food intake (including among the elderly). (6)
What can cause you to lose your appetite? Some of the most common loss of appetite causes include:
- Overeating at an earlier time, such as previously in the day or week. Over-eating can increase satiety hormones which makes you feel less hungry. Of course the opposite is also true: under-eating less can increase ghrelin and decrease leptin levels, making you hungrier.
- A sedentary lifestyle, since this can cause weight gain or an increase in leptin levels, which makes you feel less hungry.
- Older age. Because of changes to the digestive system and a slowing down of the metabolism, poor appetite is a common problem in older people, whether they live at home, in nursing/care homes, or staying in the hospital. (7) Medication use, low activity levels, depression, pain, ill-fitting dentures or age-associated changes in taste and smell are other contributing factors. Unintentional weight loss (more than a 5 percent reduction in body weight within six to 12 months) has been found to affect about 20 percent of older adults and is associated with increased morbidity and mortality. (8)
- Nausea, due to conditions like a stomach virus, food poisoning, a digestive disorder, or pregnancy. Very sudden loss of appetite causes are usually conditions that affect the digestive system directly, such as food poisoning or an illness.
- Emotional or physical stress, such as financial or work-related problems, or even over-exercising, which increases stress hormones.
- Reactions to certain medications, including narcotics such as codeine, digoxin, fluoxetine, quinidine and hydralazine.
- Gastritis, or stomach inflammation and erosion of the lining of the stomach (called the gastric mucosa).
- Liver disease, which can cause fluid accumulation in the abdomen (ascites), fatigue and pain.
- Kidney failure, which can cause edema, nausea and abdominal pain.
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), which causes shortness of breath and the need to cough during eating, which is uncomfortable. (9)
- Anxiety, nervousness or depression.
- Crohn’s disease and other types of inflammatory bowel disease.
- Hormonal imbalances. Do you sometimes feel very hungry but other times have no appetite? This can be a sign of fluctuating blood sugar levels, cortisol levels, or thyroid hormones. Estrogen and progesterone changes throughout your menstrual cycle, pregnancy or menopause can also alter hunger.
- Eating disorders, such as anorexia, binge eating disorder or bulimia.
- Dementia and other cognitive changes.
- Heart disease.
- Mental illnesses. (10)
- Certain diets and dietary practices can also decrease your appetite, such as the ketogenic diet (thanks to the production of appetite-decreasing ketone bodies) or intermittent fasting. (11) These dietary interventions don’t usually cause a total loss of appetite, but can decrease cravings and prevent overeating. This is why they are a great tool for promoting weight loss in people who are overweight or obese.
- Loss of appetite and feeling full very quickly can also be the result of bariatric weight loss surgery, since this decreases the volume of food that the stomach can comfortably hold.
Loss of Appetite and Cancer:
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), changes in appetite are common with cancer and cancer treatments. (12) Why does cancer cause a lack of appetite? Cancer and cancer treatments, like chemotherapy or immunotherapy, can cause many changes to metabolism, the digestive system and to hormone production. All of these factors can decrease hunger. For example, some of the negative effects that cancer/cancer treatments may have on the body that lead to loss of appetite include:
- An enlarged spleen and compressed stomach, leading to fullness.
- Edema and ascites, or buildup of fluid in the abdomen that leads to bloating.
- Fatigue, sleepiness or even calmness caused by certain medications.
- Increased nausea and vomiting.
- Development of mouth sores, oral infections, dry mouth and mouth pain. These can lead to difficulty swallowing and pain when chewing.
- Changes in taste and smell that decrease the pleasure associated with eating.
- Constipation, cramps and abdominal pain.
- Depression and anxiety, which can make it hard to eat.
- Unintentional weight loss. (13)
What types of cancer cause loss of appetite? Bladder cancer, stomach cancer, rectal cancer and colon cancer are types that tend to affect appetite most because these cause inflammation and other negative changes to the digestive organs. But you can experience loss of appetite if you’re treating any type of cancer with medications, radiation or chemotherapy.
The first step to treating appetite loss is identifying and addressing the underlying cause. Depending on how severe someone’s loss of appetite is, and any complications it may be causing, doctors can use various medications and interventions to normalize hunger levels. Some treatments that may be used to reverse loss of appetite and its effects can include:
- Anti-nausea medications, including those used to treat nausea during pregnancy such doxylamine and B6, pyridoxone (vitamin B6), promethazine (an antihistamine) and cyclizine (an antihistamine).
- Supplements and meal replacement products that can provide electrolytes and relieve constipation, cramping or fatigue.
- Medications that contain progesterone, which can improve appetite and weight gain. Examples are megestrol acetate or medroxyprogesterone.
- Steroid medications, which can decrease symptoms like swelling, nausea, weakness, or pain associated with underlying illnesses.
- Metoclopramide, which helps move food out of the stomach more easily.
- Antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications.
- A cannabinoid product called dronabinol that is used to stimulate appetite. In some states within the U.S. and other parts of the world, medical marijuana is also used to boost appetite, decrease pain and help to ease anxiety.
- Exercise programs, which can stimulate appetite hormone secretion.
- In severe cases, tube feeding might be used to get calories and nutrients directly into the stomach to treat weight loss and nutrient deficiencies.
1. Change Your Eating Patterns
Here are tips for changing the times of day that you eat, the amount you eat at once, and other factors to consider:
- Rather than eating one or two big meals that can lead to indigestion or fullness, split meals into five to six smaller meals a day. Also add snacks whenever you feel hungry.
- Eat your biggest meal when you are feeling most hungry, whether that’s breakfast, midday or dinner.
- As part of intuitive eating, try to eat at regular times each day, since this pattern helps train your body and regulate your appetite.
- Eat whole foods that are energy-dense if you find it hard to eat big enough meals — meaning foods that should provide a decent amount of calories, healthy fats and protein. Good choices are: olive or coconut oil, grass-fed butter, eggs, grass-fed beef, full fat dairy, nuts and nut butters, avocado, and protein smoothies. You can increase your calorie intake without feeling overly full by adding oil, butter, cheese, coconut milk, or nut butters to recipes.
- Make food taste more appealing by adding sea salt, spices and condiments you like.
- Don’t consume very large amounts of fluids right before meals, which can suppress your appetite. Drink moderate amounts of water between meals rather than with meals, and try to base your fluid intake on your level of thirst.
- Limit caffeine consumption since caffeine can increase nervousness/anxiety, irritate your stomach and decrease appetite.
- Keep a variety of fresh foods at home so you always have access to something you like.
- Eat in a relaxed environment where you are not rushed, such as with family or friends (not when driving or working!)
- Change the texture or temperature of food if it makes it easier to consume, such as by blending, steaming, boiling or chilling.
2. Treat Nausea
It’s common for loss of appetite and nausea to occur together, especially during pregnancy or when you’re sick with a virus, the flu, etc. Here are natural remedies that can help treat nausea:
- Sit up for about an hour after eating to relieve any pressure on the stomach. Try to eat at least three hours before bedtime to help you digest.
- Drink ginger tea or apply ginger essential oil over your chest or abdomen. To make your own ginger tea, cut ginger root into slices and place them into a pot of boiling water for 10 minutes.
- Take a supplement containing vitamin B6, which helps to decrease PMS, morning sickness and symptoms of an upset stomach. (14)
- Make a belly-calming beverage using chamomile tea and lemon juice.
- Inhale peppermint essential oil or rub it into your neck and chest.
- Get some fresh air, open a window and take a calming walk outside.
- Try alternative therapies like meditation and acupuncture.
3. Identify and Treat Underlying Digestive Problems
If you deal with loss of appetite due to digestive issues like being constipated, bloated or having heartburn, then addressing the underlying cause of your symptoms is critical. Some ways to help improve gut health and digestion include:
- Eating an anti-inflammatory diet. Include a variety of fresh veggies and fruits, healthy fats, and “clean” protein sources like wild-caught fish, grass-fed meat, and pastured eggs.
- Eating high-fiber foods to help prevent constipation, including chia or flax seeds, cooked veggies, avocado, roasted root veggies, and foods high in magnesium.
- Eating probiotic foods, like fermented yogurt or cultured veggies.
- Limiting or avoiding foods that can worsen digestion problems like IBS or IBD, including: conventional dairy products, gluten-containing foods, processed foods with synthetic additives, refined oils, fast foods, fried foods, processed meats and FODMAP foods that worsen symptoms.
- Managing stress.
- Getting enough sleep.
- Doing an appropriate amount of exercise (not too much or too little).
- Drinking enough water.
- Quitting smoking.
- Not taking any unnecessary medications, including antibiotics (you can talk to your doctor about this).
4. Take Steps To Treat Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety can affect your appetite by altering stress hormones and increasing inflammation. If you cope with depression or anxiety by drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and drinking lots of caffeine, know that these substances will blunt hunger too (especially caffeine and smoking). Some ways that you can manage stress and help fight depression include:
- Practicing yoga, meditation and breathing exercises.
- Spending more time outside, and getting some sunlight exposure to boost vitamin D levels.
- Taking adaptogenic herbs to support your nervous system.
- Seeking out emotional support from family, friends, a therapist or a support group.
- Unwinding by using essential oils like lavender, chamomile or holy basil.
- Taking an Epsom salt bath before bed to relax muscular tension.
- Getting a massage or visiting an acupuncturist.
5. Get Enough Physical Activity
Exercise is known to be a natural appetite-regulator, especially aerobic exercise that lasts more than 20–30 minutes, vigorous/high intensity exercise, and strength-training that adds muscle mass to your frame. Depending on many factors, exercising can both increase your appetite and also help to normalize it longterm because of how it affects hormones and inflammation. (15) If you’re currently pretty sedentary and want to begin exercising, start with light exercise such as a 30-minute walk each morning. Walking before meals can also help improve your appetite and enhance digestion, even if it’s a short, casual walk.
Exercise also has numerous other health benefits — including helping to relieve stress, lower inflammation, improve sleep, and maintain muscle mass, which is beneficial for your metabolism, especially as you age.
6. Fight Fatigue and Improve Energy Levels
If you’re experiencing loss of appetite and tiredness, there are certain things you can do to help improve your energy levels and treat fatigue:
- Aim to get seven to nine hours of sleep per night. To regulate your circadian rhythm, try to sleep and wake at similar times each day.
- Sleep in a cool, very dark room.
- Eat a nutrient-dense diet. Limit sugar, processed grains and caffeine.
- Diffuse peppermint oil and other uplifting oils in your home.
- Sip on green tea, which provides steadier energy, instead of coffee or other stimulants.
- Practice meditation and other stress-relieving activities before bed.
- Give yourself mental breaks throughout the day to unwind, rest, take a slow walk outside or practice deep breathing.
Talk to your doctor if you regularly experience gastrointestinal symptoms beyond loss of appetite, such as nausea, vomiting, bloating, pain and constipation. Your doctor can recommend tests that might help identify an underlying cause. It can also be helpful to meet with a registered dietitian or nutritionist for advice on meal planning, grocery shopping and symptom management if loss of appetite is interfering with your quality of life.
- Loss of appetite is defined as “absent hunger” or “when your desire to eat is reduced.” The main symptoms associated with loss of appetite include: nausea, bloating, constipation, weakness, fatigue, pain and mood changes such as depression.
- There are many causes of loss of appetite, some of which only cause short-term changes in hunger and others which cause long-term changes.
- The most common causes of decreases in hunger include: older age, being nauseous because of an illness or pregnancy, liver or kidney disease, stress, depression, digestive problems or disorders, thyroid disorder, hormonal imbalances and chronic health problems like HIV or cancer.