A loss of appetite is generally defined as not having the same desire to eat as you normally do. This change could come on suddenly and be caused by something obvious, like a stomach bug, or it could be due to a number of things that are less straightforward.
If you've lost your appetite, you may have unintentional weight loss, a general loss of hunger and you might potentially feel nauseous at the idea of eating food.
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Is Loss of Appetite Normal?
Short-term appetite loss is common when fighting infections or in times of sudden stress. But longer stretches of unexplained appetite loss can indicate a more serious health condition and should be discussed with a medical professional.
Common Causes of Appetite Loss
A loss of appetite can be temporary or long term depending on the cause. Below are common causes to keep in mind.
1. Certain Medications
You may lose your appetite when fighting off an infection, and symptoms may be worsened by certain medications.
Merck Manual notes drugs like digoxin, fluoxetine, quinidine and hydralazine can cause appetite loss in some people.
It's always important to discuss sudden changes in appetite — especially if they are prolonged and result in unwanted weight loss — with your physician. Your medications may need to be adjusted, and strategies for increasing appetite may be warranted in more serious cases.
2. Chronic Pain
Appetite loss is a common symptom experienced by people who have chronic pain. Conditions like fibromyalgia, migraines and nerve damage may all affect appetite.
It's also important to note that some commonly prescribed pain medications may interfere with hunger. If you have a chronic pain condition and have loss of appetite and weight loss, it's important to discuss strategies for reducing these symptoms with your health care provider.
Can IBS Cause Loss of Appetite?
Loss of appetite is not among the main symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (those include diarrhea, constipation, bloating, cramping and abdominal pain), but some people may experience a decrease in appetite due to the pain experienced during an IBS flare-up.
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), appetite loss can be caused by the following in those with a cancer diagnosis:
- Cancer of the abdomen, which can cause swelling, irritation and pain
- An enlarged spleen or liver, causing additional pressure on the stomach and creating a feeling of fullness
- Medications, including chemotherapy and other drugs
- Radiation therapy or surgery on the gastrointestinal organs
- Changes in metabolism due to the progression of cancer
Stress can be a factor in appetite loss as well, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Stress can cause some people to ignore hunger cues, which can lead to skipping meals for long stretches of time.
If you notice a sudden drop in appetite and you do not have other underlying health conditions, managing your stress may be one way to return your appetite to normal. Things like regular exercise, getting enough sleep and meditation may help.
5. Psychological Disorders
Appetite and weight changes are common in people who are depressed, as many of the regions of the brain dealing with appetite have ties to depression.
Indeed, a study published April 2016 in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that depressed people showed lowered activation in the mid-insula region of the brain, reducing appetite.
Other psychological conditions like bipolar disorder and anxiety have been associated with a loss of appetite as well.
Serious eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia affect a person's appetite and relationship with food. If you or a loved one have an eating disorder, it's important to seek help from a medical professional to ensure adequate treatment. You can also contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 800-931-2237.
Can Dehydration Cause Loss of Appetite?
Lack of appetite isn't a hallmark symptom of dehydration, according to the Mayo Clinic. Signs of dehydration may include:
- Extreme thirst
- Less frequent urination
- Dark-colored urine
What to Do When You Lose Your Appetite
Treatment for appetite loss typically includes instituting flexible meal times, incorporating favorite foods and enhancing the taste and palatability of meals.
ASCO recommends the following to ensure proper nutrition with appetite loss:
- Determine the times of day you are hungriest and organize meal times around those hours.
- Keep favorite foods available for snacking.
- Eat five to six small meals a day and allow snacking whenever hungry.
- Eat nutrient-dense foods that are high in calories and protein. Options like yogurt, cheese, nuts and nut butters contain vitamins, minerals and protein.
- Add sauces, gravy, butter, full-fat dairy products and nut butters to dishes to increase calories.
- Drink fluids between meals instead of during to keep the feeling of fullness at bay.
- Eat in social settings to encourage pleasant meal times.
- If the smell of food triggers a nauseous response, eat food that's cold or room temperature to reduce food odor.
When Should I Be Concerned About Loss of Appetite?
If your loss of appetite is an ongoing problem or if you have a serious underlying medical condition, meeting with a registered dietitian for advice on managing symptoms and meal planning may be necessary. In more serious cases, a medical provider may prescribe medications that can help boost your appetite.
- Merck Manual: "Loss of Appetite"
- American Society of Clinical Oncology: "Appetite Loss"
- Cleveland Clinic: "How Stress Can Make You Eat More — Or Not At All"
- The American Journal of Psychiatry: "Depression-related increases and decreases in appetite reveal dissociable patterns of aberrant activity in reward and interoceptive neurocircuitry"
- Mayo Clinic: "Anorexia Nervosa"
- Mayo Clinic: "Bulimia Nervosa"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.