While it's normal to occasionally feel ravenous or fatigued (or both), chronic fatigue coupled with hunger that lasts for days or months on end is not normal. This type of long-lasting hunger and fatigue can interfere with your ability to be productive — and may point to an underlying health concern.
"With fatigue, there can be many different causes," says Jonathan Golberg, MD, a New York-based emergency medicine physician.
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Dr. Golberg says fatigue can happen when your blood count or thyroid levels are low, or your electrolytes are off. Fatigue can also be a symptom of depression. To determine the cause, however, "blood tests are required," he adds.
Below, learn the reasons you may feel chronically hungry and tired, and next steps to restore your energy levels.
If you’ve tried to remedy hunger and fatigue by adjusting your diet, improving sleep habits or exercising and your symptoms persist, reach out to your doctor, who can carry out a full medical checkup and recommend tests to diagnose any underlying illness.
1. You Have a Poor Diet
The popular phrase "food is fuel" is more than just words. Nutrients are essential to daily life, meaning a lack of nutrients can create fatigue. Indeed, hunger and fatigue are both side effects of malnutrition, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).
When you eat an unbalanced diet or too few calories, you can miss out on essential nutrients for your brain, heart and organs. You may even be considered malnourished if you frequently go on fad diets or take in fewer calories than the recommended daily amount.
While caloric needs vary depending on your sex, age, weight and activity level, a nutritious diet should still include whole foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains and protein, per the Cleveland Clinic. In addition, highly processed foods (which typically are lower in fiber, protein and other key nutrients) should be eaten in moderation.
Fix it: A dietitian can work with you to understand your dietary needs and craft a plan to improve your nutritional intake.
2. You're Not Getting Enough Sleep
Poor sleep is an obvious cause of fatigue.
What can be less obvious, though, are the causes of poor sleep, like excessive alcohol or caffeine intake and poor sleep hygiene. It can also be a sign of medical conditions such as anxiety disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome or heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"Another possibility is insomnia," Dr. Golberg says. "If the fatigue and inability to sleep is lasting for several weeks, it could be a cause for concern."
Not getting enough sleep will leave you tired, and it can also affect your appetite. Here's why: "A lack of sleep causes your body to produce too much of a hormone called ghrelin, which can trigger excessive hunger," Dr. Golberg says. "Insomnia also reduces the production of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin," he adds.
That is, too much ghrelin and too little leptin can make you feel tired and hungry after a poor night's sleep.
Fix it: If a lack of sleep is making it difficult to function day-to-day, consult your doctor to determine why you're having trouble sleeping. If a sleep disorder is identified, you may be referred to a sleep specialist for diagnostic testing.
3. You Need More Aerobic Exercise
Consistent physical activity can have a direct link to energy levels, according to the Mayo Clinic.
This is because exercise increases the movement of oxygen throughout your body, per a March 2016 article in Breathe. Exercise also causes your body to make more mitochondria (the powerhouses of all cells). Having more mitochondria increases your body's energy supply, meaning you'll feel more energized, too, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
There may also be a positive correlation between moderate-to high-intensity exercise and appetite suppression, according to a 2018 review in the Central European Journal of Sport Sciences and Medicine.
Fix it: Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity every week, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For additional health benefits or weight-loss efforts, at least 300 minutes of aerobic activity per week is recommended, per the Mayo Clinic.
4. You Have Diabetes
Diabetes is a metabolic disorder that affects how your body uses digested food for energy, according to the CDC.
Hunger and fatigue are symptoms of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. This is because the body does not produce enough insulin, which is needed to bring glucose to cells to use it as energy.
A simple blood test can determine whether either of these conditions is causing you to feel tired and hungry, Dr. Golberg says.
"You may be sent to an endocrinologist — a specialist who deals with hormones — but I think at least getting basic blood work done to start will get you on the right path," he says.
Fix it: Contact your primary care doctor to have proper tests and labs done. If needed, refer to a specialist who can help run tests and come up with a diabetes- friendly diet plan.
5. You Have an Adrenal Disorder
An adrenal disorder, sometimes referred to as Addison's disease, is when the body doesn't produce enough cortisol, adrenaline or aldosterone, per the Cleveland Clinic. These are all hormones that can affect how tired or hungry you feel throughout the day.
"Your adrenal glands sit on top of your kidneys and produce hormones," Dr. Golberg says. A deficiency in these hormones can lead to fatigue and other symptoms that range from mild to severe, including weight loss, weakness, low blood pressure, nausea or vomiting and dizziness upon standing, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Fix it: This condition must be diagnosed by a professional. "Your doctor will check cortisol levels, as well as conduct a metabolic panel and blood count test," Dr. Golberg says. "It's possible you may need to be on a prescription medication to treat it."
6. You Have a Mental Health Condition
Mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety can lead to changes in your sleep and eating patterns. Some people may experience fatigue or insomnia, while others may lose weight due to anxiety or gain weight (from appetite increases due to antidepressant medications or emotional eating), per the Mayo Clinic.
Fix it: Talk with your primary care doctor about taking a depression and anxiety screening. Your doctor can refer you to a therapist or psychiatrist who can help you work through difficult mental health concerns in a safe and positive environment.
7. You're Taking a Certain Medication
Some medications can cause an uptick in appetite, per the University of Rochester Medical Center. And many medications — including over-the-counter cold and allergy medications as well as certain prescribed medications — have a side effect of drowsiness.
Fix it: In some cases, such as with over-the-counter medications, simply stopping the medication is an option. For prescription medications, reach out to your doctor — you may be able to address sleepiness by adjusting the dosage, taking the medication at a different time or avoiding alcohol, per Harvard Health Publishing.
- Weight-Control Information Network: Weight-loss and Nutrition Myths
- Cleveland Clinic: "How Many Calories Should You Eat in a Day?"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Malnutrition"
- Mayo Clinic: "Fatigue"
- Mayo Clinic: "Insomnia"
- Mayo Clinic: "Exercise: 7 benefits of regular physical activity"
- American Journal of Physiology: "Exercise-induced suppression of acylated ghrelin in humans"
- Central European Journal of Sport Sciences and Medicine: "Effects Of Exercise On Appetite-Regulating Hormones, Perceived Hunger, And Energy Intake: A Narrative Overview"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: What Is Diabetes?"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Adrenal Disorders"
- National Institutes of Health: "What are the symptoms of adrenal gland disorders"
- National Institutes of Health: "Your lungs and exercise"
- Harvard Health: "Does exercise really boost energy levels?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Depression (major depressive disorder)"
- University of Rochester Medical Center: "When Your Weight Gain Is Caused by Medicine"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Healthy Living Tips
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.