If you have severe hunger pains after eating, it may be a sign that something is not quite right. While certain medical conditions such as ulcers and uncontrolled diabetes can cause you to feel this way, sometimes the hunger is caused by irregular eating habits, drugs or other medical conditions. While improving eating habits may help control appetite better, it's important to see your doctor if this hunger is severe and persistent.
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A peptic ulcer is a crater or sore in the lining of the stomach, most often caused by either a bacterial infection called Helicobacter pylori or by excessive use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. One of the most telling signs of a peptic ulcer is a constant, gnawing hunger, which often occurs 1 to 3 hours after eating. This hunger may be accompanied by a burning pain in between your belly and breastbone. The good news is that once diagnosed, medication management is often successful.
High blood sugars can also cause severe hunger or polyphagia. Most common when blood sugars are above 200 mg/dL, polyphagia -- along with frequent urination and extreme thirst -- is a classic symptom of insulin deficiency and uncontrolled diabetes. High blood sugars occur when the body doesn’t make enough insulin or if insulin doesn’t work well in the body, and without necessary treatment, much of the glucose or sugar from food isn’t able to be utilized. This starves body cells of energy, signaling the brain to increase hunger. Hunger can also be associated with hypoglycemia or low blood sugar levels, so if you have diabetes, it’s a good idea to check your blood sugar whenever you have severe hunger.
Sometimes irregular eating habits or restricted eating can lead to hunger, although it may not be as severe as the hunger caused by medical conditions. According to an October 2010 article published in “Journal of Consumer Research,” healthy eating can make people hungry if they really aren’t motivated to change their diet or if the diet is imposed upon them -- as in the case of children being restricted by their parents. In addition, irregular meal schedules with extended time between meals may lead to hunger. A study published in the January 2011 issue of “American Society for Nutrition” investigated meal frequency and appetite regulation. Researchers concluded that eating more than 3 times per day was not consistently beneficial in controlling hunger, but eating less than 3 meals daily increased hunger.
Other conditions that can lead to severe hunger include bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder that includes binge eating behavior, or rare conditions such as Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disorder that is characterized by an uncontrollable appetite with resultant obesity. Certain drugs can also impact hunger. Prednisone, a commonly used anti-inflammatory medication, is well known for increasing appetite. Marijuana use also is notorious for increasing appetite.
Warnings and Precautions
If you experience severe hunger along with a burning pain, if you have extreme thirst or frequent urination, or if you have severe hunger that won’t go away, see your doctor. If you think any of your medications are causing your hunger, review your symptoms with your doctor. Sometimes hunger is related to irregular meal schedules or severely restricting food choices, and taking steps to eat regularly and eat balanced meals may help control appetite better. If you are trying to restrict your diet to lose weight or to manage a health condition, and this seems to be the cause of your hunger, see a dietitian for guidance on how to successfully manage your diet.
Reviewed by: Kay Peck, MPH, RD
- National Institute of Health: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease: Peptic Ulcer Disease
- American Diabetes Association: Diabetes Symptoms
- Journal of Consumer Research: When Healthy Food Makes You Hungry
- American Society for Nutrition: The Effect of Eating Frequency on Appetite Control and Food Intake: Brief Synopsis of Controlled Feeding Studies