Mixed Signals: Hungry But No Appetite

By: Tanisha Herrin

Updated November 05, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Many people struggle with lack of appetite. The symptoms can vary in intensity and duration, occasionally lasting for only a few moments or sometimes spanning longer, more problematic stretches of time. In the latter case, feeling hungry but having no appetite for long periods can lead to physical, emotional, and mental health issues. It's important to explore potential causes and effects of a lack of appetite, so you can learn how to sustain a healthy lifestyle and take good care of yourself.

A Common Cause for No Appetite: Anxiety

Multiple disorders that fall under the umbrella of anxiety are caused by persistent stress. These include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social phobias, panic disorders, and many others. Anxiety is characterized by general apprehension, worrying, or nervousness, but it can manifest in many different ways.

While some of its most recognized symptoms are linked to mood or emotions, anxiety can also manifest as physical symptoms. These include sweating, rapid heart rate, sleep abnormalities, and loss of appetite. Anxiety disorders can also cause gastric distress that results in a myriad of digestive issues, including nausea and diarrhea.

If these behaviors and physical effects are short-lived, then you don't need to worry about them. However, if they persist, malnutrition, dehydration and an increased risk of death become very real concerns. Finding ways to cope with or reduce anxiety can possibly help you to overcome your lack of appetite, along with other symptoms of anxiety.

Anxiety Can Make You Feel Like You Aren't Hungry And Cause Health Issues
Find An Online Therapist Who Can Help With Your Anxiety

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Ten Other Possible Causes for Being Hungry with No Appetite

If you're hungry, but you don't have an appetite, there's a reason why. Below, you'll find some of the most common reasons for this problem.

  1. Anorexia nervosa - Medically speaking, any loss of appetite is regarded as anorexia, regardless of the reason behind it. What has become common, however, is for people to use the term anorexia when they exclusively mean the eating disorder called anorexia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is caused by a distorted body image in which the affected person sees themselves as overweight even when, in fact, they may be grossly underweight. This particular condition is characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight and an aversion to food.
  2. Dehydration - Being dehydrated is more than being thirsty. The need for water/fluids can lead to headaches, nausea, tiredness, confusion, and a lack of appetite. Some people may notice these symptoms during the summer months. When we lose more water through sweat, we experience being hungry, but we may have no appetite for food, which keeps us from eating as regularly as we should.

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  1. Short-term stress - Sometimes, during particularly stressful periods of your life, you might experience feeling less hungry than usual, or you might experience the opposite and find yourself binge eating. Stressful situations prompt your body to release a mixture of hormones, including adrenaline. This triggers your fight-or-flight response, in which your body raises your heart rate, increases breathing, and sends blood to your muscles. It also slows down digestion because it's not immediately important for survival. If exposed to stress for extended time periods, your body may be at risk for developing emotional and physical complications that threaten your wellbeing.
  2. Depression - We all feel sad at times, just as we all know what it's like to be hungry with no appetite to satisfy that hunger. Depression, or prolonged and severe sadness, can lead to a persistent lack of appetite. Depression is a serious illness, so if you are constantly feeling low alongside your lack of appetite, you should speak with your doctor as soon as possible. It is worth pointing out that, in the case of depression, individuals may also experience the opposite--increased cravings and weight gain.
  3. Viral infection - Having a bout of the cold or flu can leave you feeling less inclined to eat. A stuffy nose caused by a cold, for example, decreases your sense of smell and can make food seem less appealing to you. Also, the fatigue that often accompanies the flu can make you feel like you simply have no energy to eat. Hepatitis, a viral infection of the liver, is another reason you could be experiencing a decrease in appetite.
  4. Pregnancy - We tend to associate cravings with pregnancy. However, many pregnant women suffer from appetite loss, especially during their first trimester. The culprit is nausea or morning sickness (so-called because it's most prevalent in the morning, but in reality it can occur at any time). Frequent snacking, eating small meals, and having something dry (like crackers) to nibble on can help.
  5. Age - Several factors can lead to a decrease in appetite as we age. This is called anorexia of aging, and its causes include slowed digestion, less acute senses of smell and taste, dental health issues, and hormonal changes. Be sure to contact a healthcare provider who specializes in geriatric medicine if an elderly person shows signs of appetite loss.
  6. Medication - If you find you're hungry with no appetite, one of the first things you should do is review any medications you might be taking. Some medications may cause appetite loss. These include medications for migraines, depression, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), some cancers, Parkinson's disease, and high blood pressure. If you are on medication and experience prolonged loss of appetite, raise the concern with your healthcare provider, even if appetite suppression was not originally mentioned as one of the possible side effects.
  7. Cancer - People who undergo radiation therapy and chemotherapy for cancer may find that they are left with without an appetite at a time when nutrition is of the utmost importance. That's because cancer therapies can leave you feeling nauseous or even affect how foods smell and taste to you. Depending on the type of cancer, some people also experience slower metabolism, a false sense of fullness, dry mouth, and a host of other conditions which can cause them to experience hunger without an appetite.
  8. Anemia - Your red blood cells carry oxygen around your body, and they're used in the process of respiration, turning your food into energy to support other body processes. Anemia, a condition where you have a low count of healthy red blood cells, can leave you feeling weak, tired, and without an appetite. It can be combated with a diet rich in iron and vitamin B12 or by taking supplements which contain them.

What Can You Do About Your Hunger Concerns?

Many things can impact your feelings of hunger or satiety. While it's important to follow your body's cues, sometimes it's important to get nutrients, even if you have to force yourself to eat. It's important to recognize that you have a problem and take steps to correct it. So what can you do when you're suffering from appetite loss?

  • Make a timeline or establish a journal to help pinpoint underlying reasons for your persistent lack of appetite. Note meals you tend to skip and situations that may contribute to your decision not to eat.
  • Eat frequent small portions and diversify your nutrition options with healthy snacks.
  • Limit fluids during meals, as they can make you feel full before you've consumed sufficient food calories.
  • Include foods of various colors and textures to make your meals more appealing.
  • Work up an appetite through exercise or other productive forms of physical activity.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about using multivitamins or liquid supplements to get the nutrients you need.
  • Seek professional help through therapy or counseling.

Anxiety Can Make You Feel Like You Aren't Hungry And Cause Health Issues
Find An Online Therapist Who Can Help With Your Anxiety

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Tackle Appetite Issues with BetterHelp

You may not realize that underlying issues, such as situations causing stress or anxiety, may be contributing to your lack of appetite. You can discuss your concerns with a counselor who understands your needs and wants, and has the expertise to help you accomplish healthier daily habits. Learn how others have been helped by online support by reading the following reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Ingrid has been incredible! She is so supportive and encouraging of my healthy behaviors and really helps me problem solve when I have a particular problem. I never feel judged, it's always a safe space to talk about how I'm feeling. Thanks, Ingrid, it's fantastic to have the extra support I need right now."

"I've worked with Alyson for 1 month and it was my first time working with a therapist. From when I started, I feel so much better. I was dealing with frustrations in my relationship and I also was constantly stressed and anxious. Alyson showed me ways to communicate better in my relationship and how to work at them. She also helped me with stress management tactics and now I feel really good about how to handle my stress. I feel much less anxious now. Overall I am in a much happier place and obstacles feel like merely obstacles because there's stress-free ways to tackle life problems. Thank you so much, Alyson!"

Conclusion

There are plenty of reasons why you may experience hunger without having an appetite, and proper nutrition is important when dealing with issues affecting your wellbeing. You no longer have to suffer when there are productive ways to get your appetite back. Take the first step today.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What can cause lack of appetite?

When you are feeling a loss of appetite, it may be caused by something minor or something severe. A few possible causes include depression, stress, anxiety, congestion, constipation, indigestion, or certain medications you are on. Cancer and cystic fibrosis may also contribute to a loss of appetite.

What do you do when you have no appetite?

If you have a loss of appetite, you should still do what you can to take in calories. A good way to do this is to prepare something you know tastes good and eat a little of it. Even if you are not feeling hungry, this doesn’t mean that you don’t need to eat. 

What type of cancer causes loss of appetite?

Essentially, any type of cancer may cause a loss of appetite or a decreased appetite, but it is slightly more common in cancers of the GI tract or lung cancer. You should always follow advice diagnosis or treatment by your doctor when you are eating while receiving cancer treatment, so you know what you should be eating and how much of it you should eat.

Is loss of appetite normal?

There are many reasons to experience a loss of appetite and some of them are fine. While you may have a loss of appetite due to an illness, you may also not want to eat because of the weather or because you are experiencing stress.

What is no appetite a symptom of?

There are many conditions that may cause a loss of appetite, which range from minor to severe. If you have a decreased appetite quite often, you may need to meet with a doctor, so you can get checked out. They will be able to provide medical advice diagnosis, so you will be able to determine precisely why you don’t feel hungry.

Why is my appetite decreasing?

A decreased appetite may show up for many of the same reasons as a loss of appetite. Some of these are things like medical conditions, such as cancers or stomach issues, but it may just be because you are sick or not feeling your best.

What does it mean if you can't eat without feeling sick?

If you can’t eat without feeling sick, you may have an issue with your gastrointestinal tract. For example, people with certain bowel problems are unable to eat without feeling negative effects. If this is the case for you, consider getting diagnosis or treatment. After all, you need to be able to eat or you will suffer from sudden weight loss, which can be unhealthy. Be sure to notice how you are feeling when you experience loss of appetite, so you can be aware if you feel like that again. You should also note any other ill effects you feel when you are unable to eat without feeling bad. This is especially true if the problems with your appetite include not being able to eat for an extended period of time or having a complete loss of appetite.

What can cause a lack of appetite?

A lack or loss of appetite may be caused by stress, a minor sickness, or a major condition. You should only become concerned about appetite loss when it happens to you quite frequently. If you find that you are hardly ever eating, this can be a real issue that requires medical advice diagnosis. Problems with appetite include not being able to eat or not being able to eat enough.

Can anemia cause loss of appetite?

Both a loss of appetite and weight loss may be caused by anemia. If you think you are anemic, you will need to visit your doctor to learn more. There are ways that this condition can be treated, so you can feel like you are able to eat again.  

What causes a loss of appetite and nausea?

A loss of appetite and nausea can be caused by anything, from an infection to certain medicines you are taking. When you are experiencing both of these symptoms, be sure to write down how frequently they are happening, so you can perceive if these things are happening regularly.

Can stress cause lack of appetite?

Stress can cause a loss of appetite. When you are stressed, you may not want to eat like you normally do. You may also miss meals or become unable to feel hungry. If you have no appetite due to stress, you should do everything you can to limit the amount of stress present in your life. If your loss of appetite include other symptoms as well, there may be something else going on.

What to eat when you don’t feel like eating?

When you do not feel like eating due to a decreased appetite or loss of appetite, it is important to put the right foods into your body. Eat a small balanced meal, so that you are getting vitamins and nutrients, even when you do not feel like you want to eat at all. Be sure to drink water as well, so your intestines will keep working as they should.

What are the 7 warning signs of cancer?

The 7 warning signs of cancer are sores that don’t heal, changes with your bladder, a cough that won’t go away, warts that change shape or size, not being able to swallow, unusual discharge, and a lump showing up somewhere on your body.

Is not feeling hungry a sign of cancer?

Not feeling hungry can be a sign of cancer, but it can also be a sign of many different conditions. When you have a loss of appetite, you may just be experiencing a cold or infection. If you find that you don’t feel hungry and are also experiencing other cancer symptoms, you should get checked out as soon as possible.

Is loss of appetite a sign of colon cancer?

Loss of appetite can be a sign of colon cancer or any other type of cancer. However, a loss of appetite may just be caused by a prescription you are taking or because you are under too much stress. Other relevant problems with appetite include not being able to taste or having trouble chewing and swallowing.

Is lack of appetite a sign of pregnancy?

A loss of appetite may be a sign of pregnancy, since it goes hand in hand with morning sickness. If you don’t have an appetite due to pregnancy, you may also experience nausea and vomiting. Keep in mind that it is important to eat the proper number of calories when you are pregnant, even if you feel a loss of appetite.

Can dehydration cause loss of appetite?

Dehydration is able to cause you to experience a loss of appetite. Other issues related to dehydration and appetite include not being able to swallow because you are low on water in your body and upset stomach because your bowels are not working correctly. Additional symptoms related to dehydration include headaches, confusion, sleepiness, and feeling uncomfortable.

Does anxiety cause loss of appetite?

Anxiety can cause you to have a loss of appetite and is not a cause for concern by itself. Once anxiety lessens, you will likely be able to eat again and you will feel hungry like you should. If you often feel anxious and unable to eat, you may have an anxiety disorder. Be sure to write down all your symptoms, so you can do further research concerning your loss of appetite.

What causes loss of appetite in elderly?

There are quite a few reasons why an elderly person may have a loss of appetite. Some causes are with medicines they are taking, they have lost some of their sense of taste, they are dehydrated, or they have issues when it comes to chewing. A person may start to experience weight loss after a certain age due to not being able to eat as much as they previously could.

Can acid reflux cause loss of appetite?

Acid reflux, or GERD, which is gastroesophageal reflux disease, can cause a loss of appetite. It can also cause weight loss. When you have both of these symptoms and you think you have acid reflux, this is something that needs to be addressed quickly.

Can heart problems cause loss of appetite?

Certain heart conditions may cause a loss of appetite. For example, people with heart failure may have a hard time eating the calories they need to stay healthy. This can also lead to weight loss, which isn’t surprising, considering a loss of appetite will usually cause a reduction in the number of calories ingested.

Can menopause cause loss of appetite?

When you are going through menopause, a loss of appetite is not common. If it is experienced, it is likely due to something like anxiety, which can be a problem when someone is going through hormonal changes. In other words, menopause is unlikely to decrease your appetite.

What causes diarrhea and loss of appetite?

A loss of appetite paired with diarrhea can mean you have a problem with your intestines, or you are suffering from food poisoning. If you also experience weight loss after these symptoms start, this may be the sign of a condition that needs to be treated by a doctor.

What should I eat to increase my appetite?

When you feel hungry and are trying to increase your appetite, you may want to eat things like fresh fruit and items that have protein, such as nuts and yogurt. Overall, you should do your best to eat healthy and ingest foods that your body is able to digest. You should try to stay hydrated, so your body will continue to let you know when you are hungry. A loss of appetite should include additional symptoms if it is something serious, as there isn’t a huge cause for concern if you don’t have any other symptoms present.


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