Mixed Signals: Hungry But No Appetite
By Sarah Fader
Updated May 09, 2019
Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Lack of appetite can range in intensity and duration, lasting for only a few moments or spanning longer and problematic stretches of time. A prolonged situation where your body signals that you are hungry but having no appetite for food stops you from eating can lead to physical, emotional, mental and social health issues.
What are some of the causes and effects of a lack of appetite? How can you eat to remain healthy even when you do not feel like it? Let's explore the answers.
Your Body is a Machine
Our bodies signal when we are hungry. By definition, hunger is a (sometimes painful) feeling of discomfort brought on by a lack of food. This weakened and uneasy feeling is often accompanied by a desire to go in search of food. We all have times, however, when we feel hungrier than we actually are and other times when we may not feel hungry at all but in fact, we really physically need to eat.
Having a desire to eat is different from having a physiological need for energy. In other words, having an appetite and being hungry are not the same. They do, however, influence each other. Your body is a machine and food is the fuel on which it runs. Your appetite, or desire for food, can send you in search of that fuel. Conversely, a lack of appetite can lead to you denying your body the fuel it needs to carry out basic functions and to perform at optimal levels.
Anxiety as A Cause of Lack of Appetite
Persistent stress is one of the root causes of the multiple disorders which fall under the umbrella of anxiety. 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 can have many different manifestations.
While some of its most recognized symptoms are linked to mood or emotions, anxiety can also manifest itself as physical symptoms. These include sweating, rapid heart rate and sleep abnormalities, and loss of appetite. Anxiety disorders can also result in gastric distress with a myriad of digestive issues, including nausea and diarrhea.
If these behaviors and physical effects are short-lived, then they are not something to worry too much about. 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 the other symptoms anxiety presents.
Ten Other Possible Causes for Being Hungry with No Appetite
There are several things that could be to blame, such as a hormonal or neurotransmitter imbalance, increased stomach acid from the stress response, or from underlying depression or anxiety disorder
- Anorexia nervosa - Medically speaking, any loss of appetite for whatever reason, is regarded as anorexia. What has become common recently, however, is for us to use the term anorexia when we 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. The condition includes an intense fear of gaining weight and an aversion to food.
- Dehydration - We get more than thirsty when we are dehydrated. The need for water/fluids can lead to headaches, nausea, tiredness, confusion and a lack of appetite. Some persons may notice that during the summer months when they lose more water through sweat, they experience being hungry but having no appetite for food keeps them from eating as regularly as they should.
- Short-term stress - Sometimes during particularly stressful periods of your life, you might experience yourself feeling less hungry than usual, or 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 focuses on raising your heartrate, increased breathing and getting blood to your muscles. It also slows down activities in your digestive system since these are not immediately needed for survival.
Being exposed to stress on a regular basis, means that the physiological disruptions mentioned above take place over a long period of time with the effects on your body becoming pronounced over time.
- Depression - We all feel sad at times just as we all know what it is like to be hungry with no appetite to satisfy that hunger. Depression or prolonged, severe sadness can, however, lead to a similarly persistent lack of appetite. Depression is a serious illness, so if you are constantly feeling low along with your loss of interest in eating, you should speak with your doctor as soon as possible. It is worthwhile to point out here that in the case of depression, the opposite effects of increased cravings and weight gain can also occur.
- 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 tiredness which 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 your appetite.
- Pregnancy - We tend to associate cravings with pregnancy. The fact is, however, that many pregnant women suffer from appetite loss, especially during their first trimester. The culprit is nausea or morning sickness (so called because it is most prevalent in the morning, but in reality, it can occur at any time). Frequent snacking, eating small meals and having something dry to nibble on, such as crackers, can all help.
- Age - Several factors can lead to a decrease in appetite as we age. This is called anorexia of ageing and its causes include slowed digestion; less acute senses of smell and taste; dental health issues; and hormonal changes. A healthcare provider who specializes in geriatric medicine should be contacted in cases where an elderly person shows signs of appetite loss.
- Medication - The type of medication you are currently on should be one of the first considerations when you find you are hungry but have no appetite. Medications for some illnesses are more likely to cause appetite loss than others. These conditions include 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.
- Cancer - Persons who undergo radiation therapy and chemotherapy for cancer may find that they are left with a suppressed desire to eat 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 persons also experience slower metabolism; a false sense of fullness; dry mouth; and a host of other conditions which can cause them to experience being hungry but no appetite to eat accompanies it.
- Anemia - Your red blood cells carry oxygen around your body which gets used in the process of respiration - turning your food into energy for other body processes to use. Anemia, or having a low count of healthy red blood cells can leave you feeling weak, tired and with a lack of appetite. It can be combated with a diet rich in iron and vitamin B12 or by taking supplements which contain them.
Effects of Hunger Without Appetite
One of the biggest problems when you feel hungry but have no appetite, is that your body is not getting the energy it needs to survive and thrive. You will notice instead that you:
- Suffer from unrelenting tiredness and weakness
- Experience weight loss
- Find some common foods revolting
- Struggle to get food down on the occasions when you do eat
- Come up with excuses to stay away from social events which involve food
Advice On Eating When You Are Hungry but Have No Appetite
Different things can impact your feelings of hunger or satiety. While it's important to follow your body's cues, it sometimes can be important to get nutrients even if you have to just get them down. Recognizing that you have a problem and seeking out ways to correct it are the first and, perhaps, most important steps to take. So what can you do when you are suffering from appetite loss?
Make a Timeline
One very good suggestion is making a timeline as it can help you to pinpoint underlying reasons for your persistent lack of appetite. Noting the situations which seem to trigger your loss of appetite or the time of day when it is most pronounced could serve to give important clues to the underlying cause.
Here are a few other suggestions to get you eating so your body can have the fuel it needs:
- Eat frequent small portions
- Limit fluids during meals as they can make you feel full before you have consumed sufficient food calories
- Include foods of various colors and textures to make the meal more appealing
- If it is acceptable to you, you can open your appetite with alcohol - a little wine or beer, perhaps
- Try exercise as a way to open up your appetite
- Talk to your healthcare provider about using multivitamins or liquid supplements to get the nutrients you need
You can also seek out professional help. BetterHelp is a resource meant to assist people with working through their maladaptive behaviors, while introducing healthier habits. Mental health care is a multifaceted concept and things that you may not think are associated with your mental health may need attending to.