Are you hungry all the time, even after you’ve just eaten? Do you feel hunger cravings that no type or amount of food can ever fulfill?
For most of us, it’s pretty normal for eating habits to change in certain situations, like after extensive periods of physical activity. But for others, this extreme hunger can come from other underlying issues such as disordered eating that can affect your quality of life and may need to be addressed.
Hyperphagia or polyphagia, are the official terms for extreme hunger. These conditions are common among those with diabetes and thyroid issues. However, they can affect anyone and their causes may be different.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the potential causes of hyperphagia and share some tips to address each one.
What is Hyperphagia and What Causes It?
Hyperphagia (or polyphagia) is a condition that causes feelings of uncontrolled hunger (despite eating regularly), extreme food cravings, fluctuations in blood glucose levels, digestive issues, and weight gain. It may occur due to stress, hormonal changes, or genetics.
In most healthy people, the body regulates hunger and satiety through a host of metabolic mechanisms. This allows your body to regulate energy intake and output while ensuring all the vital functions for life are well-maintained. If your food intake becomes excessive for longer periods of time, it can lead to certain complications such as changes in digestive function, hormone regulation, and more.
While you can use hyperphagia and polyphagia interchangeably as terms for excessive hunger, there are minor differences to note.
Polyphagia can be associated with either weight loss, maintenance, or gain, while hyperphagia is always associated with weight gain.
Some of the underlying causes of hyperphagia may include a lack of sleep, changes in stress response, and premenstrual syndrome. Excessive hunger is a central feature of inherited disorders such as Prader-Willi syndrome.
These conditions can often go hand in hand with binge eating, and in some cases be caused by eating disorders such as bulimia. If left unaddressed, overeating may lead to obesity issues or weight gain.
What Does Hyperphagia Feel Like?
The symptoms of hyperphagia are distinct from normal hunger cues that someone might experience after going a few hours without eating. Someone with hyperphagia or polyphagia may experience intense hunger, have difficulty feeling full after a meal, and frequently overeat.
Common Causes of Excessive Hunger
Multiple factors control your food intake as well as your energy balance. After every meal, your body modulates satiety signals that are responsible for inhibiting feelings of excessive hunger.
Hormonal signals provide feedback to the hypothalamus, a small part of the brain that controls appetite and lets your body know when you’re full. This helps reduce the desire for food.
Hormones such as insulin may also help to inhibit feelings of hunger. Changes in your body’s ability to produce or respond to insulin may contribute to excessive food intake. At the same time, hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can stimulate the secretion of ghrelin, which is one hunger hormone that promotes food intake.
So, why can these factors be linked to excessive hunger? Read on to learn more about the leading causes of polyphagia and hyperphagia.
1) Prediabetes and Diabetes
Diabetes mellitus is a medical condition where the body may not produce enough insulin, or as in the case of type 2 diabetes, doesn’t utilize the insulin that already exists efficiently.
Insulin is a hormone released by the pancreas that suppresses appetite and may lead to a reduction of food intake. It helps to transport glucose into your cells to provide you with energy.
If glucose levels are high and insulin is unable to act properly due to low production or insulin resistance, your body may not use glucose for energy efficiently, which means your cells may feel “starved” of the fuel they need, increasing sensations of hunger. Symptoms of diabetes can also include excessive thirst, or polydipsia, and frequent urination (which is known as polyuria).
Due to these changes in insulin and the development of insulin resistance, hyperphagia is common among people with diabetes.
- Follow the recommendations from your doctor.
- Consult a registered dietitian or qualified healthcare provider to outline the best nutrition plan for your health.
- Learn more about your condition and your risk factors for hyperphagia by consulting a healthcare professional.
2) Low Blood Sugar (Hypoglycemia)
After eating, glucose will enter your bloodstream and make its way into the cells with the help of insulin. You may experience low blood sugar levels for many reasons, including not consuming adequate carbohydrates. Blood sugar can also dip if your body secretes excess insulin or are experiencing other neuroendocrine conditions.
Hypoglycemia promotes the secretion of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates food intake and regulates blood glucose. It can increase feelings of hunger and may lead to hyperphagia in the presence of an underlying condition.
- To combat low blood sugar, you may try to eat at specific times of the day
- Make sure you’re eating enough satiety-boosting protein-rich foods.
- Include high-fiber nutrient-dense whole foods like starchy vegetables in your diet, which may help with more stable blood glucose levels.
- Eat before and after physical exercise.
3) High Blood Sugar (Hyperglycemia)
Hyperglycemia may occur when your body is unable to produce or use insulin efficiently. If insulin production or regulation is disrupted, glucose can’t efficiently enter your cells to provide them with energy. This may lead to high blood sugar.
As described earlier, if your cells can’t get enough energy, your body requests more food, even if you already had a meal. This can lead to a vicious cycle.
- Try to eat fewer foods with added sugars and processed or refined carbs; focus on protein-rich non-starchy veggies with moderate amounts of whole fruits and whole grain sources of carbs to individual glucose tolerance.
- Work with a qualified healthcare professional such as a doctor or a dietitian to manage feelings of excessive hunger without adverse effects on your system, especially if you think you have prediabetes symptoms.
- Work on improving your glucose levels by staying hydrated.
4) Thyroid Issues, Specifically Hyperthyroidism
Thyroid dysfunctions may have significant effects on body weight and appetite. The thyroid interacts with the hypothalamus and other endocrine centers through the hypothalamus-pituitary-thyroid (HPT) axis to regulate food intake and energy output.
One of the primary roles of the thyroid is to control metabolic rate. If your thyroid produces more hormones than needed, it can lead to issues like hyperthyroidism that may lead to increased feelings of hunger. Graves’ Disease is an autoimmune disorder that may lead to hyperthyroidism.
- Always consult your doctor when exploring treatment options. What works for one person may not work for another and it’s important to customize your approach accordingly.
- Consult with a qualified nutrition professional such as a registered dietitian to explore any dietary or nutritional factors that may be impacting thyroid health.
5) Damage to the Part of the Brain That Controls Hunger
Managing your weight after a brain injury of any kind can be a serious issue. But things like hypothalamus injuries may also be a cause of hyperphagia. Since your hypothalamus helps regulate your appetite, damage from injury or a tumor can lead to changes in appetite.
The pituitary gland helps control your body’s hormone levels and interacts with many other endocrine centers in the body. Damage or tumors can cause pituitary dysfunction, leading to hormonal imbalances and changes in appetite and other aspects of metabolic function.
- Always consult with your doctor to build a plan that is appropriate for your condition and concerns.
- If appropriate, maintain a healthy activity level to prevent undesired weight gain.
- Consider working with a qualified nutrition professional such as a registered dietitian who can help you find ways to boost the nutrient-density of your diet in ways that may help promote brain health.
- Reduce emotional stress levels with activities like yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation.
6) Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS)
Premenstrual syndrome refers to a range of symptoms that you may experience a week or so before menstruation. These might include mood swings, fatigue, irritability, tender breasts, and food cravings.
PMS usually occurs because of hormonal imbalances involving changes in estrogen, progesterone, and even the neurotransmitter serotonin, among others. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects moods, emotions, and cognition as well as other physiological processes such as digestion. Changes in progesterone levels can influence cravings for carbs or sweet foods.
- Drink plenty of fluids throughout the month to stay hydrated. It’s especially important around the time you usually get your period, as it may help with pain reduction.
- Work with a registered dietitian to help you assess nutrient intake and improve glucose levels at different phases of your menstrual cycle, depending on your body’s specific needs.
7) Too Much Stress
You might have heard of “emotional eating.” But just in case you’ve never experienced it, this may occur when you draw emotional comfort from eating. It can happen when you experience high levels of stress and might find yourself reaching for not-so-healthy foods to satisfy these cravings.
Wondering why this is the case? There are many reasons. One of which may relate to how stress increases cortisol secretion. This hormone increases appetite and food cravings.
In addition to emotional stress factors, stress can also come from other areas of our lives such as poor nutrient balance, not fueling well enough for our workouts, or even higher intake of things like caffeine and alcohol—especially if we aren’t tolerating them well.
- For more detailed tips on understanding stress and stress-reduction, check out our article all about stress.
- Try yoga classes or meditation to help manage your stress levels.
- Limit many processed foods and added sugars and instead focus on eating a whole foods-based nutrient-dense diet. To find what works best for your body, consider working with a registered dietitian who can help you customize your approach more appropriately.
- Try to reduce stressful activities in your daily life. If you have a high-pressure job, consider maintaining a better work-life balance to manage your stress levels.
8) Not Enough Sleep
Not getting enough sleep is actually a type of stress in itself! Getting enough (good quality) sleep is crucial to maintaining good health. A lack of sleep can increase levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and a decrease in leptin, the satiety hormone.
This may lead to increased feelings of hunger, so it is important to prioritize getting enough sleep. Everyone’s body is different, but most experts recommend at least seven or more hours a night for adults.
Getting inadequate sleep can have negative effects on your mental health and increase the risk for other adverse health conditions.
- Make sure to aim for at least seven hours of sleep every night.
- Ensure that the sleep you get is of good quality—aim for as much uninterrupted, restful sleep as possible.
- Limit daytime naps, and stick to the same sleep schedule every day to improve your sleeping habits.
- Include appropriate levels of physical activity in your daily routine to help you sleep better at night.
- If you struggle with sleep regularly, consider talking with your doctor to identify any underlying conditions that might be present.
9) Poor Diet
A poor diet can contribute to many health issues. Nutrients provide energy for your body to perform daily activities, from breathing to running. And, as described above, nutrient imbalances are also sources of stress for the body.
A poor diet could lead to suboptimal nutrition, resulting in either deficiencies or an excess of certain nutrients. Over time, poor diets may lead to hormonal imbalances, increased susceptibility to infections, poor fitness, and increased risk for chronic health conditions like diabetes. All these health issues can affect hunger and encourage instances of hyperphagia.
- Customization of nutrition interventions is important. It may be a good idea to consult with a qualified nutrition professional such as a registered dietitian to learn more about what works best for your body.
- Consider taking a look at your blood glucose levels regularly using a tool like a CGM to support your overall well being.
- Eat a diet rich in fiber and low glycemic carbohydrates.
- Drink plenty of water to increase hydration.
- Include adequate protein and healthy fats in your diet.
10) Other Hormone Imbalances (Such As Leptin Resistance)
Hormone imbalances of many types can affect your health and weight. Certain hormones can influence body fat distribution, which may lead to weight gain or loss. For example, leptin is the satiety hormone released by the fat cells. It helps regulate food intake and energy expenditure in the long term.
If your body has an excess of fat tissue, this could lead to the release of large amounts of leptin. Unfortunately, this can cause a resistance to leptin, which means that even though you eat enough food, you might not feel full.
Even low levels of leptin can cause hyperphagia. When your body doesn’t produce any leptin, your brain thinks that your body doesn’t have any fat tissue. It can lead to uncontrolled and excessive hunger, leading to weight gain.
- If you struggle with achieving and maintaining a healthy weight or understanding your hunger and fullness cues, it’s important to speak with your doctor and consider working with a dietitian. Your healthcare team may work together to help you maintain a healthy body fat percentage for hormonal balance.
- Like so many of the tips above, it may be important to aim for a nutrient-dense diet low in processed foods and added sugar. To help you customize your diet, you’ll want to consult with a qualified nutrition professional.
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Your blood sugar levels can significantly impact how your body feels and functions. That’s why stable blood glucose levels can be an important factor in supporting overall wellbeing.
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Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer at Nutrisense, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.