What to Do When You Have No Appetite

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Food gives your body the energy it needs to stay healthy. Your brain and your gut work together to determine when you need to eat and when you’re full. When you have no appetite, it’s a sign that there may be something wrong.

The loss of appetite may stem from a variety of physical or psychological causes. Understanding the reason why you have no appetite is key to determining how to best treat the issue.

Physical Reasons You've Lost Your Appetite

The loss of appetite isn’t usually a primary condition. Instead, it’s a symptom of another issue. Sometimes, the cause is fleeting—such as in the case of a stomach bug. But at other times, it can be longer-lasting and may require treatment.

  • Aging: Appetite often changes with age. Older people may lack interest in food due to changing taste buds, dementia, health problems, medication side effects, or mental health problems. Sometimes elderly people eat less because they’ve decreased their activity level and have fewer caloric needs.
  • Anemia: Anemia occurs when there is an abnormally low level of blood. Loss of appetite and weight loss can both be a sign of anemia, especially if these symptoms are combined with fatigue.
  • Cancer: Appetite loss is common among individuals with cancer. It may be directly linked to the illness, especially when associated with cancers of the digestive tract, like stomach, pancreatic, lung, or ovarian. Appetite loss may also be a side effect of cancer treatments.
  • Cold / Flu: There are a variety of stomach bugs that lead to appetite loss. Appetite usually returns quickly, however, when the cold or flu has resolved.
  • Diabetes: Individuals with diabetes may not feel hungry for several reasons. Sometimes, food moves too slowly through the digestive tract because high glucose levels damage the vagus nerve. Untreated high blood sugar may also cause high levels of ketones to build in the blood and urine.
  • Hypothyroidism: Hypothyroidism may suppress the desire to eat. It may also lead to weight gain, despite fewer calories being consumed.
  • Infections: Infections may affect a person’s desire to eat. When the infection clears, the appetite returns.
  • Medication: Although there are many medications that may lead to decreased appetite, sleeping pills, antibiotics, blood pressure medications, diuretics, anabolic steroids, and painkillers are among the most common. They may cause nausea and fatigue as well.
  • Pain: Severe pain can cause you to feel too sick to eat. Migraine, stomach pain, or other types of pain may cause you to lose interest in food.
  • Pregnancy: Expectant mothers may experience nausea and loss of appetite, especially early on in pregnancy.
  • Stomach issues:Stomach issues, especially digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease, may decrease appetite.

Mental Health Conditions That Impact Your Appetite

There are several mental health conditions that may affect your appetite. Anything from increased stress or grief, to a diagnosable mental illness, may cause you to lose your desire to eat.

Improving your psychological well-being can improve your appetite. Here are some of the most common psychological reasons people lose their appetite:

  • Anxiety: Some people with anxiety become so overwhelmed with worry they lose their desire to eat.
  • Depression: Individuals with clinical depression may lose interest in everything—including food. They may lack the energy to prepare meals and may have little interest in eating. They may also experience nausea.
  • Stress: The body’s physical response to stress often suppresses appetite (although some people experience the opposite effect—they overeat when stressed out). Physical symptoms associated with stress are common, such as nausea or the sensation of a “knot in the stomach” which makes food unappealing.
  • Substance Use: While some people gain weight from their substance use, others lose it. Drug or alcohol use may decrease an individual’s appetite.

If you’ve lost your appetite for a few days, there is likely nothing to worry about. It’s normal to experience minor fluctuations in appetite over time. But if it lasts more than a few days, or if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as fatigue, pain, or vomiting, contact your physician.

How It's Treated

The treatment for the loss of appetite depends on the cause. Your physician will likely ask questions about how often you eat, how you feel after eating, whether your weight has changed, or how long your appetite has been an issue.

Your physician may choose to run tests, such as blood tests or an ultrasound of your stomach, depending on the initial impressions from your interview and physical exam. Tests can help identify the root cause of your loss of appetite.

When loss of appetite is part of a more serious illness, good nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight may be very important to healing. Therefore, a physician may make it a top priority to help you get your appetite back as soon as possible.

Depending on the diagnosis, your physician may recommend the following for treatment:

  • A better sleep schedule
  • A special diet that will help maintain proper nutrition
  • Improved self-care
  • Increased physical activity
  • Medication to increase your appetite
  • Talk therapy

In some cases, you may be referred to a dietitian who can assist you with meal planning and symptom management. You might be asked to eat several small meals each day or to cut out certain foods while adding others. A dietitian can also advise you on nutritional supplements that may help ensure that you’re getting all the nutrients you need.

A Word From Verywell

The prognosis for loss of appetite depends heavily on the cause. For some, it’s a mild issue that resolves on its own. For others, it can become a serious life-threatening problem that requires intensive medical intervention.

Whether you or someone you love has no appetite, a lack of interest in food and weight loss can be scary. But don’t ignore the issue if it lasts more than a few days.

It might not be a big deal, yet it also might be a sign of an underlying condition that needs treatment. Talk to your physician about any changes in appetite, and learn how to best address the issue. 

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