You just had a sumptuous breakfast. Within half an hour you get the urge to eat, so you wolf down a pack of chips. Within minutes you are hungry again. You raid the fridge for the leftover cake from yesterday’s party, finish it, and then you are hungry again! And this is not the first time this is happening with you. It has become a regular affair. You are worried that you will put on weight, and rightly so. You think – What could be causing your hunger? And more importantly what could suppress your excessive hunger?
Feeling excessively hungry is normal if you have overdone it in the gym or jogged an extra mile. And if you are pregnant, of course, you will have an increased appetite. You may also tend to eat more when recovering from an illness. But excessive hunger can be a symptom of different diseases too. The scientific community terms it hyperphagia or polyphagia.
Notice how you have excess desire for food when you are stressed out? Persistent stress and anxiety is a definite trigger for excessive hunger. Whenever we are stressed the brain is triggered to produce corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and adrenaline, which suppress appetite. But if stress persists, the adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol, which increases appetite. If the stress is prolonged, cortisol may stay elevated causing excessive hunger.
Mental health disorders such as bipolar disorder and manic depression associated with an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, hormonal deficiencies, and genetic factors can increase your desire for food enormously. Bipolar disorder is characterized by severe mood swings, very high energy levels and impulsiveness. Depression, on the other hand, is characterized by overwhelming persistent feelings of sadness, low energy levels, and difficulty concentrating. (Read: Bipolar disorder: Symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment)
Eating disorders like bulimia cause excessive hunger. Bulimia involves binge eating, which means uncontrolled overeating or eating much larger amounts of food than you normally would within, say, less than two hours. This phase of binge eating is followed by purging or self-induced vomiting. A similar eating disorder is compulsive overeating or binge eating. This disorder starts gradually as in a child who turns to food when upset and over time he learns that food.
At times, excessive hunger might also be tell-tale sign of a worm infestation in the intestine. These worms, for example, tapeworm, can live for a long period of time without being detected by you. These parasites rob the body of all essential nutrients leaving you with undesired fats and sugars. You start feeling uncontrollably hungry and tend to overeat. Read 10 tips to prevent hunger pangs and cravings at nights
Hypoglycemia or low blood sugar is another reason why you feel excessively hungry. Hypoglycemia symptoms such as hunger, fatigue, headache, cold sweats, confusion and mild tremors can be caused by over-exercising and not eating enough carbohydrates, starvation dieting, and alcohol addiction. In these cases, the hypoglycemia is short termed, and blood sugar levels are restored when you eat. But if you have liver disease, the hypoglycemia becomes chronic and you have the urge to eat all the time. This is because the body usually produces sugar in the liver to avoid blood sugar levels falling. And if you have a liver disease, your liver won’t be able to produce sugar.
Type-2 diabetes, too, can make you feel hungry constantly. Okay, it is easy to understand why you feel so hungry when you have low blood sugar, but how on earth do you feel hungry when you are overloaded with sugar? That’s what diabetes is all about, isn’t it? Interestingly, high blood sugar does cause hunger, even though you do not need more food. This is because every cell in your body relies upon insulin to get the sugar from the blood. If there is not enough insulin, or if it isn’t working properly, sugar piles up in the blood but it can’t get into the cells where it is needed. So the cells send the signal to the brain to get more food. And because this is happening all the time, you tend to feel hungry constantly. (Read: Diabetes – Symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment and complications)
Certain medications such as corticosteroids, cyproheptadine, and tricyclic antidepressants are known to cause hyperphagia.
Food craving is a common physical symptom of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). The syndrome occurs during the second half of the menstrual cycle and goes away within 1 – 2 days after the period starts. Other symptoms include bloating, headache, diarrhoea or constipation and breast tenderness. Mood swings, fatigue, and sleep problems too occur during this time. (Read: Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) – tips to deal with it)
Excessive hunger is also associated with Hyperthyroidism and Grave’s disease, an autoimmune disease affecting the thyroid. The thyroid functions to increase the metabolic rate, so an overactive thyroid shows symptoms of hyperactivity, insomnia, or constant hunger that is unsatisfied by eating. Incidentally, you don’t gain weight here by all the eating; instead you lose weight since you burn calories at a much faster rate because of overactive thyroid.
Genetic disorders such as Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS) are sometimes responsible for excessive hunger. The disorder is characterized by excessive appetite with progressive obesity, short stature and mental retardation. PWS is the most common genetic form of obesity, but why it causes excessive hunger is not yet fully known. Researchers think it may due to the presence of high levels of the appetite hormone called ghrelin that could be responsible. High levels of ghrelin appear to make high-calorie foods look more appealing, so it is not difficult to guess why a person with PWS, who has 3-fold higher levels, tends to eat more and become fat.
Chromosomal abnormality, again a gene disorder can cause excessive hunger. It is well known that an imbalance between energy intake and energy expenditure results in obesity. And a part of the brain, called hypothalamus, regulates these two factors. Hypothalamus contains numerous small nuclei that produce hormones responsible for body temperature, hunger, mood regulation, and other autonomic body functions. One of these nuclei (paraventricular nucleus PVN) is responsible for regulating hunger. When PVN malfunctions because of structural defect, you feel excessive hunger and overeat.
Adverse intrauterine environment has been found to be the precursor to excessive hunger. Researchers from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, proposed a very interesting cause for hyperphagia. They found that excessive hunger to be a consequence of ‘fetal programming’. It is based on the theory that if there are adverse conditions in the uterus of the mother, say malnutrition, metabolic and hormonal changes occur in the fetus to adapt itself to the intrauterine conditions. If these adaptive responses persist even after the baby is born, it leads to metabolic, cardiovascular and endocrine disorders.
Emotional support from family and friends and sometimes counseling may be required to deal with excessive hunger. Contact your doctor if you have persistent increase in appetite. Failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage.