What is polyphagia?
Polyphagia, also known as hyperphagia, is the medical term for excessive or extreme hunger. It’s different than having an increased appetite after exercise or other physical activity. While your hunger level will return to normal after eating in those cases, polyphagia won’t go away if you eat more food. Instead, the underlying cause of your polyphagia needs to be addressed.
There are several conditions that may cause polyphagia.
Hypoglycemia is low blood sugar. While it most often happens in people with diabetes, it can happen to anyone. Learn more about hypoglycemia without diabetes.
Other symptoms of hypoglycemia include:
- inability to concentrate
- personality changes
Hyperthyroidism is a condition in which your thyroid works too quickly. The thyroid is a gland that makes hormones that control many body functions. One of the functions of thyroid hormones is to control metabolism, so your appetite can increase if you have too much thyroid hormone. Other symptoms include:
- weight loss
- hair loss
- difficulty sleeping
3. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
The changes in hormones associated with a woman’s monthly cycle can make you extremely hungry right before you get your period. Spikes in estrogen and progesterone and decreased serotonin can lead to intense cravings for carbs and fats. Other symptoms of PMS include:
- irritability and mood swings
4. Lack of sleep
Not getting enough sleep can make it harder for your body to control the levels of hormones that regulate hunger. In addition to being very hungry, you may eat food with more calories than you usually might.
Quality of sleep matters too. Sleep apnea and other sleep disorders can also cause you to eat more. Learn more about sleep deprivation and overeating.
If you’re sleep deprived, you might also notice:
- daytime sleepiness
- mood changes
- memory problems
- difficulty concentrating
When you’re stressed, your body releases a large amount of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol can make you hungry.
Extreme hunger when you’re stressed or anxious might also be an emotional response. You might be using food to try to cope with negative emotions, either consciously or subconsciously. Stress can also have other physical symptoms, such as:
- lack of energy
- unexplained aches and pains
- frequent colds
- upset stomach
6. Your diet
If you eat a lot of food with unhealthy carbs and fats, such as white bread or fast food, you might feel hungry again very soon after eating. This is because these foods lack nutrients that fill you up, such as fiber and protein. Try eating more:
- fruits and vegetables
- whole grains
- lean meat and fish
Other symptoms of a diet that’s not nutritious enough include:
- weight gain or loss
- hair loss or thinning
- inflamed or bleeding gums
- difficulty concentrating or remembering things
Polyphagia may be a sign of diabetes. When you eat, your body turns food into glucose. It then uses a hormone called insulin to get glucose from your bloodstream to your cells. Your cells then use this glucose for energy and normal body functions.
If you have diabetes, your body either cannot produce insulin (type 1) or does not use insulin properly (type 2). Therefore, the glucose stays in your bloodstream longer and is urinated out instead of going into cells. This means that cells don’t have the energy they need to function properly. When this happens, your cells signal that you should continue to eat so they can get the glucose they need. You might feel very hungry.
Other symptoms of diabetes include:
- frequent urination
- excessive thirst
- unexplained weight loss
- blurry vision
- slow wound healing
People with diabetes are also at a higher risk of developing hyperglycemia, due to medication to control high blood sugar. Hyperglycemia can also lead to polyphagia for people with diabetes.
If you have extreme hunger, excessive thirst, or excessive urination, you should see a doctor for a diabetes test. Any two of these symptoms can point to diabetes. You should also talk to your doctor if you have symptoms of any of the other possible causes of polyphagia, or if your hunger is negatively impacting your daily life.
Your doctor will first take a detailed medical history, including:
- what other symptoms you have
- how long your polyphagia has been happening
- your diet
- family medical history
Based on that information, the doctor might be able to figure out what’s causing your polyphagia. If not, they will most likely perform blood tests to rule out any suspected causes. For example, a blood glucose test can be used to diagnose diabetes, while thyroid function tests can be used to determine if you have hyperthyroidism.
Treatment will focus on treating the underlying cause of polyphagia. Many conditions that can cause polyphagia, such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and premenstrual syndrome, can be treated with medication. A healthy diet and exercise plan can also help. This may not only control hunger, but also be beneficial for underlying conditions.
If your polyphagia is due to a mental cause, such as anxiety or depression, your doctor might refer you to a mental health specialist to help you find appropriate treatment. In these cases, cognitive behavioral therapy, other talk therapy, antidepressants, or antianxiety medication might be recommended.
If your polyphagia is caused by a treatable underlying condition, treating that condition will reduce your hunger. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, sleep habits, and diet can also be very helpful in controlling excessive hunger.
What’s the difference between polyphagia and binge eating? How do I know which condition I have?
It may be difficult at first to tell the difference between polyphagia and binge eating, as both conditions involve the act of overeating. With polyphagia, you may have other symptoms that might suggest an underlying medical condition causing you to feel constant physical hunger. These other symptoms can include excessive thirst, weight loss, gastrointestinal symptoms, or excessive sleepiness.
Binge eating is defined as discrete episodes of uncontrolled eating which may not be associated with any feelings of physical hunger. Binge eating is also typically associated with a loss of control during a binge episode and feelings of guilt or depression after an episode.
In either case, making an appointment with your medical provider would be a great place to start to try to figure out the cause of your overeating.Elaine K. Luo, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.