Loss of appetite as a symptom – causes and tips

Loss of appetite, also referred to as inappetence in medical parlance, can have numerous causes. This includes both physical and mental illnesses, but pregnancy or taking certain medications can also lead to a lack of appetite. What does it mean when the lack of appetite occurs together with other symptoms such as tiredness or  nausea  and what diseases and other causes can a lack of appetite lead to? What helps with loss of appetite and when should you seek medical advice if you lose your appetite? Read that here.

Definition: what is loss of appetite?

Appetite describes the desire to eat something. You can have a general appetite or feel an appetite for something specific. Unlike the feeling of hunger, appetite is strongly influenced by sensory impressions. These include, for example, the appearance or smell of a dish. The emotional state or the social situation, for example being in a group or a nice environment, can also influence the appetite.

If we want to eat something, either because we are hungry or simply feel hungry, the body produces the hormone ghrelin in the pancreas and the gastric mucosa, which stimulates the appetite. Other hormones, such as insulin or leptin, are released after eating. They have an appetite suppressant effect. Overall, the feeling of appetite and hunger are complex physical processes in which a large number of hormones are involved. Exactly how they interact has not yet been fully deciphered.

Loss of appetite is defined as a reduced or completely absent urge to eat and, in some cases, to drink. Sometimes there is also a disgust towards eating or certain foods.

Loss of appetite as a symptom

Loss of appetite is counted among the general symptoms. It is therefore a complaint that can indicate a disease, but its occurrence alone does not allow any clear conclusions to be drawn about the causal disease.

Even if there is a feeling of hunger, a lack of appetite can lead to not eating. In the long term, this can trigger numerous complaints, such as declining performance, severe weight loss, menstrual cycle disorders in women or deficiency symptoms due to a mineral or vitamin deficiency.

Loss of appetite: causes

The causes that can trigger a loss of appetite are extremely varied. Physical illnesses, old age or pregnancy can lead to little or no appetite. But mental stress or disorders as well as certain medications can also affect appetite.

Below we have summarized common causes of loss of appetite for you.

Physical illnesses as a cause

Numerous diseases are accompanied by the general symptom of loss of appetite. Possible diseases that are particularly often associated with loss of appetite include:

  • Diseases of the gastrointestinal tract and the associated organs:  if there are problems in the stomach or intestines, the appetite is usually also impaired. Possible diseases include, for example, intestinal inflammation,  stomach ulcers , inflammation of the gastric mucosa or chronic diseases such as  Crohn’s disease . In rare cases, tumors of the gastrointestinal tract can also trigger a reduced appetite. In addition, diseases of the bile such as gallstones or urinary poisoning (uremia) can lead to a lack of appetite.
  • Infectious diseases:  Infectious diseases, such as a cold,  flu  or infection with the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, are often accompanied by a loss of appetite. This symptom occurs especially when the upper airways are affected. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that the sense of smell and taste are impaired when the nose is blocked. On the other hand, infections are often accompanied by a sore throat or pharynx, which makes swallowing painful. In addition, fever affects the feeling of hunger and thus often also the appetite.
  • Diseases in the mouth:  In addition to inflammation caused by respiratory infections, inflammation of the gums,  aphthous ulcers , fungal infections or, in very rare cases, cancer can also lead to pain in the mouth or when swallowing.
  • Food intolerances:  Food intolerances, such as gluten or  lactose intolerance , can lead to problems in the gastrointestinal tract and thus to a reduced appetite.
  • Dementia:  People with dementia are also sometimes affected by a lack of appetite, as it can happen that they no longer recognize meals as such or that they lose importance as a result of inner restlessness.

In general, if your general well-being is impaired by an illness, you can always lose your appetite.

Loss of appetite and psyche

With some mental illnesses, those affected also feel no appetite. In the case of anorexia (anorexia nervosa or anorexia), this is actually one of the most important symptoms. A lack of appetite can also be present in the case of alcohol or drug addiction.

Eating and appetite are closely related to mental state. Psychological complaints can have a direct effect on the gastrointestinal tract. For example, many people react to stress or anxiety with nausea,  diarrhea  or  stomach pain , which in turn affects appetite.

The fact that the gastrointestinal tract reacts in this way to stress or similar feelings is part of the body’s “emergency plan”. In a real or perceived dangerous situation (such as an exam), the hormone corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) is released. The stomach is inhibited in its movement and the food pulp is not transported further into the intestine. In the case of acute stress, intestinal movement is promoted at the same time and more electrolytes and water flow into the intestine, which can lead to diarrhea. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is more likely to result in  constipation , since in this case the movement of the intestines is also slowed down in order to save energy.

In addition, due to the social and cultural environment, food is closely linked to well-being, reward or sociability. Psychological complaints, such as  depression  or anxiety disorders, have a negative impact on well-being and often lead to social withdrawal. Psychological problems can therefore result in a loss of appetite due to physical as well as social causes.

loss of appetite during pregnancy

In principle, there can be many hormonal changes during pregnancy, which at times also affect the feeling of hunger and can, for example, cause a loss of appetite, but also feelings of ravenous hunger. Some women also develop dislikes for certain smells or foods, such as meat or coffee , during pregnancy  .

Many women also suffer from morning sickness, especially in early pregnancy. These ailments can also result in little or no appetite. In later stages of pregnancy, it can also happen that the unborn child puts pressure on the stomach.

loss of appetite in old age

Many older people have less appetite and therefore eat less. There are various reasons for this: The production of the hormone ghrelin, which controls appetite, decreases with age. The  metabolism also  changes and physical activity is often reduced, so that older people need less energy. In addition, older people suffer more frequently from illnesses or have to take medication – both of which can result in a lack of appetite.

In addition to these physical aspects, social factors such as missing common breaks at work or loneliness can also have a negative impact on appetite.

No appetite from medication

Certain active ingredients can negatively affect appetite. These include, among others:

Cancer patients  receiving radiotherapy or chemotherapy  often suffer from a lack of appetite, since the treatment can affect the sense of taste and cause side effects such as nausea and vomiting or inflammation of the mouth.

Loss of appetite with nausea or tiredness

Loss of appetite associated with fatigue and/or nausea is a commonly observed combination.

If there is tiredness and loss of appetite (or ravenous hunger) as well as symptoms such as muscle pain, a feeling of fullness, diarrhea or  flatulence , celiac disease, i.e. an intolerance to gluten, can be behind it. Gluten is a protein found in some grains, such as wheat or  oats . Even with depressive moods, tiredness and loss of appetite often go hand in hand.

Loss of appetite and nausea often indicate a disease in the stomach or intestines. Possible triggers are, for example, inflammation of the gastric mucosa or appendicitis or an irritable stomach. In the case of  migraines,  nausea and loss of appetite can also be among the possible symptoms in addition to the severe headache.

If loss of appetite occurs in connection with nausea and tiredness, in addition to gastrointestinal infections or psychological complaints, there may also be liver diseases, hyperthyroidism  or  chronic  kidney failure  .

The same applies here: in the case of numerous diseases, states of exhaustion, nausea and loss of appetite can occur at the same time. Only a medical diagnosis can bring clarity here.

Loss of appetite – when to see the doctor?

If the loss of appetite only occurs for a short time, for example in a stressful situation, if you have a cold or a stomach flu, this is usually not a cause for concern. This also applies to a temporary loss of appetite during pregnancy. Contrary to the long-held opinion that a pregnant woman has to eat “for two”, the need for energy and nutrients during pregnancy increases only slightly.

If there is a suspicion that a more serious physical or psychological cause could be behind the loss of appetite, for example if there are strong accompanying symptoms, medical advice should be sought in any case. Even if the loss of appetite lasts for a longer period of time and there is even a risk of malnutrition, you should consult a family doctor.

If it is suspected that medication could be the trigger for the lack of appetite, a possible discontinuation or change of medication should be clarified with the doctor treating you.

What helps against loss of appetite? Home remedies, medicines & tips

If you only suffer from loss of appetite for a short time or if it occurs as an unavoidable side effect of a treatment or chronic illness, there are a few home remedies and tips that can help to stimulate your appetite again:

  1. If stress is behind the loss of appetite, you should eliminate the triggers if possible. Otherwise  , relaxation exercises can  help to calm down and thereby develop an appetite again.
  2. If you have an acute loss of appetite, give preference  to liquid food  . This includes, for example,  yoghurt , soup or  smoothies .
  3. Rather eat several  small portions  throughout the day. This is easier to digest and more compatible with loss of appetite.
  4. Certain  herbs and plants,  such as rosemary, coriander,  ginger  and dandelion, are said to stimulate the appetite. Refine your food with it or cook yourself a corresponding tea. Drinks with bitter substances, such as tonic water, can also help against loss of appetite.
  5. Create  incentives:  If you at least feel an appetite for certain foods, prepare them. Arrange the food appetizingly to stimulate the appetite and create a pleasant atmosphere while eating.
  6. If the loss of appetite is due to a physical illness, ask your doctor for advice or seek  nutritional advice  . This can be useful in the case of cancer, for example.
  7. If  medication causes  loss of appetite, consult your doctor about when to take it or about possible alternative active ingredients.
  8. In very severe cases of weight loss and malnutrition,  drugs to counteract appetite loss  (such as the active ingredient megestrol acetate) can also be used. Here, however, the risks and benefits should be weighed up by a doctor.

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