What Causes Polyphagia (Extreme Hunger)? Diagnosis and Treatment

By Terez Malka, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 14, 2022

Polyphagia (also called hyperphagia) is the medical term for extreme hunger.

This type of extreme hunger is different from typical hunger; for example, that experienced after skipping a meal or working out. 

Instead, this type of hunger doesn’t seem to go away even after eating a meal, and the person never feels satisfied. 

Polyphagia is a sign of several medical conditions. It could be a problem related to your thyroid, medication, diabetes, a mental disorder, or several other conditions.

In this article, I’ll cover what polyphagia is and what can cause it. I’ll also go over how it’s diagnosed and when you need to seek medical care.

What Is Polyphagia (Extreme Hunger)?

Polyphagia is always feeling hungry and as though you are unable to eat enough, even when your food intake may be excessive. 

Sometimes polyphagia is associated with weight gain, though not always. 

Symptoms

  • A strong desire or need to eat
  • Overeating
  • Not feeling full or satisfied
  • Weight gain (although not always)
  • Binge-eating
  • Thinking about food constantly

Experiencing extreme hunger? Chat with a medical provider through K Health.

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Possible Causes of Polyphagia

There are several causes of polyphagia, including the following.

Hypoglycemia

Throughout the day, your blood sugar will experience a normal variation.

But when it moves out of the healthy range, and drops too low, it is called hypoglycemia.  

Hypoglycemia is when your blood sugar drops below 70 mg/dL.

When this happens, you’ll need to take steps to raise your blood sugar, such as drinking fruit juice, regular soda (not diet), or eating something with sugar. 

Symptoms of hypoglycemia include:

  • Feeling shaky
  • Extreme hunger
  • Sweating, chills, feeling clammy
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Irritability or anxiety

Hypoglycemia is common in people with diabetes but can also be caused by not eating a balanced diet or after intense physical activity, or in the setting of other medical conditions.

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is when your thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone.

Your thyroid is a gland in your neck that’s responsible for how much energy you have and many other important functions. 

For example, your weight, digestion, moods, breathing, and heart rate are all influenced by your thyroid hormones. 

When you have hypothyroidism, you may experience the following symptoms:

Certain conditions cause hypothyroidism, including autoimmune disorders, inflammation of the thyroid, surgical removal of part of the thyroid, radiation to the thyroid, and some medications.

Premenstrual Syndrome

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a group of symptoms that people experience one or two weeks before starting their period. 

The symptoms are a combination of emotional and physical.

Some people have very mild symptoms while others experience symptoms that are severe enough to make them miss school or work. 

Symptoms of PMS include:

  • Swollen and tender breasts
  • Bloating
  • Cramping
  • Headache or backache
  • Irritability
  • Feeling tired
  • Appetite changes and food cravings
  • Changes in mood
  • Trouble with concentration

Doctors believe these symptoms start a couple days after ovulation because the levels of estrogen and progesterone fall and don’t begin to rise again until the period starts. 

Lack of Sleep

Getting good sleep is just as important as eating a nutritious diet and getting regular exercise. Sleep deprivation and sleep disorders can influence negative behaviors, which can be harmful to your health and relationships. Chronic lack of sleep puts you at higher risk for:

Getting adequate sleep is important for your endocrine health, metabolism, and neurological functions. 

It is suggested that more than six hours of sleep each night is needed for your best health.

Stress

Stressful situations can potentially make you feel more hungry.

Emotional eating is when you eat to try and cope with difficult situations. 

Food can help put a damper on negative feelings, and while this coping mechanism brings temporary relief, it can become a habit.

The following things can increase your chance of becoming a stress eater:

  • It is difficult for you to manage your emotions
  • You are unhappy with your body
  • You are dieting and feel deprived of certain food

Pay attention to your eating habits and try to take note if certain people or events make you want to eat more.

Work on developing other coping skills to help you deal with stress, like talking with a support system, going for a walk, or taking on hobbies you enjoy.

When you do eat, eat slowly and pay attention to the food you are eating. Plan meals ahead when you know certain situations will be stressful. 

Diet

You may feel full temporarily after eating something, but if that food is lacking in nutritional value, you might become hungry again shortly after. 

Your brain tells you when you are full because it feels the amount of food in your stomach; however, the cells in your body require certain nutrients, and they’ll also signal hunger if not fed correctly.

A diet low in carbohydrates or not balanced with fats, proteins, and fibers, can make you feel hungry again. 

When you sit down to eat, try and follow these tips:

  • Make it important to yourself to eat your fruits and vegetables. Think about eating a rainbow of colors every day.
  • Include a variety of proteins in your diet such as lean meats, seafood, poultry, eggs, soy products, seeds, nuts, and legumes (peas and beans). 
  • When it comes to grains, choose whole grain when possible.
  • Limit your sugar, sodium, saturated fats, cholesterol, and trans fats.

Diabetes

Everything you eat will be broken down into energy that your body can use. Diabetes is a chronic disease that disrupts how your body turns food into energy. 

Your pancreas is a gland that sits behind your stomach and makes the hormone insulin, which opens the cells of your body when you eat so they can process sugar to make energy. 

When you have diabetes, your body either doesn’t make enough insulin or it can’t use the insulin when it’s released.

Symptoms of diabetes include:

There are several possible causes for diabetes, including genetics, an autoimmune reaction, being overweight, and not being physically active.

If you are experiencing symptoms of diabetes contact your medical care provider.

Diagnosis

To diagnose what could be causing your polyphagia, your medical provider will start by reviewing your past medical history and any medications you are currently taking. 

They will ask you questions about when your symptoms started and may also ask about your diet, activity level, and how much sleep you get.

Then, they will perform a physical exam; depending on your symptoms, they may have you do some blood work to check your thyroid and blood sugar levels. 

Treatment

Treatment will depend on what is causing you to feel so hungry. You may need to learn how to manage your blood sugar by changing your diet or by taking diabetic medication or insulin. 

If your thyroid is the problem, your medical provider will go over medications that can help bring your hormone levels back into balance. 

You may also need to take a look at your lifestyle and figure out how to get more sleep and better manage your stress level.

Experiencing extreme hunger? Chat with a medical provider through K Health.

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When To Seek Medical Attention

If you have a large increase in your appetite for no explainable reason, it’s good to let your medical provider know. You need to be evaluated to see if something serious is causing it.

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a healthcare provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is my hunger so extreme?
Extreme feelings of hunger can be caused by several things including problems with your thyroid, blood sugar levels, or a stressful lifestyle with not enough sleep.
What is insatiable hunger a symptom of?
Insatiable hunger can be a sign that you are experiencing low blood sugar, you aren't eating enough, or a symptom of diabetes. If you are under great levels of stress or are not getting enough sleep, you could be feeling extra hungry as a method of coping. Having a change in your thyroid hormone levels can also cause you to feel hungry.
What are 2 signs of extreme hunger?
Extreme hunger can make you feel shaky and irritable. You may also experience feeling sweaty, clammy, and have a rapid heart rate.
What happens when you have polyphagia?
Polyphagia makes a person never feel fully satisfied when they eat. They hyperfocus on thinking about food, oftentimes overeat, and can gain weight.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Terez Malka, MD

Dr. Terez Malka is a board-certified pediatrician and emergency medicine physician.