Polyphagia (Hyperphagia)

Polyphagia (hyperphagia) is a feeling of extreme, insatiable hunger. It’s a common sign of diabetes, but it can have other medical causes, such as hyperthyroidism and atypical depression. It’s important to see a healthcare provider if you’re experiencing polyphagia.


What is polyphagia (hyperphagia)?

Polyphagia, also called hyperphagia, is the medical term for a feeling of extreme, insatiable hunger. It’s a symptom of certain health conditions. Eating typically doesn’t make polyphagia go away, except in the case of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).

Excess eating as a result of this feeling may or may not lead to weight gain depending on the underlying cause. In some cases, it’s associated with unexplained weight loss.

An increase in hunger is a normal bodily response to situations like fasting or strenuous exercise. But intense, insatiable hunger like polyphagia is often a sign of a health condition that needs medical treatment, such as diabetes.


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Possible Causes

What causes polyphagia (hyperphagia)?

Polyphagia (extreme hunger) is a relatively uncommon symptom. It’s most often associated with undiagnosed or undertreated diabetes.

Other causes include:

  • Other hormone-related conditions.
  • Mental health conditions.
  • Rare medical conditions.

Malnutrition in the form of undernutrition can also cause polyphagia. Undernutrition is a deficiency of nutrients. You may be undernourished if you don’t have an adequate diet, or if your body has trouble absorbing enough nutrients from your food.

Certain medications, such as corticosteroids and cannabinoids (cannabis-related drugs), can cause polyphagia, as well. Talk to your healthcare provider if you experience extreme hunger after starting a new medication.

Diabetes and polyphagia

Diabetes mellitus is a condition in which your body doesn’t make enough or any insulin or your body doesn’t use the insulin properly. Insulin is an essential hormone that helps regulate your blood glucose (sugar) level. Without enough insulin, glucose builds up in your blood, causing hyperglycemia (high blood sugar).

Glucose (sugar) is the main form of energy your body uses from the food you eat. Without enough insulin, your body can’t use glucose for energy. This lack of energy usage causes an increase in hunger.

The three main types of diabetes include:

  • Type 1 diabetes (T1D): This is an autoimmune disease. In T1D, your immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in your pancreas, destroying them. Your pancreas can no longer make insulin, so glucose builds up in your blood. Your body can’t use this glucose without insulin, so it starts rapidly breaking down fat and muscle for energy instead. This causes polyphagia with weight loss.
  • Type 2 diabetes (T2D): If you have T2D, your body either doesn’t make enough insulin or your body’s cells don’t respond normally to the insulin (insulin resistance). This is the most common type of diabetes. Polyphagia in T2D usually isn’t as apparent as it is in T1D because the hyperglycemia isn’t as extreme.
  • Gestational diabetes: This type of diabetes results when hormones your placenta produces during your pregnancy make your body’s cells more resistant to insulin. Your pancreas can’t make enough insulin to overcome this resistance. You may not notice symptoms of gestational diabetes, like increased hunger and more frequent peeing.

Polyphagia is one of the main three signs of diabetes:

Healthcare providers often call these the “three Ps of diabetes.” Seek medical care as soon as possible if you’re experiencing these symptoms, especially if you’ve also experienced rapid weight loss. Untreated and undiagnosed Type 1 diabetes is fatal.

People with diabetes (especially T1D) can also experience polyphagia due to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) episodes. Hypoglycemia needs to be treated by consuming sugar (glucose) in order to get your blood sugar back into a healthy range. People without diabetes can experience hypoglycemia, as well.

Polyphagia and hormone-related conditions

Aside from diabetes, polyphagia can be a symptom of the following hormone-related conditions:

  • Hyperthyroidism or Graves’ disease: In these conditions, your thyroid releases too much thyroid hormone, which plays a significant role in regulating your metabolism (how your body transforms the food you eat into energy). Elevated levels of thyroid hormone speed up your metabolism, which means your body is using calories faster than normal. This can cause constant hunger and weight loss.
  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS): Premenstrual syndrome describes symptoms that show up one to two weeks before you start your period and return at the same time each month. One possible symptom is polyphagia. This is due to the spikes in the hormones estrogen and progesterone and decreased levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter).
  • Insulinoma: This is a rare tumor that forms in the endocrine cells in your pancreas — the cells that make the hormone insulin. The tumor causes your pancreas to release excess insulin, which results in low blood sugar. One of the main symptoms of hypoglycemia is insatiable hunger since your body needs sugar to get your blood sugar levels back in range.

Mental health conditions and polyphagia

Polyphagia can be a symptom of the following mental health conditions:

  • Atypical depression: Atypical depression is a specific type of depression in which the symptoms stray from the traditional criteria. One key symptom of atypical depression is an increase in appetite, which often leads to weight gain.
  • Stress: When you’re stressed, your body releases a surge of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol can increase your blood sugar level and make you hungry.
  • Anxiety disorders: Anxiety can also cause elevated levels of cortisol, resulting in frequent hunger. Extreme hunger due to anxiety may also be an emotional response. Eating could be a coping mechanism to deal with negative emotions.

Rare medical conditions and polyphagia

Polyphagia is a symptom of the following rare conditions:

  • Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS): This is a rare genetic condition that affects a child’s metabolism and causes changes in the child’s appearance and behavior. Around the age of 2 years, children with PWS develop polyphagia, resulting in weight gain.
  • Kleine-Levin syndrome: This is an extremely rare condition that causes intermittent episodes where you sleep for long periods of time. These episodes involve other symptoms, including polyphagia.

Care and Treatment

How is polyphagia treated?

The treatment for polyphagia depends on the underlying cause. It usually goes away once the condition that caused it is properly treated.

For example, treatment for Type 1 diabetes involves lifelong insulin injections and managing blood sugar levels. Hypoglycemia must be treated by eating or drinking sugar (glucose) or with a glucagon injection or nasal powder. Treatment for hyperthyroidism may involve antithyroid medication, radioactive iodine or surgery.

If a medication is causing polyphagia, your healthcare provider may switch the medication, if possible.


When To Call the Doctor

When should polyphagia be treated by a healthcare provider?

Polyphagia (extreme hunger) is usually a sign of a condition that needs medical treatment, such as diabetes, hypoglycemia episodes and hyperthyroidism. If you’re experiencing intense hunger, see a healthcare provider.

If you or your child is experiencing polyphagia along with other symptoms, such as extreme thirst, weight loss and frequent urination, go to the emergency room. You may have Type 1 diabetes, which is fatal if it’s not treated in time due to a complication called diabetes-related ketoacidosis (DKA).

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Extreme hunger that’s not fixed by eating food is often a sign of an underlying condition that needs medical treatment. If you notice a change in your or your child’s appetite, see a healthcare provider. They can order some tests to determine the cause of polyphagia.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 01/23/2023.

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