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What to Know About Appetite Stimulants

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 27, 2021

Part of maintaining your health includes having an appetite for food. Food provides you with the necessary nutrients to keep your body strong and gives you the energy to engage in everyday activities. But what if you lose your appetite?

A loss of appetite can make food seem unappealing. Going without a properly balanced diet can make you weak and susceptible to other health concerns. If you don’t eat, you can lose weight quickly.

Appetite stimulants are used to treat loss of appetite in people and are generally prescribed by doctors.

What Causes Loss of Appetite?

Loss of appetite can happen for different reasons. It can be brought on by a medical event, decline in health, or can be connected to various stages of life. Sometimes there’s no apparent cause.

The medical term for loss of appetite is anorexia. Anorexia shouldn’t be confused with anorexia nervosa, which is an eating disorder.

The most common reasons for a loss of appetite are:

  • Depression
  • Strong emotions like grief or sadness
  • The first trimester of pregnancy
  • Nausea
  • Dementia
  • Colon, ovarian, stomach, or pancreatic cancers
  • Liver or kidney disease
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Hepatitis
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Drug use
  • Use of certain medicines or treatments
  • An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)

Loss of appetite is common in older people and children. Children who have acute illnesses often don’t have an appetite and struggle to maintain weight.

Older people often lose weight unintentionally. It can happen due to a loss of appetite or other medical reasons. Some doctors might prescribe appetite stimulants to help you gain weight.

What Are Appetite Stimulants?

There are different types of appetite stimulants, and they contain different medicines or chemicals. They all serve the same purpose: to make you want to eat again.

The different types of appetite stimulants or treatments include:

  • Corticosteroids. Appetite stimulants containing corticosteroids are fairly common and are known for making you gain weight. It is an anti-inflammatory and produces a feel-good feeling.
  • Central nervous system drugs. Dronabinol is a medicine that contains delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, an active ingredient found in medical marijuana. Other common central nervous system drugs are mirtazapine, cyproheptadine, and olanzapine.
  • Hormonal therapy. Megestrol acetate is a medication that stimulates hormones to promote weight gain.
  • Growth or hormone factors. An emerging hormone factor that’s being studied is Ghrelin. It is naturally present in the body, and its job is to signal the body to release growth hormones. Taking supplemental Ghrelin does the same job and can help you gain weight.
  • Alternative medicine. Alternative therapies are available, mostly in the form of natural remedies. Long-chain poly-unsaturated fish fats are being studied as a natural appetite stimulant. Medical marijuana has also been prescribed to people who suffer from cancer as an appetite stimulant.

Managing Unexplained Weight Loss

It can be unnerving when you lose weight without knowing why. You need to eat a certain amount of calories to maintain your weight. The average calories an adult needs per day is 2,000. That amount can vary based on your specifics, like activity level and other factors.

If you find yourself losing weight quickly, start by keeping a food journal. Recording what you eat every day can help you understand where you might be losing calories.

Try to increase your daily protein and calorie intake. Start by introducing foods that are higher in calories to your meals.

Tips to Increase Your Appetite

People who have decreased appetite struggle with eating food and keeping it down. It’s a common challenge for people undergoing medical treatments like chemotherapy or who are pregnant.

It’s important to make food look appetizing, so you can continue eating and getting all the nutrients a well-balanced diet has to offer. Follow these tips to help get your diet back on track:

  • Make your food look nice. Use garnishes, different plating, and multi-colored foods to stimulate your appetite.
  • Make food available. Get readily available, high-calorie snacks like nuts or dried fruit. Put them in different areas of your house so they’re easily accessible when you get the urge to eat.
  • Avoid strong-tasting foods. Try to avoid foods that smell or taste strong, or if you have an aversion to them. Try marinating red meats or fish to make the taste milder.
  • Try a light exercise before you eat. Breaking a light sweat shortly before mealtimes can stimulate your appetite.
  • Try a meal replacement. Nutritional smoothies or drink supplements can increase your calorie intake without the work of preparing a meal. They’re especially convenient if you’re on the go.

Show Sources

SOURCES: 

‌American Family Physician: “Choosing wisely.”

‌FDA: “How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label.”

Infant, Child, and Adolescent Nutrition: “Drugs and Appetite.”

‌Medline Plus: “Appetite - decreased.”

‌Merck Manual: “Loss of Appetite.”

‌Nancy McGreal, MD; Martin H. Ulshen, MD. Textbook of Pediatric Care. American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Nutrition Bytes: “Medicinal Marijuana: A Legitimate Appetite Stimulant?”

‌Pancreatic Cancer Action Networks: “Overcoming poor appetite.”

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