How is excessive hunger related to diabetes?
Excessive hunger is called Polyphagia.
The term polyphagia describes a medical condition in which a person experiences unusually intense hunger or an insatiable appetite. As you may or might not know, hunger is one of the warning signs of diabetes, along with excessive thirst and frequent urination.
But hunger isn’t just a symptom that a person might be developing diabetes. Many people living with diabetes finds themselves facing bouts of excessive hunger, as well. Why does this happen?
An extreme hunger response can be triggered by diabetes that is not being properly managed. Both high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) and low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can lead to polyphagia and serious food cravings. Below we’ll look at these conditions in more detail.
Hyperglycemia and Excessive Hunger
Diabetes is distinguished by the body’s inability to properly process blood glucose. The goal for everyone living with the disease is to keep blood sugar in the normal range (usually no higher than 140 mg/dL or lower than 70 mg/dL). This can be done through medications like insulin, injected by a syringe or insulin pen, as well as diabetes-healthy lifestyle and dietary choices.
When diabetes gets out of control causing blood sugar to elevate beyond the target zone, and the body does not have enough insulin, it means the cells cannot convert the sugar into energy.
This lack of energy can lead to an increase in hunger.
Here’s the problem. The brain doesn’t know you have diabetes. It only knows that your body is not getting the energy it needs to function properly. Believing this means you need more fuel, the brain signals the hunger response, and you get those pesky pangs.
What’s even more infuriating is that eating isn’t going to solve the problem. Consuming more food will only cause blood sugar to rise even higher because this new sugar will also not be adequately transformed into energy. Worse, the higher your blood sugar becomes, the more intense your food cravings might become. It’s somewhat of a vicious circle.
So, what do you do?
How to Address Polyphagia due to Hyperglycemia
The first thing to do is test your blood sugar to see just how high it has elevated. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), if your blood sugar is not above 240 mg/dL, a little bit of moderate exercise can often bring levels down quickly and help curb those hunger pains.
However, if your blood sugar is higher than 240 mg/dL, DO NOT EXERCISE as you may be facing a dangerous condition known as ketoacidosis and physical activity can make blood sugar go even higher. You can check for ketones with a simple urine test, and it’s always a good idea to have these tests on hand should you experience extremely high blood sugar. If you find ketones in your blood, seek medical attention right away.
In general, however, hyperglycemia is something that will likely need to be addressed with your diabetes physician. It may require adjustments to your testing schedule, medication dosage and timing, and lifestyle routine. More importantly, hunger is likely the least of your worries. If you are experiencing frequent bouts of hyperglycemia, you are raising your risk of developing serious diabetes-related complications, including heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, and nerve damage.
Get high blood sugar under control and you’ll do more than curb those cravings, you’ll feel a whole lot better in general.
Hypoglycemia and Polyphagia
Oddly enough, an increase in hunger can also be caused by blood sugar that has dropped too low - hypoglycemia. This is actually quite common among people living with diabetes who require insulin and other medications to help lower blood sugar.
Sometimes, taking too much medication or skipping a meal can result in surprisingly sudden blood sugar lows. When this happens, the brain reacts much in the same way it does with hyperglycemia. It senses a decrease in energy due to a lack of blood sugar, and lets you know it’s time to fuel up by making you feel hungry.
This usually happens when blood sugar dips below 70-80 mg/dL, however, with rapid drops you might start feeling hungry long before you reach these low levels. The pangs can start as blood sugar is quickly falling.
So, what do you do?
How to Address Hunger caused by Hypoglycemia
The good news is the solution for hypoglycemia can be as simple as eating some fast-acting carbs, whether in the form of glucose tablets (definitely worth carrying), a piece of hard candy, or a few ounces of fruit juice.
Once you’ve brought blood sugar back up to your target levels, those feelings of hunger should subside.
If instances of low blood sugar only happen every once and a while, chances are they are probably just related to the daily challenges that come with managing blood sugar. If, however, you experience frequent bouts of hypoglycemia, this situation is a bit more serious. You need to sit down with your diabetes physician and care team to review your testing and medication schedule. If you’re not already using one, your doctor might prescribe a continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) system, which measures blood sugar in real-time and tends to improve diabetes management.
Hunger isn’t always a blood sugar thing.
Uncontrolled diabetes can definitely lead to feelings of excessive hunger, however, it’s important to note that there are other factors that can lead to polyphagia. These include an overactive thyroid gland, eating disorders, too much exercise, stress, lack of sleep, even certain medications. If you think you are experiencing polyphagia, it’s important that you speak with your healthcare team about the possible causes and ways to treat the condition.
As with most issues related to diabetes, the best way to prevent polyphagia is to maintain solid control over your blood sugar. This means testing your blood glucose regularly, following your doctor-prescribed treatment plan, and making smart lifestyle and dietary choices. If you’re doing all of these things and still struggle with blood sugar control, it’s important to sit down with your care team to find a solution that works for you.