Appetite stimulants are medications, supplements, or other substances that increase a person’s feeling of hunger. An appetite stimulant is also known as an orexigenic.
Some manufacturers specifically market their medications to increase appetite. Others simply have this as a side effect.
Vitamins, minerals, and herbs may also act as orexigenics, as can lifestyle and dietary changes.
Although many people consider an increase in appetite to be negative, some people may need to stimulate their desire to eat.
Certain conditions — such as cancer, psychological conditions, and aging — can lead to unintentional weight loss due to decreased appetite. Losing too much weight can impact a person’s quality of life and increase their risk of illness.
In this article, we list several appetite stimulants, ranging from medications and supplements to lifestyle changes.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved the following three medications for use as appetite stimulants:
It may also treat breast cancer and endometrial cancer. The drug is available in liquid or tablet form.
Side effects of megestrol acetate include stomach upset, mood changes, and sleep problems. Serious reactions include swelling due to fluid buildup in the tissues, the onset or worsening of diabetes, and blood clots.
Oxandrolone is an oral steroid that helps people gain weight following surgery, trauma, or chronic infection.
The most common side effects of oxandrolone include:
- changes in sexual desire
- deepening voice
- excessive hair growth
- irregular menstrual cycle
- mood changes
- stomach upset
Dronabinol is a cannabinoid that doctors can prescribe to help treat AIDS-related anorexia.
It can also boost appetite in people with cancer, as well as reduce the nausea and vomiting that results from chemotherapy treatment.
Dronabinol is available as an oral capsule. Some of its most common side effects are:
- low mood
Although megestrol acetate, oxandrolone, and dronabinol are the only drugs that the FDA have approved as appetite stimulants, some other medications have the side effect of increasing appetite.
Some doctors may prescribe them off-label, or for their primary purpose, for this reason. These include:
- antidepressants such as mirtazapine
- corticosteroids such as prednisone and dexamethasone
Certain vitamins and minerals, including zinc and vitamin B-1, can increase appetite. However, these usually only work if the person has deficiencies in these nutrients.
Other supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids, may boost appetite.
Also, many advocates of naturopathy claim that bitter herbs can increase a person’s desire to eat.
Research in animals suggests that taking zinc supplements may stimulate appetite in people with zinc deficiencies.
Also known as thiamine, vitamin B-1 is essential for growth and development.
A vitamin B-1 deficiency usually causes appetite loss, weight loss, confusion, and other neurological symptoms.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats in the human diet.
Some research suggests that marine based omega-3 fats may improve appetite and a person’s desire to eat. Fish oil and fatty fish such as salmon are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Vegetarians and vegans may wish to try algae based omega-3 supplements.
Advocates of naturopathy may recommend bitter tasting herbs, or “bitters,” to people who want to improve their appetite or digestion. Many people around the world commonly use these herbs “to support upper digestive activity.”
Examples include gentian and wormwood. People who are curious about trying bitter herbs to stimulate their appetite should see a specialist in naturopathic medicine.
The following lifestyle and dietary changes may help some people increase their appetite naturally:
Getting regular exercise increases the amount of energy a person burns. In turn, this can increase the body’s need for fuel, which boosts hunger levels.
Plan and prepare meals
Proper planning can help people consume enough calories each day. To do this:
- Consider eating six to eight small meals per day, instead of three large ones.
- Identify the time of day when appetite is greatest, and eat at that time.
- Try to eat meals and snacks at the same times each day, even when not hungry.
- Encourage regular snacking by placing fruit, nuts, and other nutritious foods around the house.
- Ask someone to help in the planning and preparation of meals.
Choose foods wisely
- Avoid filling up with high fiber, low calorie foods at each meal. People can discuss the benefits of a low fiber diet with a doctor.
- Add sweet fruit to milkshakes and desserts to boost flavor and nutritional content.
- Drink some calories each day, in the form of smoothies, protein shakes, or special high calorie nutritional supplement drinks.
- Try eating proteins 1 hour after taking them out of the refrigerator; some people prefer the taste of protein foods at room temperature.
Make mealtimes more enjoyable
To do this, people can try one or more of the following:
- Choose tasty and enjoyable foods.
- Add flavor with herbs, spices, sauces, or marinades.
- Use garnishes and colorful foods to make meals more appealing.
- Change the menu regularly to avoid getting bored with a particular food.
- Watch a favorite television show or movie while cooking or eating.
- Play music while preparing food or eating.
- Set the table using favorite place settings.
- Try different sized plates to see what works best.
- Make mealtimes a social event. Research suggests that eating with others increases food intake.
Advice for older or less mobile adults
Older adults or people with limited mobility can face challenges when it comes to appetite and weight loss.
The following tips may help address some of these challenges:
- Use grocery delivery services or meal delivery services if going out to get food is a problem.
- Set an alarm for mealtimes if forgetting to eat is an issue.
- Ensure that dentures fit correctly to avoid pain or discomfort while eating.
- Invest in adaptive utensils if joint pain or dexterity is a problem.
- Try to visit an occupational therapist or dietician for assistance.
Advice for children
Some infants and children struggle to eat, either due to appetite loss or for other reasons.
To encourage healthful food intake among infants, toddlers, and young children:
- Provide small, frequent meals.
- Once an infant reaches 4–6 months, introduce a wide variety of foods.
- Eat as a family if possible, and include children in the conversation.
- Try to reduce stress at mealtimes. For example, avoid threatening or bribing children to get them to eat.
- Remove distractions, such as television and toys, while eating.
- Discuss any concerns with a doctor, dietician, or occupational therapist.
Loss of appetite can occur as the result of aging, medical conditions, or the side effect of medications. However, it is important to address this issue, as it can increase the risk of illness and other complications.
Trying appetite stimulants can be an effective way to boost a person’s desire to eat. Options include medications, supplements, and lifestyle changes.
It is important to see a doctor for appetite loss that persists for more than a few days. A doctor can determine the underlying cause and recommend a course of action.