In biology, polyphagia refers to some animals’ tendencies to eat large quantities or varieties of food. In psychology, however, the term means the rapid consumption of large quantities of food.
What Causes Polyphagia?
Several physiological conditions, particularly those that affect the endocrine system, can cause polyphagia. Excessive hunger or thirst, excessive cravings for particular types of food, and binge eating may occur with diabetes, pre-menstrual syndrome, pregnancy, hyperthyroidism, Graves’ disease, and some other conditions.
Polyphagia is also a symptom of some psychological conditions, and is commonly associated with the eating disorder bulimia. Bulimics may eat huge quantities of food and then force themselves to vomit. Some people suffering from anxiety or depression may also have bouts of polyphagia, though it is not characteristic of either condition.
Is There Treatment for Polyphagia?
Treatment for polyphagia varies depending upon the cause. For some people, excessive hunger or thirst is the first indication they have of an underlying physiological condition, so doctors may run blood and other tests to rule out potential health conditions. Medication can help with diseases that cause polyphagia, and may eliminate symptoms entirely.
If a physician cannot locate an underlying physical cause, he or she may refer the patient to a mental health specialist. Treatment for bulimia focuses on stabilizing the person with bulimia, addressing stressors that contribute to the bulimia, and working on his or her body image. Some people with bulimia require inpatient treatment, and may also require medical care if their bulimia has caused health problems. When polyphagia co-occurs with depression, anxiety, or another mental conditions, psychotherapists focus on treating the underlying factors that caused the polyphagia rather than on the symptom itself.
Polyphagia rarely occurs without other symptoms. However, when it does, it may become a compulsion. Certain types of therapy and some medications can be effective at treating compulsive over-eating.
- American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
- Audesirk, T., Audesirk, G., & Byers, B. E. (2008). Biology: Life on earth with physiology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Last Updated: 08-18-2015
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February 22nd, 2016 at
Addressing polyphagia first requires that the underlying cause is properly identified. Once that happens, additional steps can be taken. In some cases, like from metabolism or pregnancy, little action is needed other than to keep yourself fed and wait for it to pass. For genetic disorders or hyperthyroidism, hormone (or anti-hormone) medications are used to help alleviate the symptoms. In extreme cases of hyperthyroidism, surgery may be needed to excise part of the thyroid. Diabetes treatment requires a combination of diet adjustments, blood sugar monitoring, and taking your insulin regularly.
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