Does appetite loss help your body to cope?

Why do people often lose their appetites when they are ill?

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13 April 2016

Saarah Survé, Stellenbosch Department of Journalism

Stellenbosch – Winter is around the corner and with the seasons changing, more people tend to get sick. But why do people often lose their appetites when they are ill?

Dr Ferial Abdurahman, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Wynberg Military Hospital, said that the reasons for appetite loss vary, depending on what kind of illness a person has.

“When you are sick your brain releases chemicals called cytokines and these decrease your appetite. Your body receives the message to conserve energy. Sometimes hormones can also play a role,” said Abdurahman.

“Most of the time when you are ill, your body wants to conserve energy to fight the infection, rather than use that energy to digest food. Your body fights the infection with an army of white blood cells (or fighting cells) that multiply and are sent to each organ and into your blood,” Abdurahman explained.

Dr Ramona Stewart, a retired general practitioner, agreed. “Losing your appetite when you are ill gives your body more time and energy to fight off the virus.”

Abdurahman explained how different illnesses cause appetite loss. “The flu affects the entire body, even if it can only be felt in the head and chest. If you have sinusitis or a cold then it is likely that you will have impaired smell and taste, which means that you may not want to eat your food, because you can’t smell it. Alternatively, if you have gastroenteritis (gastro), you lose your appetite because you feel so sick from vomiting and diarrhoea.”

Stewart recommended that sick people who lose their appetites should rest, keep themselves hydrated (drink water or electrolyte solutions) and eat foods like soup, smoothies and yoghurt only when hungry.

“Snack regularly on foods that don’t take a lot of effort to eat, and listen to your body. If you are suffering from severe dehydration, which can occur when you have gastro, and your body is not responding to your attempts to rehydrate orally, you may need intravenous fluids. Then you should visit your doctor.”

Stewart advised against eating sugary foods. “When someone we know is in the hospital, our first instinct is to take them chocolate or sweets, but glucose helps the bacteria to flourish. If you’re eating less, the bacteria won’t find glucose and iron to feed on.”

Abdurahman explained why many people are getting sick at the moment. “Our bodies find it very difficult to adapt because the seasons are changing. The body has to adapt to a cold temperature after being in a hot one.”

Stewart added that another factor is that people stay indoors when it is cold, making it easier for the virus to spread from one person to another.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the body’s resistance. If your immune system isn’t strong enough and your resistance is low, you are more susceptible to sickness. Our bodies need to absorb a balanced amount of vitamins and minerals from our food. The quality of the food you are eating is more important than the amount you are eating,” said Abdurahman.

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