Decorative image

Medicines for diet problems

There are medicines that can help with weight loss, cachexia and digestion problems.

Appetite stimulants

These drugs are for people who have lost a lot of weight or have cachexia. They work well for some people but not in everyone.

You are likely to have the following hormone drugs:

  • megesterol acetate (Megace)
  • medroxyprogesterone acetate (Depo-Provera and Provera)

They both increase appetite and food intake. These drugs can be helpful for people with cancer who have nutritional problems.

They might also help you put on weight, but this is unlikely in the first 4 to 6 weeks. There is also some doubt about how beneficial the weight gain is. Most of it seems to be fat and fluid rather than muscle mass.

These drugs can also increase your sense of well-being. This is a great benefit if you are feeling very low, anxious or depressed about your cancer.

Anti sickness drugs (anti emetics)

Feeling and being sick is best controlled with medicines. These drugs are called anti sickness drugs, anti nausea drugs or anti emetics.

Over the past 20 years, anti sickness drugs have got much better. There are now many more to choose from. If one drug does not work for you, tell your doctor or pharmacist. They can often suggest another you can try.

Drugs for diarrhoea

The most commonly used diarrhoea drugs are:

  • codeine phosphate
  • Ioperamide (Imodium)
  • diphenoxylate (Lomotil)

All these drugs slow the movement of the bowel. Codeine phosphate is also a painkilling drug. But it is also used to treat severe diarrhoea because it causes constipation.

Drugs for constipation

These are called laxatives. There are different ones that work in different ways:

  • bulk forming laxatives - these work by swelling up inside your bowel, softening and increasing the amount of stool, which encourages your bowels to open
  • stimulant laxatives - these work by speeding up bowel movement
  • osmotic laxatives - these work by drawing more water into your bowel, making your stools softer and easier to pass


Doctors use steroids for many different illnesses and conditions. The body naturally makes them. They are also made artificially and used as medicines. They come as tablets, liquids or injections.

Steroids can help to control chemotherapy sickness in people with cancer. They can also improve appetite, food intake and your sense of well-being.

Doctors sometimes use steroids to help people gain weight. But there can be problems if you take them long term. Much of the weight you gain on steroids is due to fluid retention. 

After taking them for 3 to 4 weeks, they begin to interfere with the production of protein in your muscles. If used long term, they can cause muscle wasting. So, you need to use steroids under the supervision of your doctor.


Painkillers are also called analgesics or analgesia. Severe pain can make you lose your appetite and feel sick. If your pain is under control you are more likely to feel like eating.

Last reviewed: 
08 Sep 2017
  • Cancer and its management¬†(7th edition)
    Tobias J and Hochhauser D
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

  • Symptom management in advanced cancer (4th edition)
    Twycross R, Wilcock A and Toller S
    Radcliffe Medical Press Ltd, 2009

  • Nutrition and Cancer
    Edited by Clare Shaw
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2011

  • Management of cancer pain: ESMO clinical practice guidelines
    Ripamonti CI, Santini D, Maranzano E et al.
    Annals of Oncology. 2012. 23 (suppl. 7): vii 139-154

  • Anticipatory Nausea and Vomiting
    Roscoe JA, Morrow GR, Aapro MS et al.
    Support Care Cancer 2011 19 (10): 1533-38

Information and help