Behavioral Symptoms
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Anxiety and Appetite Problems

Vivian Okirie, M.D.
Anxiety and Appetite Problems

The connection between stress and appetite is still not fully understood. Everyone responds to stress differently, but a sizeable number of those with anxiety admit that stress causes changes in not only their appetite but also how they enjoy their food.

On the outside, anxiety-induced appetite issues may not appear to be a serious problem. But it is. Often the way individuals alter their diet in response to stress and/or anxiety causes a downstream effect on their long term anxiety outcomes.  If you currently suffer from anxiety-induced appetite issues, you should work towards solving them. 

Types of Appetite Problems From Anxiety

Appetite problems are never a primary symptom; there must be something else linked to it. In fact, most people do not even realize they have acquired slight (and eventually significant) changes to their diet. Instead, they believe they are just eating differently while under periods of stress and/or anxiety - or they may not notice at all.

There are multiple appetite changes that can take place, but the most common include:  

Appetite should not be confused with digestion or any associated issues with it. Anxiety can cause digestion issues, but these are usually instigated by causes other than eating more or less.

Why Anxiety Makes Some People Eat More

Some individuals seem to always go straight to food whenever stressed. While it’s not absolutely clear what causes this phenomenon, the reason for eating is well known. For some, eating is associated with feelings of comfort and overall good well-being. This is associated with a flood of positive neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, that initiate warmth and overall pleasure. When a person eats, their brains release dopamine, and they feel better.

Eating food then serves as a coping mechanism; so whenever the individual becomes stressed, they are usually followed by feelings of hunger.  As these two urges become paired, then you start training themselves (via conditioning) to believe that eating will alleviate symptoms of stress. Eventually, your body connects eating with solving stress and/or anxiety.  Often times, the conditioned feeling continues even if you are not hungry. 

Why Anxiety Makes Some People Eat Less

Why people eat less is a bit less clear, but most certainly a common anxiety symptom. Most theorize that the science behind reduced hunger with anxiety revolves around the stomach retaining excess acids, creating the sensation of fullness for longer.  When the body senses the feeling of fullness, the signals that would normally initiation hunger fail to reach the brain. 

As much as we wish it was that easy, it’s not. Serotonin - a neurotransmitter that regulates mood - plays a role in both anxiety and the feeling of hunger. Those with anxiety typically have issues maintaining proper serotonin levels, and it is possible that this is one of the many factors involved with people losing their appetite during stressful or anxious moments. 

It is unlikely to be just serotonin either. Many different hormones and neurotransmitters are related to anxiety, digestion, and hunger.  Any one or all three of these might be involved with communicating with your brain that you do not need to eat, when you are actually hungry. 

Finally, it is likely that a combination of mental factors are at play as well. Many people with anxiety simply have too much on their mind to concentrate on eating. Also if you fail to respond to your body when you are hungry, your body might eventually stop sending the signal about the need to eat. Lastly, do not forget that some individuals actually experience nausea as a result of anxiety, which might inadvertently associate eating with negative thoughts/experiences. 

Likely some combination of all of these factors plays a role.

The Problems With Anxiety Affecting Appetite

Some might think that appetite changes should be the least of their concern. After all, anxiety itself is hard enough to manage on a daily basis. We are here to inform you that any changes to your appetite are problematic - not only for your health but also for management of your current anxiety. 

It should go without saying that eating too much or too little is unhealthy. Too much and you can become overweight. Too little and you may not be giving your body enough nutrients to properly function. In addition to those common issues, your appetite can affect your anxiety overall:

A common problem is the way appetite changes and anxiety can affect energy levels and induce fatigue. Overeaters often find themselves excessively sleepy and without any energy.  Undereaters do not consume enough calories and nutrients to stay energized. Both spectrums suffer from correctable fatigue, making it harder for their minds and body to cope with stress and/or anxiety. 

Your general health plays an incredibly important role in coping with anxiety. Those that eat too much often find their general health suffers. The additional caloric intake causes undue physical stress on the body such as making the heart work harder, placing more stress on joints, etc. People who undereat can suffer from increased heart rate, impaired metabolism, decreased ability to fight infections, etc. These stresses only serve to make your anxiety worse. Whenever your general health declines, your anxiety tends to worsen with it.

Obesity also has a tendency to cause more hyperventilation as a result of your diaphragm being unable to fully depress and allow full lung expansion. As a result, you are forced to take shorter, shallower breaths that with time can cause hyperventilation.  Hyperventilation can both cause and be a symptom of panic attacks. 

Those that do not consume enough calories can find themselves altering their diet in manners that expedite nutrient deficiency. There are some vitamins and minerals loosely associated with anxiety. Low levels of magnesium and Vitamin B12, for example, have both been seen to possibly worsen already present anxiety symptoms. General nutrient deficiencies may lead to unusual physical sensations that may increase the risk of panic attacks.

Regardless of all of these reasons, the key here is stress. Anything that puts stress on your body in any way, whether it is digesting too much food or not receiving enough vitamins and minerals, is going to cause your body excess anxiety. It may not cause anxiety specifically, but it will make it harder to reduce anxiety symptoms.

What to Do With An Anxious Appetite

Eating healthy foods at the right times in the right portions is the simplest key to ensuring that your diet is not too affected by your anxiety. You need to utilize logic when it comes to maneuvering through your daily life. If you suffer from overeating, try to avoid buying anything that could be used as a temptation for stress eating. You can not eat ice cream if you do not have it in the house.

Undereaters should set regular reminders for themselves to ensure proper food consumption. Have an alarm go off at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and then encourage yourself to eat good, balanced meals. Do not force yourself to eat, when you truly have no urge. But do work on eating small, healthy snacks if completing a large meal seems too daunting. In that case, eat the snacks more often than you would full-sized entrees. 

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