Stress and appetite have an unusual connection. Each person responds to anxiety differently, but many people find that their anxieties cause them to develop appetite problems that affect not only the way they eat, but also the way they enjoy food.
Appetite problems from anxiety may not seem like a serious symptom, but often the way people change their diets as a response to anxiety ends up having a significantly negative effect on their long term anxiety outlook. If you have anxiety related appetite issues, you need to solve them.
Are Your Appetite Problems from Anxiety?
All stress has the potential to affect appetite. Only a doctor can tell you if your eating issues are caused by anxiety. But if you're suffering from anxiety symptoms, there is no doubt that your appetite is affected somehow. Take my anxiety test to find out more about anxiety and its symptoms.
Types of Appetite Problems From Anxiety
Appetite problems are never a standalone symptom. In fact, most people don't realize they have much of an appetite issue. They simply notice that they're eating differently while they deal with other anxiety symptoms. If you haven't yet, you should take my anxiety symptoms test now before moving forward.
There are actually more than one types of appetite issues. They include:
- Eating More - Some people experience a greater appetite when they have anxiety.
- Eating Less - Others experience much less hunger and thirst with anxiety.
Appetite shouldn't be confused with digestion. Anxiety does cause digestion issues as well, but these are usually caused by other issues.
Why Anxiety Makes Some People Eat More
Some people go straight to food when they're stressed. While it's not clear what develops this issue, the reason for it is well known. When some people eat (note: not everyone), they experience a flood of positive neurotransmitters - brain chemicals that cause them to feel good.
Food and eating becomes a coping mechanism, so whenever these people become stressed they become hungry. Eventually, the idea of eating when stressed becomes conditioned. Your body trains itself to crave food when it's suffering from anxiety.
When this happens, you may not even feel good when you eat any more. But the association will remain, and so you will continue to feel hungry when you have anxiety.
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 reason anxiety reduces hunger in some people is because the excess stomach acids simply create the "full" feeling for longer, and chemicals that signal hunger no longer reach the brain.
Most likely it's not that simple. Serotonin - a neurotransmitter that regulates mood - plays a role in both anxiety and the feeling of hunger. Since those with anxiety usually have a serotonin balance issue, it's possible that this is one of the reasons that many people don't get hungry during anxiety.
It's unlikely to be just serotonin either. Many different hormones and neurotransmitters are related to anxiety, digestion, and hunger, and all of these may be telling your brain that you don't need to eat even though you're otherwise hungry.
Finally, it's likely that a combination of mental factors are at play as well. Many people with anxiety simply have too much on their mind to care about eating, and if you don't respond to your body when you're hungry, your body stops telling you you're hungry. Furthermore, some people experience nausea when they're full with anxiety, and this may cause hunger to be associated with something negative.
Likely some combination of all of these factors plays a role.
The Problems With Anxiety Affecting Appetite
For many, appetite problems seem like they should be the least of your concern. After all, anxiety itself is hard enough to deal. But both types of appetite issues are a problem - not only for your health, but also for 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. But in addition to those common issues, your appetite can affect your anxiety as well:
- Fatigue and Energy A common problem in both those with appetite problems is the way they affect energy levels and fatigue. Those that eat too much often find themselves wiped out quickly. Those that don't often have too few nutrients to stay energized. Both of these create a fatigue problem, which in turn can make it harder for your mind and body to cope with stress.
- General Health Your general health does play a role on your anxiety. Those that eat too much often find that their general health suffers. The weight they put on and the abundance of food they take in causes significant physical stress. This stress only serves to make your anxiety worse. Whenever your general health gets worse, your anxiety tends to get worse with it.
- Hyperventilation Obesity also has a tendency to cause more hyperventilation. Hyperventilation is a cause and symptom of panic attacks. The excess weight puts pressure on the body and makes it harder to breathe.
- Nutrient Deficiency Those that don't eat as much often find that they're changing their diet in a way that causes nutrient deficiency. There are many vitamins and minerals linked to anxiety. Low levels of magnesium and Vitamin B12, for example, have both been linked to added anxiety levels, and general nutrient deficiency can lead to unusual sensations that may cause 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's 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 isn't too affected by your anxiety. You need to ignore instincts and go on logic. If you're overeating, try to avoid buying anything that could be used as a temptation for stress eating. You can't eat ice cream if you don't have it in the house.
If you're under-eating, set up reminders for yourself. Have an alarm go off at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and then force yourself to eat a good helping of healthy meals.
You'll also need to commit to taking steps towards combatting your overall anxiety. I've helped thousands of those with an altered appetite control their anxiety forever. You need to start with my anxiety test, which looks at what anxiety you're experiencing and how it affects you.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.