How Anxiety Is Linked To Loss Of Appetite
By Jon Jaehnig
Updated November 20, 2019
Reviewer Melinda Santa
You've probably heard of stress eating, but did you know that some people do the opposite? Have you ever been so stressed that you cannot eat at all? Anxiety and how a person eats can be linked in a number of ways. Understanding those connections can help you to stay healthy- even when there's a lot on your mind.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety can mean two things: the healthy and normal state of alertness that we all feel from time to time and the emotional disorder that causes people to feel a constant sensation that something is going to go wrong. People experience anxiety in a variety of different ways. That fear of the unknown and uncertainty about the future is something everyone will experience at some point in his or her life. Some common symptoms of anxiety are dizziness, chest pain, loss of appetite, a nervous stomach, and shortness of breath. Keep in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive list. According to the Anxiety Centre, there are over 100 possible symptoms a person could experience when feeling anxious. Most times, they experience more than one at a time. If you are experiencing anxiety, whether extreme or not, remember you are not alone, and there are many options for you to get help.
Anxiety and Biological Causes for Loss of Appetite
For some, being anxious results in eating less. While the reasons have not been proven completely, it is thought to be a combination of a variety of factors. When levels of stress and anxiety begin to build, the body goes into a "fight or flight response" - also called the "stress response." The stress response evolved in our ancient ancestors to help our bodies prepare for either running from or fighting off potential threats. Unfortunately, our brains still activate it, even though our stressors today are less likely to be ones that we have to physically avoid or overcome.
The stress response, which is activated virtually all the time in people with anxiety disorders and related conditions, causes your heart rate to go up and your breath to quicken. It also moves blood away from your internal organs and toward your muscles and skin. This can cause your stomach and digestive tract to respond in a different way, leading to a loss of appetite.
Serotonin is also a key element to loss of appetite. This neurotransmitter affects how full someone feels, as well as how anxious they are. If the amount of serotonin is abnormal, anxiety levels and appetite will also be abnormal because as your anxiety builds your levels of serotonin decline.
Anxiety and Mental Causes for Loss of Appetite
Anxiety isn't just a chemical reaction, it's also a state of mind. How you think when you're anxious can impact how you eat - or don't eat. When some people have too much going on, they try to save time by skipping meals. They may also simply prioritize other concerns over their need to eat, and they more or less forget about their dietary needs. For other people, not eating can be a way of proving to themselves, in the face of their anxiety, that they can feel something. This can lead to eating disorders, as will be discussed in the following section.
Anxiety And Eating Disorders
Anxiety has been linked to the beginning of many eating disorders. As someone feels that areas of their life are out of control, they struggle to gain control in any way that they can. For some, this includes not allowing food to control them. This behavior then leads to disorders like bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa. Other people will try to use food as a reward system for getting something done but can have so much to do that they never feel that they "deserve" to eat.
If you believe that you have an eating disorder, you can get help right away by calling a 24-hour hotline. However, if your eating disorder is the result of anxiety, you will need to combat your anxiety in order to gain ground on your eating disorder. Consider reaching out to your healthcare provider or another mental and emotional health expert. We will discuss more options for this at the end of the article.
Negative Effects of Appetite Loss
It's true, most of us can afford to miss a meal every now and then. So what's the big deal? There's a big difference between skipping lunch because something came up and not eating regularly for days at a time or longer. If someone stops eating, there will be negative consequences simply because the body needs nutrients to function properly. Appetite loss due to anxiety affects a person's general health, as well as their energy level and sleep cycle.
Depleting the body of nutrients lowers an individual's energy levels. When energy levels are low, the body seeks sleep. When someone is fatigued and anxious, this does nothing to lower their level of anxiety because the body is now worse equipped to handle the stress. General health also suffers because of anxiety. A big part of this is that people become nutrient deficient when they stop eating. Not getting enough nutrients can lead to unusual sensations, which in turn increase levels of anxiety. The longer you go without eating, the less you want to eat, and when you do try to eat it feels like the food is wreaking havoc on your digestive system. Overall, loss of appetite only serves to increase the levels of anxiety a person feels.
Anxiety can have a huge impact on your body, so it is important to consider the things that are causing your anxiety. Your physical health and mental health are closely related. Once your mental health begins to impact your physical health, it becomes a difficult cycle to break. The key is to understand what is causing the stress in the first place.
Tips For Proper Nourishment When Dealing With Anxiety
The only way to truly cure the problem you are dealing with, when it comes with your eating, is to treat your anxiety. However, while you are in the process of learning how to do that, there are several things you can try to make better decisions with your eating.
- Start the day with protein - When you have a breakfast that includes protein, it will help you to feel full for longer. While this might not be your problem since you are dealing with the loss of appetite, it also keeps your blood sugar levels higher for longer. This will help you to have more energy for your day.
- Eat whole grains - Carbohydrates are known to boost your brain's levels of serotonin. Choose whole-grain cereal, oatmeal, and quinoa.
- Avoid dehydration - Make sure you are drinking lots of water, and avoid alcohol consumption. Even being slightly dehydrated can impact your mood. The same goes for caffeine.
- Find out if you have food sensitivities - Some people report that when they eat food that they are sensitive to it causes them to feel more anxious and feel out of control with their emotions. If you have never been tested for food allergies and sensitivities in the past, it might be something you want to look into. Doing a food journal can also help you to identify food sensitivities on your own, or it could at least give you and your healthcare provider a foundation to build on. For example, you may notice that on days when you have coffee you feel more anxious than on days when you don't. This doesn't necessarily mean that coffee is causing your anxiety, but it could be a contributing factor.
- Focus on balanced meals - Make sure you are getting fruits and vegetables and having balanced meals. If you aren't eating properly or consistently, having junk food and unbalanced meals could also harm your health.
- Eat to fit your schedule- Being busy doesn't mean that you can't eat. If you have to, take food with you. Think about things that travel well like fruits, vegetables, and even portable meals like sandwiches.
- Look at eating like an investment- When you feel overwhelmed, eating can feel like a waste of time. However, as discussed above, eating makes you capable of handling your stressors. Whatever your obligations are, eating can help you meet them.
- Eat on the clock if you have to- Many of these tips are for people who deliberately don't eat when they're stressed. However, if you're one of the people that just forgets to eat or doesn't feel hungry when you're stressed, set times to eat- whether you're hungry or not. Set alarms if you have to.
- Don't worry about portions- It's important that overall, you choose to eat foods that are going to provide your body with the nutrients that it needs. However, if you are experiencing a loss of appetite because of your anxiety, don't focus on trying to make yourself eat the same size portions that you typically eat; focus on starting with small amounts at a time. This can help you to start eating when you don't feel like it.
Addressing Your Anxiety
As mentioned above, addressing your diet is important, but if your diet is bad because of your anxiety, you will need to address your anxiety before you can have lasting and positive change in your diet. So, how do you address your anxiety?
Mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises are one important step. Mindfulness meditation trains you to focus on your thoughts and feelings in order to address them in healthy and productive ways- before they can get the better of you. When your anxiety gets the better of you, breathing exercises can help you to recover.
Another step that you can take is focusing on or improving your support group. Family, friends, and even coworkers and colleagues can all help us to face the challenges that we have in our lives. Spending time with friends and family may be something that you've sidelined in your attempts to keep up with your workload, but, like eating, spending time with people you care about is an investment that will make it easier for you to keep up with your obligations.
Finally, just like spending time with others, eating, and sleeping are important to help you complete your tasks and fight off anxiety, exercise is important too. Your body rewards you for doing things that are good for it, and that includes engaging in physical activity. If your job keeps you active, it might be enough, but if you don't get up and out too much, make it a point to try.
While the tips above can help you eat while you deal with anxiety, they will only get you so far. You need to deal with your anxiety and its root causes. If you are not experiencing relief in your anxiety on your own, it's important that you talk to a therapist about your situation. If you find yourself in need of professional mental health help, there are many resources available for you.
For example, BetterHelp offers online counseling and therapy. Online therapy is professional, affordable, and convenient, but it may seem strange to people who are used to the idea of therapy happening in person. Instead of taking the time to go to an office for an appointment, you can access your counselor from anywhere with an internet connection. You can also choose to talk to your counselor via text, phone, video chat, or messaging. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"Natasha has given me realistic and helpful tools for improving my anxiety and self-esteem. She has a keen ability to shift my perspective when I am intensely worrying about something. And I see a difference in the way I handle my anxiety the last few months. I highly recommend Natasha!"
"An amazing therapist that really listens to what I'm saying and gives me sound advice. Kris has upped my confidence in my own ability to control my anxiety, something I didn't think was possible. Im incredibly thankful and grateful."
Hopefully, this article has helped you understand that our mental and physical health are closely related. It's critical to take care of your mental health, as it can impact your physical health. Not eating as a result of anxiety can cause many problems for you. It's critical to take care of your mental health, in order to protect your physical health. With the right tools, you can do both. Take the first step today.