Does stress make you hungry

Is my hunger caused by stress?

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Whether it’s a fight with a spouse, a deadline at work, or simply just too much to do — everyone has to deal with stress. If you’re faced with a lot of stress, it can take hold of your eating habits.

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There is a definite connection between stress and our appetite. But the connection isn’t the same for everyone, says psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD.

Stress causes some people to ignore their hunger cues and refrain from eating for long stretches. For other people, stress turns them into emotional eaters, who mindlessly munch.

“Some people overeat when they feel stressed and some people lose track of their appetite,” Dr. Albers says. “Those who stop eating are so focused on their stress that they don’t hear or tune into their hunger cues. Those who overeat are attempting to distract themselves with food.”

Our brains send cues to our bodies when we’re feeling stressed, part of our fight-or-flight response that helps us deal with perceived threats in our environment, Dr. Albers says.

When you’re feeling stressed, your body sends out cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Cortisol can make you crave sugary, salty and fatty foods, because your brain thinks it needs fuel to fight whatever threat is causing the stress.

Effect on your metabolism

Stress not only affects your eating habits. A recent study shows stress can affect your metabolism, too.

Participants who reported one or more stressors, such as arguments with co-workers or spouses, disagreements with friends, trouble with children or work-related pressures, during the previous 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women in the seven hours after eating the high-fat meal.

Researchers say experiencing one or more stressful events the day before eating just one single high-fat meal — the kind we’re most likely to indulge in when frazzled — slows the body’s metabolism so much that women could potentially see an 11-pound weight gain over the course of a year.

How to combat stress

The daily demands of work and home life — even the constant presence of electronic devices — puts people at a high risk for stress eating, Dr. Albers says.

The best way to combat stress or emotional eating is to be mindful of what triggers stress eating and to be ready to fight the urge.

“If you are someone who is prone to emotional eating, know your triggers, know what stresses you out and be prepared,” Dr. Albers says.

Part of being prepared is to arm yourself with healthy snacks, Dr. Albers says. Then if you feel the need to snack, you will at least nourish your body — arming yourself nutritionally to better deal with your stress.

“Helping to regulate your blood sugar throughout the day is going to keep your body stable and your emotions on a much better playing field,” Dr. Albers says.

Dr. Albers said that it’s also a good idea for people to keep things at their desk that will help reduce anxiety, like a stress ball. Or try taking a five-minute break every once in awhile to close your eyes and take some deep breaths.

Regular exercise and making sure you get enough sleep every night also can help you to better handle the challenges that come up every day, she says.

How Stress Can (Sometimes) Make Us Eat More

Abstract

What happens to your appetite when you are stressed? Do you reach straight for the ice cream and chips? Well, many of us do. With increasing stress in all of our lives, this pattern of stress-related eating can lead to excess weight gain and a higher risk of obesity. But why do we tend to overeat when stressed? One of the biggest culprits may be a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol can stimulate the appetite and make yummy foods seem even yummier. This article discusses how responding to stress is an important part of our normal lives, but how long-lasting stress can make us overeat and gain weight. Knowing about how stress can make us overeat is important in helping us make healthy food choices.

What happens to your appetite when you are stressed or worried? Do you get super hungry for cookies and ice cream? Or does your gut get all fluttery and you do not want to eat at all? Many of us overeat when we are stressed; and if we are very stressed, or stressed for a very long time, this can lead to weight problems in the long-term. But how does stress make us want to eat?

What is Stress?

We all know that feeling of being overwhelmed, out of control, heart racing, scared. In the body these feelings come from two systems . First, the sympathetic nervous system sends a hormone called adrenaline pumping around your blood stream. This hormone increases your heart rate and makes you feel like running away or turning around and fighting. Second, the endocrine system sends a different set of hormones, including one called cortisol, into your bloodstream and this helps you deal with the stress (Figure 1).

  • Figure 1 – What happens when we are stressed?
  • When we encounter something stressful (like a T. Rex) the sympathetic nervous system is activated, leading to the quick release of adrenaline from the adrenal gland (located on top of each kidney, as shown in the left image). Adrenaline acts on the heart, lungs, and muscles to increase heart rate, breathing, and blood flow. A matter of minutes after this, the endocrine system is also activated. Endocrine system activation suppresses appetite and causes the adrenal gland to release cortisol. Cortisol acts at the brain to heighten memory and the immune system and reduces stress levels back to normal. Images are adapted from Servier Medical Art, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/.

Imagine you are walking down the street. You turn a corner and there is a great big hungry Tyrannosaurus Rex sitting there. What happens? First, your sympathetic nervous system, which is a part of the nervous system that accelerates the heart rate, constricts blood vessels, and raises blood pressure, immediately gets activated. Adrenaline is pumped into your blood. Your heart beats faster, your breathing increases, your blood gets shunted to your muscles. You run away.

As this is happening, cortisol increases in your blood, too. Activation of the endocrine system, which is the glands in the body that make hormones for helping the body deal with all its functions, quickly suppresses appetite—you do not want to be reaching for your snacks with a T. Rex breathing down your neck. Cortisol also does things like heighten memory. This can be useful to ensure you avoid similar stressful dinosaurs in future. And cortisol feeds back onto the brain, to shut off the stress response, so that your appetite, memory, and cortisol itself come back to normal when the stressful situation is over.

Responding to Stress is Good…and Bad…

Responding to stress in the way described above is a very positive thing. In fact, it is essential. Without a stress response, the T. Rex would probably eat us. But, when you think about it, how many times in most of our lives are we stressed because a T. Rex (or any predator, for that matter) is going to eat us? We are much more likely to be stressed by ongoing non-physical worries. Social relationships, performance in school or at work, the unknown of trying something new; these are the things that are likely to stress us on a daily basis. These are also situations in which an increased heart rate or more blood flow to your muscles are not particularly useful at all. In these cases, known as chronic stress (because it lasts for a long time), the stress response can actually be very bad for you.

What Does Chronic Stress do to Appetite?

Chronic stress can have lots of negative effects. It can lead to anxiety and depression, memory loss, heart problems, and many others. In this article, we are going to focus on the way chronic stress can affect appetite and weight .

I have already mentioned that acute stress, like when you are escaping from the T. Rex, leads to appetite suppression. This is true, but only in the short term. Once appetite is reduced by stress, cortisol has a secondary role to increase appetite again. In the case of the dinosaur, this makes sense. You have just spent a lot of energy running away from a predator. Part of cortisol’s role is to get you to replace that energy by eating more than usual. But, if you are stressed because there is an exam coming up and you forgot to study, an extra tub of ice cream is not going to help anything. If cortisol is elevated all the time by ongoing stress, so is this drive to eat.

Cortisol also encourages us to store energy from food as fat. Basically, this is stockpiling energy in case of a future need (like running away from future predators). Again, this is not so useful if the source of the stress is not going to physically affect us. When we are chronically stressed and cortisol is increased all the time, we not only overeat but also store more of that energy as fat, without necessarily engaging in extra physical activity to counter the weight gain that results.

Together, this means that the more chronically stressed you are, the more likely you are to eat too much, gain weight, and eventually end up obese. It is also really important to note that obesity and poor diet can, themselves, lead to increased responses to stress. This means that the cycle of stress—eating—stress can be very hard to break .

How Does Cortisol Increase Appetite and Weight?

Cortisol increases appetite and weight in several ways . These mainly involve the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is a region of the brain that regulates many of the ways we interact with the world. For example, it regulates the stress response (including stimulating the release of cortisol into the bloodstream). It controls the balance of our reproductive hormones, and it also controls how much we eat. When too much cortisol circulates in the bloodstream for a long time, this cortisol increases the activity of neurons in the hypothalamus that signal “I am hungry” to the rest of the brain (Figure 2). When you are stressed, the brain can actually think you are hungrier—even when your need for energy has not changed.

  • Figure 2 – How does cortisol increase appetite?
  • (A) When we are not stressed, ghrelin stimulates appetite and leptin inhibits appetite by acting on the hypothalamus. (B) Chronic stress, leading to excess cortisol, can stimulate ghrelin, enhancing appetite, and eating. Chronic excess cortisol can also reduce the sensitivity of the hypothalamus to leptin, again enhancing appetite and eating. Images are adapted from Servier Medical Art, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/.

Cortisol also reduces the sensitivity of the hypothalamus to another hormone, leptin. Leptin normally signals “stop eating, I am full.” When there is a lot of cortisol around for a long time, leptin is less able to send this signal and so this “I am full” message is no longer as powerful.

Cortisol can even interfere with other hormones that change how rewarding and yummy we find food. It can increase our preference for “comfort food”—foods that are high in energy, such as those that contain lots of fat and sugar .

As mentioned, cortisol can also encourage weight gain by telling the body to store energy as fat. Even if a stressed person resists all the extra brain signals telling him or her to eat more, the person may still put on weight because the body changes the way it processes food. Cortisol encourages fat storage in part by stimulating fat cells to grow and mature, particularly in the fat around the stomach. This is a pattern of fat distribution that not only gives a person a big belly but can also contribute to heart disease.

Why Does Not Everyone Overeat With Stress?

Having said all of this about how cortisol encourages us to eat, store fat, and gain weight, we know this does not happen to everyone. Some people eat a lot less and lose a lot of weight with chronic stress. So, what is going on?

First, males and females respond differently to stress. For instance, women have higher cortisol responses to social stress challenges, like rejection by their friends, while men tend to have higher responses to achievement-based challenges, like mathematical tests. People are more likely to overeat when they have high cortisol in response to a stressful situation. This means that women are more likely to overeat if the stress is something social, while men are more likely to overeat if the stressful event is achievement-based. Unfortunately for the guys, males are more likely to increase fat storage around the belly when they are chronically stressed.

Second, many individual factors can influence the response stress. For instance, my group has shown that stress or poor diet early in life, when the hypothalamus is still developing, can lead to excessive sensitivity to stress later in life . If individuals have early exposure to chronic stress, they may be more likely to have chronically high cortisol, even if nothing stressful is happening. Also, the brains of these individuals may not respond to cortisol properly, so cortisol can be less effective at shutting of the stress response. This means that, even though many of us are exposed to the same type of stress in our daily lives, some people will respond by increasing their cortisol levels in a lasting way while others will not.

People who overeat with chronic stress have sometimes been classified by science as “emotional eaters.” These can be compared with “non-emotional eaters,” who do not change their eating habits after stress . Science has shown that emotional and non-emotional eaters have important differences in another crucial stress and appetite hormone, ghrelin. Ghrelin normally signals to the hypothalamus when it is time to eat. Ghrelin is therefore thought of as the “hunger hormone” and it promotes appetite. It is really interesting, then, that ghrelin increases in the blood when someone is stressed. It is even more interesting that, if there is food to eat, ghrelin will come back to normal very quickly in non-emotional eaters but stays high in emotional eaters. This persistently high ghrelin means a persistent hunger signal in emotional eaters .

What Can We Do?

So, is there anything we can do to avoid stress-related over-eating? Well, we cannot eliminate all stress from our lives. Often, the very things we find stressful are those that challenge us to grow. And we cannot eliminate our stress response. We need it—not just in case we encounter a hungry dinosaur, but also for more likely threats. However, we may be able to manage both the sources of chronic stress and our responses to them. For instance, maintaining positive social relationships with friends and parents is a very good stress-management strategy and can reduce the responses to stressful situations. Developing self-reliance and optimism, as well as engaging in demanding activities like sports, making music, or playing tricky games, has also been shown to reduce stress responses. In addition, understanding why we want to eat that tub of ice cream in the first place could help us make healthy food choices. In the meantime, science is working on treatments, for both obesity and excessive stress responses that will hopefully prove useful in the future.

Glossary

Sympathetic Nervous System (“Sim-pa-the-tic Ner-vus Sis-tem”): A part of the nervous system that accelerates the heart rate, constricts blood vessels, and raises blood pressure.

Hormone (“Hor-moan”): A substance released from one organ in the body that travels to another organ and tells it what to do.

Adrenaline (“Ad-ren’Al-in”): A stress hormone released that acts on the heart, lungs, and muscles to increase heart rate, breathing, and blood flow.

Endocrine System (“En-do-cry-n Sis-tem”): The glands in the body that make hormones for helping the body deal with all its functions, including stress.

Cortisol (“Kor-ti-zol”): A hormone that orchestrates the response to stress and helps the body deal with the stressful event.

Hypothalamus (“Hie-po-thal-a-mus”): A brain region that is responsible for controlling feeding (and some other important things).

Leptin (“Lep-tin”): A hormone that tells the brain to stop eating.

Ghrelin (“Gre-lin”): A hormone that tells the brain to eat more.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Sapolsky, R. M. 1996. Why stress is bad for your brain. Science 273:749–50.

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:

  • Eating More – Some people experience a greater appetite when they have anxiety.
  • Eating Less – Others experience much less hunger and thirst with anxiety.

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:

  • Fatigue and Energy

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.

  • General Health

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.

  • Hyperventilation

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.

  • Nutrient Deficiency

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.

Your appetite can change from day to day. But you need food to nourish your body. If you feel little or no urge to eat for days at a time, you should find out why. Lack of appetite could be a sign of a serious illness.

Many things can affect your appetite.

Are you stressed?

When you’re anxious, your body responds. Anxiety triggers emotional and psychological changes in your body to help you deal with the pressure. These changes often affect the stomach and digestive tract and can make you lose your appetite. If stress is the reason, your hunger usually returns once you’re feeling more relaxed.

Could you have a stomach bug?

Also known as gastroenteritis, this illness often comes with vomiting and diarrhea. Both of these can cause chemical changes in the stomach. Colds and flu can cause the same symptoms. The changes can make you not want to eat. In most cases, the yucky feelings go away in a couple of days. If you find you still aren’t hungry, call your doctor. You could have a serious infection or virus that needs to be treated.

Could it be your medication?

Certain drugs such as antibiotics, ADHD medications, and painkillers such as codeine or morphine, can curb your appetite. They slow certain sensors in the stomach. If you think your medication may be affecting your appetite, don’t stop taking it until you talk to your doctor.

Could you be pregnant?

You would think having another human onboard would make you hungrier. But it can be the opposite for some pregnant women. Carrying a baby causes all sorts of hormonal changes. In your first trimester, your appetite may drop because of nausea or morning sickness. In your third trimester, you may feel less hungry because the pressure on your abdomen from the growing baby leaves little room for food.

Are you getting older?

As you age, your body changes. Your senses aren’t as sharp, and that includes the senses of taste and smell. Many older folks find food no longer tastes good. Others may feel full after just a few bites. As you get older, you’re also more likely to take medication, be sick more often, have dental problems, or feel depressed. All of these can change your desire to eat.

Anxiety and loss of appetite: What is the link?

Individuals who experience a loss of appetite due to anxiety should take steps to address the issue. Long-term appetite loss can lead to health problems. Potential remedies and treatments include:

1. Understanding anxiety

Simply realizing that sources of stress can trigger physical sensations can go some way toward reducing anxiety and its symptoms.

2. Addressing sources of anxiety

Identifying and dealing with anxiety triggers can sometimes help people regain their appetite. Where possible, individuals should work to eliminate or reduce stressors.

If this proves challenging, a person may wish to consider working with a therapist who can help them manage anxiety triggers.

3. Practicing stress management

Several techniques can effectively reduce or control anxiety symptoms, including appetite loss. Examples include:

  • deep breathing exercises
  • guided imagery practice
  • meditation
  • mindfulness
  • progressive muscle relaxation

Read about some different types of meditation here.

4. Choosing nutritious, easily digestible foods

If people cannot eat much, they should ensure that what they do eat is nutrient-rich. Some good choices include:

  • soups containing a protein source and a variety of vegetables
  • meal-replacement shakes
  • smoothies containing fruits, green leafy vegetables, fat, and protein

It is also a good idea to opt for easily digestible foods that will not further upset the digestive system. Examples include rice, white potato, steamed vegetables, and lean proteins.

People with symptoms of anxiety may also find it beneficial to avoid foods that are high in fat, salt, or sugar, as well as high-fiber foods, which can be difficult to digest.

It can also help to limit the consumption of drinks containing caffeine and alcohol, as these often cause digestive problems.

Learn more about which foods may help with symptoms of anxiety.

5. Eating regularly

Getting into a regular eating pattern can help the body and brain regulate hunger cues.

Even if someone can only manage a few bites at each mealtime, this will be better than nothing. Over time, they can increase the amount that they eat at each sitting.

6. Making other healthful lifestyle choices

When a person is anxious, they may find it difficult to exercise or sleep. However, both sleep and physical activity can reduce anxiety and increase appetite.

Individuals should try to get enough sleep each night by setting a regular sleep schedule.

They should also aim to exercise most days. Even short bursts of gentle exercise can be helpful. People who are new to exercise can start small and increase the duration and intensity of activities over time.

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