Anxiety and Loss of Appetite: Causes and What to Do About It

Anxiety-and-loss-of-appetite
Amy20MD 1

Medical reviewed by Amy Rogers, MD MPH FACPM

Preventive Medicine, Public Health, Lifestyle Medicine, Pandemic Response, Global Health

You might feel too stressed to eat or notice no appetite when stressed. These may seem like unique experiences, but the link between anxiety and loss of appetite is quite common. If you are struggling with how to eat when you have anxiety, this article is tailored just for you. 

This article offers insights into why you might face these challenges and provides practical strategies for regaining your health and appetite.

Can anxiety cause loss of appetite? Reasons and ways to regain it

The bond between anxiety and appetite is strong and multifaceted. People might find they’re too stressed to eat, leading to a significant decrease in their appetite. Even emotional distress, including sadness, can cause this. But why can anxiety cause appetite loss, and what can we do about it? 

Why does anxiety affect appetite?

Anxiety tends to trigger our “fight or flight” response, a normal reaction that helps our ancestors face threats. When facing danger, our heart rate increases, blood moves to our muscles, and adrenaline surges to prepare the body for action. 

As the body prepares to face the potential threat, non-essential functions, including digestion, are temporarily put on hold. This helps the body to have energy to deal with the danger instead of using energy to digest food.

How to eat when you have anxiety?

While our ancestors heavily relied on the ‘fight or flight’ response to survive immediate threats, this primitive system often poses problems rather than solutions in modern society.

The question arises, “What to do when you can’t eat due to anxiety?” 

With some small and gradual changes, it is possible to mitigate the effects of anxiety on your appetite and maintain good health. Here are some examples:

  • Frequent Small Meals: This ensures you can get the essential nutrients without feeling pressured to eat a heavy meal all at once.
  • Balanced Diet: Focus on having nutrient-dense whole foods to benefit most from every bite. Studies suggest an unbalanced diet with processed food and refined carbs is associated with higher anxiety levels (1).
  • Physical Activity: Exercise helps reduce anxiety levels and can make you more hungry (2, 3).
  • Professional Help: If all the above doesn’t help, you can see a mental health professional to help manage your anxiety or work with a dietitian to figure out an eating plan that works for you.

Anxiety can trigger our body’s “fight or flight” response, where non-essential functions, such as digestion, are temporarily put on hold, leading to loss of appetite. However, adopting several small, gradual changes can help regain appetite. 

Eating smaller, nutrient-rich meals more frequently, staying hydrated, and engaging in regular physical activity can eventually help you regain your appetite. Seeking professional help from a mental health professional or dietitian can also be beneficial in reducing anxiety. They can help you craft an appropriate eating plan.

Why can’t I eat? Underlying reasons

If you often ask yourself, “Why can’t I eat?” perhaps the reason is not only because of stress. 

Many physical and psychological conditions can also influence your body and make you feel like you physically can’t eat. Here are some reasons why it might be hard for you to eat:

  • Digestive Disorders: Bloating, nausea, or feelings of fullness may deter you from eating.
  • Hormonal Imbalances: Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) can decrease appetite (4).
  • Aging: As people age, their sense of taste and smell may decline, potentially making them eat less (5, 6). 
  • Infections: Temporary loss of appetite can often come with acute illnesses, such as the common cold, flu, or COVID-19 (7, 8). Usually, you will regain your appetite after the disease fades.

Expert’s view: How your gut microbiome influences your mental health

While anxiety can reduce your appetite, what you eat also affects your mood significantly due to the bidirectional communication called the gut-brain axis. The gut-brain axis has become a focus in the research field recently. Studies show the profound link between your gut microbiomes and what’s going on in your brain. It has become clear that anxiety can make you feel you don’t want to eat, and vice versa; what you consume might lead to anxiety and depression (9).

Dr. William Davis, the author of the bestselling books “Super Gut” and “Wheat Belly” shared some insights during the interview:

There’s a number of ways by which the gastrointestinal microbes can influence what goes on in your head, whether you’re depressed, having anxiety or panic attacks, the content of your dreams, how well you sleep, your dialogue, your internal dialogue, all these things are influenced heavily by gut microbes.

He further explained how to gain control of your mood by improving your gut health:

In other words, the microbes in the GI tract that get into your small bowel release endotoxin, a major contributor, likely to depression, that’s one means by which the gut can affect the brain.

What is the 3 3 3 rule for anxiety?

The 3-3-3 rule is a simple technique to help manage anxiety. First, you notice three things you see, then three sounds you hear, and finally, you move three parts of your body. This grounding technique can help calm you down and bring you back to the present moment.

Why am I not hungry after not eating for two days?

Your body has protective mechanisms in place for survival. When you haven’t eaten for extended periods, your body slows down its metabolism and reduces hunger signals to conserve energy.

Why do I suddenly feel disgusted by food while eating?

This might be caused by many reasons, from psychological issues like anxiety to physical problems like digestive disorders. If this happens frequently, it may be worth discussing with a healthcare provider.

Should I force myself to eat if I have no appetite?

While it’s not ideal to force yourself to eat, ensuring your body gets the nutrients it needs is important. Small, nutrient-dense snacks or meals can be a good start when you have no appetite. 

Summary

Whether you’re grappling with anxiety and loss of appetite, feeling too stressed to eat, or dealing with no appetite when stressed, remember that there are ways to help. Learning how to eat when you have anxiety is a journey that may involve dietary changes and anxiety management. Although struggling to eat can be challenging, with the proper support and approach, it’s a struggle you can win.

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Amy20MD 1

Medical reviewed by Amy Rogers, MD MPH FACPM

Preventive Medicine, Public Health, Lifestyle Medicine, Pandemic Response, Global Health

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