Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD
Written by Jayne Leonard
Anxiety commonly causes a change in appetite. Some people with anxiety tend to overeat or consume a lot of unhealthful foods. Others, however, lose their desire to eat when they feel stressed and anxious.
Anxiety is a mental health condition that affects 40 million adults in the United States each year. Changes in appetite are one of many possible symptoms.
Keep reading to learn more about the link between anxiety and a loss of appetite, some potential remedies and treatments for the problem, and some other common causes of appetite loss.
Anxiety and appetite loss
When someone starts to feel stressed or anxious, their body begins to release stress hormones. These hormones activate the sympathetic nervous system and trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response.
The fight-or-flight response is an instinctive reaction that attempts to keep people safe from potential threats. It physically prepares the body to either stay and fight a threat or run away to safety.
This sudden surge of stress hormones has several physical effects. For example, research suggests that one of the hormones — corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) — affects the digestive system and may lead to the suppression of appetite.
Another hormone, cortisol, increases gastric acid secretion to speed the digestion of food so that the person can fight or flee more efficiently.
Other digestive effects of the fight-or-flight response can include:
This response can cause additional physical symptoms, such as an increase in breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure. It also causes muscle tension, pale or flushed skin, and shakiness.
Some of these physical symptoms can be so uncomfortable that people have no desire to eat. Feeling constipated, for example, can make the thought of eating seem very unappetizing.
Overeating vs. appetite loss
People who have persistent anxiety or an anxiety disorder are more likely to have long-term heightened levels of CRF hormones in their system. As a result, these individuals may be more likely to experience a prolonged loss of appetite.
On the other hand, people who experience anxiety less frequently may be more likely to seek comfort from food and overeat. However, everyone reacts differently to anxiety and stress, whether it is chronic or short-term.
In fact, the same person may react differently to mild anxiety and high anxiety. Mild stress may, for example, cause a person to overeat. If that person experiences severe anxiety, however, they may lose their appetite. Another person may respond in the opposite way.
Men and women may also react differently to anxiety in terms of their food choices and consumption.
One study indicates that women may eat more calories when anxious. The study also links higher anxiety with a higher body mass index (BMI) in women but not in men.
Remedies and treatment
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
- progressive muscle relaxation
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.
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.
When to see a doctor
People should see a doctor if their appetite loss persists for 2 weeks or more, or if they lose weight rapidly. A doctor can check for an underlying physical condition that may be causing symptoms.
If the loss of appetite is purely a result of stress, a doctor can suggest ways to manage the anxiety, including therapy and lifestyle changes.
They may also prescribe medication to those with chronic or severe anxiety.
Other causes of appetite loss
Anxiety is not the only cause of appetite loss. Other possible causes include:
- Depression: As with anxiety, feeling depressed can cause a loss of appetite in some people but lead others to overeat.
- Gastroenteritis: Also known as a stomach bug, gastroenteritis can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite.
- Medication: Some medications, including antibiotics and certain pain relievers, can reduce appetite. They can also cause side effects that include diarrhea or constipation.
- Intense exercise: Some people, especially endurance athletes, experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and intestinal cramping after periods of intense activity, which may result in a loss of appetite.
- Pregnancy: Some pregnant women may lose their appetite due to morning sickness or because of pressure on the stomach.
- Illness: Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes or cancer, can lead to a reduction in appetite.
- Aging: Appetite loss is common among older adults, possibly due to a loss of taste and smell or because of illness or medication use.
Anxiety can cause a loss of appetite or an increase in appetite. These effects are primarily due to hormonal changes in the body, but some people may also avoid eating as a result of the physical sensations of anxiety.
Individuals who experience chronic or severe anxiety should see their doctor.
Sometimes, there may be other reasons for appetite loss that also require treatment.
Once a person addresses the anxiety, their appetite will typically return. Without treatment, long-term appetite loss and chronic anxiety can have serious health consequences.