Here is the science behind why you lose your appetite when you’re stressed or depressed.

March 6, 2017 Providence Health Team

You may have experienced it: In the midst of a breakup, a family emergency, or problems at work, you lost your appetite because of the stress.

Studies show that short-term stress tends to make us eat less. Curiously, however, persistent stress tends to make us eat more.

An intense personal stressor can trigger the same type of adrenaline rush that is activated during life-or-death situations, according to recent research on “emotional eating.” This fight-or-flight response causes the brain to produce appetite-suppressing hormones. It puts eating on hold, in a sense, so that your body can focus on survival. In the short term, this explains the “breakup diet,” where the absence of a loved one may cause you to lose weight.

In contrast, low-grade stress that occurs over time can cause you to eat more. In these situations, the brain produces appetite-increasing cortisol and serotonin. That means you are more likely to seekg out “
comfort foods.”

It’s more common than you think

At least 25 percent of Americans rate their stress levels at 8 on a 10-point scale, according to an American Psychological Association survey. It shouldn’t come as any surprise therefore that many of us have a complicated emotional relationship with food. And whether or not we could stand to lose a few pounds, “stress dieting” is obviously no more healthful than self-medicating with food.

When people experience frequent bouts of depression, the cycle may get ingrained to the point that they feel hopeless about their poor eating habits. That, in turn, causes their depression to worsen. For these people, breaking the cycle may require professional support.

There is still much more to learn about the ways people react to stress. It’s a complex topic that encompasses factors ranging from emotions to biological responses to the structure of the brain itself.

Taking steps toward better health

If you have issues with stress and weight control, here are some techniques to help you take control:

  • Identify your eating patterns.
  • List the unique stresses that affect you.
  • Seek an unhurried, quiet place to eat in order to be calm and mindful about what you’re eating.

Other strategies to balance your emotion/food ratio include scheduling regular exercise, doing meditation and simply talking things over with a friend. If problems persist, it can be helpful to see a therapist who specializes in eating disorders.

If you struggle with stress or depression or are starting a new diet plan, it’s always a good idea to consult with a physician. With professional guidance, you can make healthful decisions that will enable you to feel better soon.

To learn more

New research published in the journal Obesity is consistent with prior studies that have
found links between stress and eating.


A National Institutes of Health report on stress and food outlines additional avenues of research on these topics. 

Talk to your health care provider about achieving or maintaining a healthy weight.
You can find a Providence provider in our multistate directory.


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