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Appetite Too Low or High? Stress Could Be the Culprit, Experts Say

Don't beat yourself up about it.

Illustration of person looking up at a gigantic striped container of popcorn
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When you're experiencing stress, it's not only your mental health that bears the brunt of it. Stress also takes a toll on your physical health, spawning headaches, poor sleep, muscle aches and more. That's because stress affects every system in your body, from your nervous system to your heart to your stomach.

And that, in turn, is why in the midst of dealing with a stressful situation, some people find themselves stocking up on every single snack Trader Joe's has ever sold, or inhaling an entire bag of cheese curls. Meanwhile, others have to force themselves to eat anything at all, having forgotten what an appetite even feels like.

Food is a fraught topic in our society, and it's easy to feel guilt when you eat more or less than you planned, or when you've lost touch with whether you're even hungry or not. But there's no reason to beat yourself up about stress eating (or forgetting to eat). Changes in appetite are all part of your body's natural response to stress, which is an inevitable part of daily life. On the flip side, if you're stressed out all the time and worried about your eating habits, there are ways to switch it up and get help.

Here's how stress affects your appetite, including why you might binge more than usual or stop eating entirely. Plus, how to tell when changes in appetite are cause for concern, and what to do if you're worried.

How stress affects your appetite

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Stress affects the appetite in multiple ways, says Anna Rios, a food blogger and registered dietitian nutritionist practicing at Alliance Medical Center. Whether it makes you eat more or less depends partly on the type of stress.

"Sudden or major stress can decrease appetite or shut it down completely," Rios explains. "This happens when the hypothalamus releases a corticotropin-releasing hormone that suppresses appetite. Another hormone that plays a role in suppressing appetite is epinephrine. Epinephrine is released when our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode." (Epinephrine is also known as adrenaline.)

Long-term stress is different, however. "If the stress is persistent, the adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol," Rios says. "Cortisol increases appetite, which often leads to what we know as 'stress eating.'" In addition to increasing appetite, cortisol affects the type of foods you want to eat. You're likely to crave foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar, which are literal comfort foods -- they "seem to have a feedback effect that dampens stress related responses and emotions," according to a Harvard Health blog.

Other appetite-related hormones, including ghrelin, insulin and leptin, are also impacted by stress. Ghrelin, for example, is known as the "hunger hormone" and is released in response to both acute and chronic stress. One study found that stress can impact ghrelin more in the evening than the daytime, which might account for the urge to late-night binge. More research is needed into how exactly these interactions work, however.

Stress also affects your eating patterns in other, less direct ways. If you're stressed, you're probably not getting great sleep, and "less sleep has been linked to increased cravings for processed foods during the day as well as an irregular appetite," Rios says.

In some cases, stress eating may also be linked more to emotions than to appetite. "Some people go to food when in stress to distract and comfort," says Kathryn Fink Martinez, MS, a registered dietitian nutritionist and eating disorder specialist. 

So even if you're just dealing with a shorter-term stressful situation, you might still find yourself ordering a pizza to make you feel better. And even if you're experiencing chronic stress, you might eat less than usual if you feel too sad, busy or unmotivated to eat.

Is stress eating unhealthy?

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Stress eating is a perfectly normal part of life. You're not going to eat the exact same amount of food every day, and that's fine. Intuitively, it makes sense that you'd need some extra fuel when you're stressed -- all that pressure takes a toll on your body and mind, and uses up a lot of energy.  

"Everybody stress eats or eats less because of stress from time to time," Rios says. Gaby Vaca-Flores, MA, another registered dietitian nutritionist, agrees. "Short-term stress, such as from a bad day at work, may prompt you to reach for more comfort foods than usual at dinner time," she says. "This is a normal response to short-term stress." And according to Martinez, even stress eating several days in a row is nothing to worry about.

Stress can complicate your relationship with food, though, and eating more or less due to stress can also point to a larger mental health concern if it's an ongoing thing. Here are some signs to look out for, according to the experts.

  • Significant weight gain or loss
  • Feeling out of control or unable to stop eating
  • Obsessing over food
  • Struggling to enjoy food
  • Feeling too tired to accomplish daily activities
  • Feeling as though food is your only coping mechanism

If you experience any of these signs or are otherwise worried, reach out to a therapist or dietitian with experience in emotional eating for help. They can help you figure out other ways to manage your stress, while also healing your relationship with food and getting you back in control of your daily life.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.