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Can anxiety cause loss of appetite?

Can anxiety cause loss of appetite?

It's possible to lose your appetite when you're feeling anxious, but it can be hard to figure out if that's the cause.

Reviewed by:
Michael Roman, MD
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May 9, 2024
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Key takeaways

There’s an undeniable mind-body connection when it comes to anxiety. One of the ways this can manifest is when anxiety causes you to lose your appetite. Sometimes, when you’re feeling super anxious, eating a meal is the last thing on your mind. You might not feel hungry at all, even though you haven’t eaten for many hours, or you might feel so nauseous that there’s no way you could stomach a full plate of food. One survey found that 30% of people have skipped a meal because of stress, and 67% of those people did so due to a lack of appetite.

In this article we’ll explain the relationship between anxiety and appetite, other potential causes for appetite loss, as well as tips for regaining your appetite.


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What’s the relationship between anxiety and appetite?

Anxiety can directly and indirectly cause loss of appetite. Research has shown that anticipatory anxiety, meaning anxiety leading up to a stressful event you have coming up, could cause appetite suppression. Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself, nervously awaiting a first date or an important presentation at work, and your appetite is non-existent. Once the stressful event has passed and your body and mind have had time to calm down, your appetite slowly comes back.  

But why can anxiety cause loss of appetite? It comes down to your body’s fight-or-flight response and sympathetic nervous system. When you’re under acute stress, no matter the cause, your primal, in-born fight-or-flight response is activated, telling your body to prepare for immediate danger. This results in your body releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and corticotropin-releasing hormones. These hormones reduce your appetite.  

Plus, when you’re in fight-or-flight, your body prioritizes functions that are more critical to survival, such as your heart (your cardiovascular system) and your lungs (your respiratory system), while putting other functions, like your digestive system, on pause.  

Anxiety indirectly causes loss of appetite, too. When you’re feeling sick to your stomach or experiencing other types of stomach discomfort, you might find your appetite disappearing since it’s too uncomfortable to eat anything when you’re feeling so physically unwell. For example, if you have social anxiety disorder and are dreading an upcoming party, you might feel like you’re going to throw up at the thought of being around so many people. Naturally, this feeling makes the thought of eating unappealing.

How else does anxiety affect your digestive system?

Whether you’re experiencing an acute episode of anxiety or you have an anxiety disorder, this can result in plenty of physical symptoms related to your digestive system, including:

  • Diarrhea  
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Upset stomach

If you experience chronic anxiety due to an anxiety disorder, you may be more likely to experience uncomfortable GI symptoms like nausea, stomach aches, and diarrhea.  

To learn more, check out this article: What does anxiety stomach pain feel like ?

What are other reasons for appetite loss?

Anxiety isn’t the only potential reason for appetite loss. There are various other causes related to both mental and physical health. Here are some examples.  

Mental health conditions

Other than anxiety disorders, other mental health conditions could be to blame for a loss of appetite. A few examples are:

Acute physical illnesses

When your body is hard at work fighting off a short-term illness or infection, your appetite may take a back seat. Some examples include:

  • Cold or flu
  • Food poisoning
  • Stomach virus
  • Various bacterial, fungal, or viral infections

Medication side effects

Certain medications can affect your appetite. They may directly reduce your appetite or indirectly cause you to lose it by causing symptoms like nausea that put you off eating.  

Some examples of common medications that may cause loss of appetite are:

  • Certain blood pressure medications, such as hydralazine
  • Certain painkillers, such as codeine or morphine
  • Chemotherapy
  • Stimulant medications, such as Adderall (amphetamine/dextroamphetamine) and Ritalin (methylphenidate)—decreased appetite as a side effect can be treated by taking medication with food

If you’re taking any prescription medications and noticing some a loss of appetite or unexpected weight loss, ask your doctor if any of these medications could be contributing.

Lifestyle factors

Many lifestyle factors could play into a loss of appetite, including:

  • Chronic stress: Even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, but you’re under chronic stress, such as from a super stressful job, this could impact your appetite.
  • Grief: Coping with the loss of a loved one is incredibly difficult and could also cause poor appetite.
  • Lack of physical activity: If you’re living a sedentary lifestyle and not exercising a lot, your appetite might be lacking.  

Chronic health conditions  

Some medical conditions come with gastrointestinal symptoms and take a toll on your appetite. Some examples are:

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • HIV
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Kidney disease  
  • Liver disease  

Although these are all common reasons for a loss of appetite, this isn’t an exhaustive list. There are other possible causes. It’s important to speak to your doctor for an evaluation to rule out any health conditions and make sure that your appetite loss is indeed due to anxiety. If the appetite loss is due to another cause, your doctor can help determine a treatment plan to help you get your appetite back.  


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8 tips to regain your appetite from stress

It’s important to regain your appetite and eat regular, nutritious meals to avoid malnutrition. Eating balanced meals every day ensures that your body gets the important nutrients it needs to function properly and support your physical and mental health. Here are eight tips to regain your appetite from stress.  

Try stress management and relaxation techniques

There are many tools you can try to lower your stress and anxiety levels, which can help you regain your appetite. Ideas include:

  • Deep breathing exercises: Taking slow, deep belly breaths from your diaphragm can help to activate your parasympathetic nervous system –– the rest-and-digest system, which is the opposite of your fight-or-flight response. You can try box-breathing or 4-7-8 breathing.  
  • Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR):  PMR is a technique that involves purposefully tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups throughout the body. For example, you can start down at your toes, focusing on squeezing and tightening these muscles while you inhale, holding it for a few seconds, and then exhaling as you release the muscles. Repeat for every muscle group in your body. This can take up to 15 minutes if you truly take your time working your way through your body.  
  • Mindfulness meditation: There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but essentially, mindfulness refers to the practice of being fully present in the here and now while you observe your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations without judgment. You can create your mindfulness practice using visualization, mantras, or breathing techniques. Experiment to find what works for you. There are many mindfulness apps, like Headspace and Calm, or videos on YouTube that can get you started.  

For more tips, check out: Grounding strategies for anxiety

2. Exercise regularly

The benefits of exercise for loss of appetite due to anxiety are two-fold. First, increased physical activity in and of itself can stimulate your appetite. Secondly, exercise releases endorphins, feel-good hormones that can lower stress levels, improve your mood, and improve your overall well-being. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of exercise every week, including aerobic activities that get your heart rate up and muscle-strengthening work.  

3. Get quality sleep  

Don’t underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep. High-quality sleep is crucial for our brain and body to function optimally. Plus, sleep deprivation can worsen anxiety and other mental health conditions––further contributing to loss of appetite related to mental health reasons. Aim for 7-9 hours each night. Consistently getting enough good sleep also helps lower your levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  

4. Set reminders to eat

If you find that you’re going hours on end without eating anything, not feeling hungry, and unintentionally skipping meals, it may help to set reminders to help develop good eating habits. For example, you can mark time on your work calendar or set an alarm on your phone. Carve out time where you can sit, unwind, relax, and eat.  

5. Create a nice mealtime environment  

Try to minimize stressful distractions (like checking your work emails or trying to catch up on any tasks) while you eat. Make mealtime peaceful so that you can unwind and eat in peace. You may also want to enlist an accountability buddy to sit with you and keep you company while you eat, if that’s something that feels comforting to you.  

6. Eat smaller, more frequent meals

If you don’t have an appetite, eating three normal-sized meals throughout the day can feel too difficult. Instead, try breaking your meals into smaller, more manageable portions spread out throughout the day. You can aim for five or six mini-meals that are rich in nutrients, calories, and protein throughout the day.  

7. Identify “safe” foods

When your loss of appetite is due to nausea or other stomach upset, it can help to find some safe comfort foods that you can rely on that are easy on your stomach and you know you can handle. Bland, easily digestible food choices like crackers, rice, toast, or soup are some simple options, but go with whatever works for you.  

8. Drink your nutrients

If you really can’t get yourself to eat solid healthy foods, you can try to drink your nutrients by consuming pre-made nutritional shakes, protein drinks, or smoothies you make yourself. While drinking your nutrients should not replace eating whole foods entirely, it can be a helpful temporary solution to support your body and get nourishment during times of high anxiety and appetite loss.

How do I know if my appetite loss is from anxiety?

It can be tricky to know for sure if your appetite loss is due to anxiety or something else. However, sometimes it can be easier to identify, such as if you can pinpoint something that’s making you anxious, like an upcoming presentation, heavy workload, social event, or any other stressor that’s been on your mind.  

You might also notice other symptoms of anxiety, such as being unable to control your worrying, feelings of dread, restlessness, chest pains, heart palpitations, sweating, or even panic attacks. If you’re having any of these physical or mental symptoms, there’s certainly a chance your appetite loss is due to your anxiety.  

If anxiety symptoms and loss of appetite are a common occurrence for you, don’t hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional. Therapy and/or medication for anxiety can make a huge difference in your symptoms and quality of life.  

If you’re looking for a psychiatrist, consider Talkiatry. We’re a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network virtual care so you can get the treatment you need for mental health conditions like generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and more.
To get started, complete our free online assessment to get matched with a psychiatrist.  

The information in this article is for education and informational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

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At Talkiatry, we specialize in psychiatry, meaning the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. Your psychiatrist will meet with you virtually on a schedule you set together, devise a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs and preferences, and work with you to adjust your plan as you meet your goals.

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About
Michael Roman, MD

Dr. Michael Roman is currently a Staff Psychiatrist at Talkiatry. He completed his adult psychiatry residency training at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Roman is a board-certified Adult Psychiatrist and a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN).

Dr. Roman’s clinical practice centers primarily around medication management and psychopharmacological treatment approaches. He also specializes in a variety of psychotherapeutic modalities which he utilizes in conjunction with medication management in order to provide patients with the best possible treatment outcomes.

Dr. Roman’s curiosity for the studies of the human mind began with pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He was intrigued by the way our mind, body, emotions, and behavior were intertwined to comprise our everyday life experiences. His interest in the intricacy of the human mind was deepened in medical school, and he received his medical degree from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He completed his adult psychiatry residency training at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Roman treats a wide spectrum of patients, but his primary clinical focus is treating mood disorders, ADHD, anxiety disorders, and PTSD. Dr. Roman also specializes in treating substance use disorders and possesses clinical expertise in implementing high quality motivational interviewing and motivational enhancing therapy.

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