Anxiety and hunger, why do we stop eating or overeat

Abraham McLaughlin
Anxiety and hunger, why do we stop eating or overeat

Anxiety and hunger are two concepts that often go hand in hand. On many occasions, when we are nervous, we develop a voracious appetite that leads us to eat throughout the day. On the other hand, the opposite also happens, our stomach "closes" and we are not able to eat anything.

Why do some people overeat and others stop eating? Is there an emotional difference? Apparently, when anxiety is associated with depressive symptoms, we lose hunger, and when these symptoms do not occur, we feel an excessive need to eat. Scientific research on this subject is still in progress, so here are some of the most salient findings.


  • Stress, anxiety, and excessive hunger
  • Negative emotions and lack of hunger
    • Conclution
    • Bibliography

Stress, anxiety, and excessive hunger

We live surrounded by daily demands: work, study, make food, clean, take care of children (whoever has) ... And endless endless tasks. Added to this we also experience more or less unpleasant situations. Bad news from a relative, infidelity, betrayal, etc. All this can cause us an excess of stress and anxiety that, among other things, could affect our food intake.

Daily stress and anxiety can produce chronic sensitization in the subcortical areas that are at the base of the meal urge (Lyvers, 2000). On the other hand, the areas related to the production of dopamine become hyper-reactive. Hyperarousal both due to anxiety and to stimuli related to food or the food itself. In this way, we become more susceptible to craving food and triggers excessive eating behavior.

Thus, Lyvers remarks that "craving is experienced as something irrational given the evident reduction of the inhibitory control of the frontal cortex over the subcortical systems that mediate incentive appetitive responses and automated and unconscious behaviors".

On the other hand, the decrease in serotonin is also pointed out as a "cause" of excessive intake. Marta Garaulet, professor of Physiology and Nutrition at the University of Murcia, points out that "there are studies that show that the intake of carbohydrates increases the availability of its precursor, tryptophan, thereby increasing the formation of serotonin. Ultimately , eating sweets makes us happier ".

Negative emotions and lack of hunger

Most of the research on anxiety and hunger focuses on overeating. Hence the difficulty of finding studies that explain the reason for the reduced appetite. However, Sheppard-Sawyer, McNally and Fischer (2000), point out that when negative emotions are experienced, eating behavior is reduced.

Marta Garaulet affirms that the lack of appetite can be related to a hormonal response. Garaulet postulates that if stress is punctual "the adrenaline response prevails over cortisol, which causes a decrease in appetite and also produces the mobilization of body fat".

However, if the stress is chronic, the professor comments that cortisol prevails over adrenalide, and in this way increases appetite and also "more fat accumulates in abdominal fat tissue, which is where we have more concentrated cortisol receptors".

Dr. Esteban Jódar, an endocrinologist, explains that the difference between hunger or the lack of it would depend on the type of stimulus that causes anxiety. In this way, that "knot in the stomach" that prevents us from eating could be explained, among other causes, by a predominance of negative emotions that cause us a greater response of adrenaline over cortisol. Remember that cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone that is released in response to stress.


At this point it should be distinguished that stress does not have to be related to a negative emotion. Living with stress is not the same as being anxious about the death of a family member. So, although we need to calm down in both situations, the first is due to excess activity and the second due to a loss. So it will be important to see if behind that anxiety there is a negative emotion or an excess of demands..

Despite the chemical processes that are triggered in the body, the importance of proper emotional management is evident. Knowing how to control our emotions is key so that a feeling of continuous hunger does not occur or that we produce a "knot" in the stomach.

Physical exercise, a balanced diet, practicing meditation ... are elements that will help us maintain healthy emotional health. This will allow us to keep our hormones and neurotransmitters working in order without altering our behavior.


  • Lyvers, M. (2000). "Loss of control" in alcoholism and drug addiction. Experimental and
    Clinical Psychopharmacology, 8 (2), 225-249.
  • Rodríguez, S., Mata, J. and Moreno, S. (2007). Psychophysiology of food craving and bulimia nervosa. Clinic and Health, 18 (1), 99-118.
  • Sheppard-Sawyer, C., McNally, R. & Fischer, J. H. (2000). Film-induced sadness as a trigger for disinhibited eating. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 28, 215-220.
  • Silva, J. (2007). Anxiety-induced overeating part I: behavioral, affective, metabolic, and endocrine evidence. Psychological Therapy, 25 (2), 141-154.

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