If hunger and anxiety had a relationship status, it would probably be “It’s complicated.” Hunger can trigger anxiety; anxiety can both erase hunger and trigger the desire to eat. And there are physical and psychological elements to both hunger and anxiety.
To understand why some people get anxious when they’re hungry, read on.
To understand the relationship between hunger and anxiety, it helps to know how two different kinds of hunger operate. Physical hunger happens when your body needs food to keep producing energy. This kind of hunger is stimulated by your body’s biological processes, such as digestion and metabolism, and by hormonal processes, such as the release of cortisol and ghrelin, both of which can affect appetite.
When you’re physically hungry, you may notice an uncomfortable feeling some
People can also feel a desire to eat at times when they’re not physically hungry. You may feel a kind of psychological hunger if you’re used to eating at regular times, if you’re in social situations where others are eating, or if you typically eat in response to emotional cues. Even seeing photos of food or smelling something cooking can stimulate a feeling of psychological hunger.
Either kind of hunger can make you feel anxious. In fact, the neural networks that stimulate both hunger and stress responses in the body are shared. The hippocampal, pituitary, and adrenal systems (called the HPA axis) prompt both eating behaviors and stress responses, so it isn’t surprising that hunger and anxiety are so closely connected.
In animal studies, researchers found that blocking glucose in rats raised the level of stress hormones in their blood. The researchers discovered that rats had mood changes brought on by hypoglycemia — and they began avoiding the chamber where they had received the glucose-blocker.
Anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry, or apprehension. Symptoms of anxiety include:
- fast heart rate
- quick or shallow breathing
- distracted, worried, panicked, or obsessive thinking
- diarrhea or constipation
- loss of sleep
Anxiety can be brought on by a stressful event, by anticipating stress, or by your thoughts and perceptions.
It’s normal for your blood glucose level to go up and down a bit at different times of day. If you feel uncomfortably hungry, your blood glucose level may be at a lower level.
Hypoglycemia is the medical term for low blood sugar. Hypoglycemia is much more common among people with diabetes. If you’re experiencing hypoglycemia, you might feel:
It isn’t unusual for someone with moderate hypoglycemia to have headaches or blurred vision. When hypoglycemia is severe, it can lead to seizures, coma, or even death.
Because hypoglycemia can be life-threatening when it’s severe, some people with diabetes develop a fear of hypoglycemia. This can make them feel especially anxious when they are hungry. Studies have found that people with a fear of hypoglycemia are more likely to eat more and exercise less, which can then lead to even more changes in their blood sugar levels.
Temporarily, yes. It’s not uncommon for acute or immediate stress to make you lose your appetite completely. Suppressing hunger may be your body’s way of focusing your mind on survival.
If stress continues, though, your body may produce more cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol can make you feel a desire to eat and can even make you crave certain kinds of foods.
- Listen to your body. Learning to recognize your body’s hunger signals and getting better at telling the difference between psychological and physical hunger may help you prevent hunger-related anxiety.
- Eat slowly. You might even consider setting a timer for 20 minutes or so to encourage you to take your time and savor each bite.
- Eliminate distractions. Phones, televisions, and work may keep you from feeling fully satisfied by your meal.
- Consider supplements. Try adding magnesium, selenium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. They’ve all been
linkedto lower anxiety levels.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise lowers stress and cortisol (the stress hormone).
- Consult a mental health professional. Therapy may help you manage anxiety and any effects it has on your eating.
For many people, anxiety can be reduced by simple changes to their daily routines. You may want to explore some tried and true relaxation strategies like meditation and mindfulness. Exercising regularly helps, and healthy nutrition can play an important role, too.
If lifestyle changes aren’t enough to fully manage anxiety symptoms, you may want to talk with a healthcare provider or mental health professional about what you’re experiencing. Cognitive behavioral therapy, graduated exposure therapy, and medications have all been effective at helping people manage anxiety.
Mild anxiety is treatable, and many people are able to change their eating habits to prevent hunger from becoming too stressful.
It’s important for people diagnosed with anxiety disorders, people with diabetes, and people with disordered eating to work with healthcare providers to manage hunger-related anxiety. Severe anxiety, left untreated, can lower your quality of life, interfere with your relationships, and raise your risk of serious health conditions.
When you’re physically hungry, you can experience a range of physical and psychological symptoms similar to the ones you experience when you’re anxious. Those similarities may be due to hunger and anxiety sharing the same signaling network and hormones.
Grappling with hunger-related anxiety can be a challenge, but there are science-supported methods to cope with this complex set of physical and psychological interactions.