If your appetite's been MIA, take note.
You know that feeling when you're stressed and all you want to do is devour every crumb of food in your kitchen? Yeah, me neither. (The last time I had an appetite, slap bracelets were a thing.) While this probably makes you feel like a weirdo compared to your stress-eating besties, losing your appetite during hella-stressful times is more common than you might think. So there.
"Though the popular notion or stereotype is that women overeat when they're stressed—and no doubt, many do—just as many find that they're not hungry and food just doesn't appeal to them," says Deborah Offner, Ph.D., a Boston-based clinical psychologist. While overeating may be in part a learned response to stress or a coping strategy, loss of appetite tends to be more of a straight-up biological reaction. (Here's how to tell if you're emotional eating.)
Stress stimulates the brain to secrete hormones that activate the sympathetic nervous system, and in turn, the fight-or-flight response, explains Kimbre Zahn, M.D., family physician at Indiana University Health. Some stress hormones, such as CRF (its street name is corticotropin-releasing factor), suppress appetite by effing with the digestive system and decreasing the sense of hunger. "Individuals with persistent stress or those affected by generalized anxiety may be more likely to have chronic elevations of these hormones, resulting in prolonged appetite suppression," adds Zahn.
To make matters worse, the same woman can react differently to stress depending on the type or seriousness of the particular situation, says Offner. You might eat more when mildly stressed, like during final exams, but could lose your appetite altogether during a breakup. It's not fully understood why this happens, but it's likely related to the amounts of stress hormones that are secreted in the moment and how heavily they're influencing the hunger center, says Zahn. For example, larger doses of the stress hormone cortisol can lead to feeling ravenous.
There's also a psychological component, especially for appetite-deficient women whose digestive system retaliates every time they eat something. "Some women experience nausea or bowel irregularities in response to stress, and may avoid food for fear it will make them feel uncomfortable or physically ill," says Offner. (Have you ever tried to meet a tight deadline in the fetal position? Take it from me, it's awkward.)
And once you convince yourself that this is how your body's always going to react when you eat, you may start putting poor eating habits on speed-dial during times of high stress (think: skipping meals or making unhealthy food choices), further perpetuating the stress-eat-nausea cycle, says Zahn.
Another hallmark of psychological stress that can affect your eating habits is a perceived loss of control. Some women might restrict food intake because it's a concrete or tangible thing they can control, which might help soothe their anxiety. Keep in mind, stressful situations can trigger an eating disorder, so look out for these symptoms.
Otherwise, here are some ways to deal if it seems like your appetite has disappeared.
1. Get a grip on your stress levels.
"If you're experiencing appetite loss, take comfort in knowing it's likely a temporary condition that will resolve on its own when your stress level goes down," says Offner. Then, you know, take steps to get your zen on.
2. Choose foods that are easy to digest.
Avoid foods high in fat, fiber, and sugar, which are more difficult for the gastrointestinal system to process and may result in discomfort, says Zahn.
3. Drink your calories.
"Drinking can be easier than eating when you don't have an appetite," says Offner, who recommends chugging meal replacement drinks or nutrient-dense smoothies during times of high stress.
4. Have a craving? Go for it.
"If certain foods do appeal to you at any point in the day, give yourself permission to run with it, even if it means eating items you wouldn't normally eat in your diet," says Offner. "There will be plenty of time to return to healthful eating and monitor your intake when your appetite returns."
5. Limit caffeine.
Caffeine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and can suppress your appetite even more, says Zahn.
6. Send up a flare.
If your appetite loss lasts for more than two to four weeks and/or you lose more than 10 pounds in a month, check in with your doc or therapist. "In all likelihood, this symptom indicates you could really use help managing the stress," says Offner. "Once you feel better, your appetite should return in full force."