The psychological stress associated with grieving can cause a number of physical and mental challenges. For some people, loss of appetite is an effect of mourning.
Loss of appetite may be one of the side effects of grief. Mourning a significant loss is a unique and individual experience and there’s no right or wrong way to go about it.
Some people may turn to food as a way to find comfort after a loss, for example. For others, the thought of eating while grieving might be impossible. Both are natural reactions to the psychological distress that typically accompanies the stages of grief.
Grief can be considered a form of acute stress; a temporary state of duress that the mind and body experience after a significant loss.
Stress can influence the body in many ways, and the digestive system is no exception.
A 2018 literature review on the effects of stress on appetite found that acute or recent stress is most often associated with a decreased will to eat. Chronic stress or long-term stress, on the other hand, is associated with appetite increase.
This link between stress and appetite is likely the result of stress-induced changes in the production of hormones responsible for appetite regulation.
When you’re in acute stress mode, such as when you’re grieving, your body may decrease blood flow to the digestive system. You may then enter the “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, and your body will prioritize other bodily processes like your respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
It’s natural during short-term stress to lose your appetite.
In 2013, surveys indicated that 30% of adults in the United States reported skipping a meal due to stress, with almost 70% noting the cause as lack of appetite.
Other possible physical effects of grief
Other possible physical effects of grief include:
- stomach upset
- chest pain or discomfort
- shortness of breath
- sleep disturbance
- body aches
- difficulty concentrating
If you’re experiencing grief but know you should eat, some simple tips might make a difference.
Making it smaller
Christina Runnels, a licensed professional counselor from Spring, Texas, encourages a practical approach to low appetite through small food portions.
“Forcing yourself to eat can create other unhealthy long-term eating habits,” she says. “Start by eating small meals that appeal to you. Use those smaller meals to build on larger meals until you regain your appetite.”
Making it easy
Don’t feel inclined to be in the kitchen? No problem. Pre-packaged snacks, frozen meal options, and grocery store dishes can make eating convenient.
“Things like PB and jelly sandwiches, tuna salad sandwiches, salads with store-bought rotisserie or grilled chicken, or even pre-made meals are easier,” explains Juliana Tamayo, a registered dietitian from Washington, District of Columbia.
Making every bite count
Tamayo suggests picking nutrient-dense options whenever possible.
“This means making everything count. Instead of drinking milk, making a smoothie with protein can provide calories and protein. Instead of soda, drinking sparkling water. Instead of candy, eating a protein bar or nuts,” she suggests.
Setting a food alarm
Setting a food alarm every 3-4 hours may help you remember to take in some food — even if it’s just a bite.
Caitlin Carr, a registered dietician from Corvallis, Oregon, suggests using these reminders as an opportunity to include calorie-dense options, like avocados, if you’ve started to notice unintentional weight loss.
Adding a doctor-prescribed appetite stimulant
If you haven’t eaten in days and are feeling the effects, you may benefit from adding an appetite stimulant to your routine.
“Talk to your doctor or registered dietitian to see about receiving an appetite stimulant. Pharmacotherapy with nutrition therapy is so regularly a beneficial, synergistic combination,” Carr indicates.
What is somatization?
While there are biological mechanisms behind appetite loss related to grief, somatization may also be a reason why you don’t feel like eating after a significant loss.
Somatization is a physical expression of psychological distress in the absence of physical causes. In other words, it’s experiencing physical symptoms caused by your emotional or mental health.
Grief appetite loss may be natural. But, if you forego eating for too long, you may start to notice negative effects on your body and mind, which could require professional attention.
Carr cautions that loss of appetite from grief and subsequent weight loss could result in challenges such as:
- muscle loss
- micronutrient deficiencies
- loss of balance and increased risk for ground level falls
- difficulty swallowing
Grief that carries on for an extended period of time or doesn’t feel as though it’s improving may also benefit from the guidance of a mental health professional.
In this circumstance, you may be experiencing prolonged grief disorder, a mental health condition that can impair everyday function.
Coping with grief is possible, and asking for help is valid and may help you process how you feel.
Losing appetite after a significant loss is a natural response to grief-related psychological stress.
Focusing on small meal portions, convenient foods, and nutrient-dense options may help you maintain some nutrition during this challenging time.