Nervous hunger: what it is and how to deal with it

Our eating behavior can be influenced by the emotions we feel every day: being anxious , or being burdened with work, stress, sadness can increase appetite and lead to more fats and sweet foods, stimulating the so-called ” hunger nervous “.

The emotional eating is a common term for what the food behavior experts call ” Emotional Eating “, and can be defined as the tendency to use food as a strategy to cope with stressful events. It therefore corresponds to a change in eating behavior in response to negative emotional stimuli and can lead to both an increase in food intake and its avoidance.

Thus it happens that in the throes of nervous hunger , eating is seen as the only way to defeat the sadness of a moment, or to calm the symptoms of restlessness and agitation of anxiety. Food is also seen as the only legitimate reason to take a break, for example, from work, study or any other boring activity, or a way to release and vent anger . In all these cases, we resort to eating not to satisfy a physiological need, but to satisfy a desire for food triggered by emotional signals.

Some studies have confirmed that eating behavior is influenced by stressful conditions through some biological mechanisms. The chronic stress , in fact causes a change in the regulation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA). In animal studies, activation of the HPA axis has been shown to affect eating behavior (and thus inducing nervous hunger ) through the release of CRH (corticotropin releasing hormone) and urocortin which suppresses ghrelin secretion ( known as “hunger hormone”) and acts on certain receptors in the hypothalamus which together reduce food intake.

In humans, the release of cortisol increases appetite and modifies nutritional behavior by guiding the person to choose foods rich in fat or sweet that reduce the perception of stress and biomarkers of stress in a short time. It is thus hypothesized that prolonged exposure to stress could cause “ nervous hunger ”, not related to hunger or satiety responses, but triggered by emotional signals. However, there are still few studies that have investigated the relationship between emotional eating and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis.

A recent study sought to establish whether the use of emotional eating as an emotional regulation strategy could be associated with an increase in positive emotions and a consequent decrease in negative emotional states. Starting from the assumption that negative emotions can trigger  nervous hunger , the authors try to understand whether emotional eating is able to successfully regulate certain emotions or if, on the contrary, it produces a worsening of mood.

Theoretically, after taking food, the release of dopamine activates a positive feeling of pleasure and therefore food could represent a valid attempt at emotional regulation; however the results of the study state otherwise.

Negative emotional states trigger emotional eating which in turn causes a worsening of mood which contributes again to stimulate the nervous hunger , thus causing a vortex that could explain the development and maintenance of episodes of binge eating or binge eating .

Emotional eating has been shown to be a risk factor for the development of eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa and binge eating (or binge eating ). Some authors hypothesize that the onset of dysfunctional eating behaviors develops from very early childhood. Think, for example, of when a child’s anguish is improperly sedated with food: the little one will learn that food is a substitute for comforting words or reassuring hugs.

The type of response he gets from the person caring for him is out of tune with his real needs and can result in an inability to distinguish hunger from other sensations and limited emotional awareness.

Even in adults, when emotional awareness is low, some physical sensations such as satiety and hunger can be confused with some feelings elicited by meaningful interpersonal relationships. For example, the sense of emptiness resulting from an experience of emotional and relational detachment can be mistaken for a feeling of hunger.

How to cope with nervous hunger?

First of all it is important to be able to distinguish biological hunger, that is, dictated by a biological appetite, from nervous hunger . To do this, it can be useful to record, for example, on a card, the food ingested daily and the physical sensations and emotional states at the very moment in which you eat. Differentiating nervous hunger from biological hunger allows us to learn to satisfy only the natural one. The other fundamental step is to observe without judgment the emotions that precede emotional eating, in order to welcome them, accept them and increase the awareness of one’s own emotional states.

Recent studies show that mindfulness- based interventions can be effective in reducing nervous hunger . When there are recurrent episodes of binge eating (accompanied by a feeling of loss of control) triggered by some emotional events, it is necessary to intervene with specific evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-E) in order to effectively treat the present eating disorder


by Abdullah Sam
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