Could your lack of appetite for breakfast be a sign of chronic stress?
We’re always told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but what if you’re just not hungry first thing in the morning? Your body could be trying to tell you something.
Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper, or so the saying goes. And there’s no doubt that a healthy, balanced breakfast can be a nutritional powerhouse: eating breakfast has been shown to improve concentration throughout the day, boost energy levels and kickstart metabolism, among other benefits.
Yet according to the Association of UK Dietitians, only two-thirds of Brits eat breakfast, with many of us simply not feeling hungry when we wake up. But should we be concerned by our lack of hunger in the mornings, or are some of us just built different?
It’s not uncommon not to fancy eating when you’ve just got up – we’re not all morning people, after all. Morning hunger levels will vary depending on a number of factors, from what and when you ate the night before to fluctuating hormone levels, alongside our unique biological make-up.
“Whether people feel hungry for breakfast or not is individual, but there can be trends within certain demographics and socioeconomic groups,” explains Natalie Burrows, a nutritional therapist and functional medicine health coach.
“People who tend to eat later in the day, for example in Mediterranean cultures, often have a much lighter or later breakfast. Especially if it’s a high protein or high-fat meal as these macronutrients can slow the emptying of food from the stomach, keeping you fuller for longer and resulting in lower hunger levels in the morning.”
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Chronic stress affects appetite
The main reason the experts believe we don’t feel hungry in the morning is lifestyle-led: stress.
“Waking up with no appetite could mean you’re running on cortisol, which acts as a stress hormone,” explains nutritional therapist Cara Rose. “When we are sleeping, our body is in an overnight fast where it has to utilise reserves of glucose stored in the liver, in order to maintain blood sugar balance. This only lasts up to around eight hours, and once these stores are used up, our adrenal glands will release hormones such as cortisol help manipulate blood sugar (by breaking down muscle) to keep us going.”
“Stress can delay or reduce appetite hormones, particularly if it’s chronic stress,” agrees Burrows. “Cortisol helps us get up and get going in the mornings, but ironically, chronic stress (where there has been a high demand for cortisol for a prolonged period of time) can lead to reduced cortisol production in the morning, which can impacts appetite and energy levels, leading to reduced appetite.”
“Reduced morning appetite can also be a sign of melatonin remaining at higher levels for a longer period of time,” explains Burrows. “Melatonin is our sleep hormone and it works on an alternative ‘shift pattern’ to cortisol. When we wake it can take one or two hours for melatonin to be at low enough levels for eating and drinking to feel good.”
Prone to nausea first thing? Melatonin is the culprit. “If you’ve ever had a glass of water first thing when you wake and felt nauseous, this will be because your body is still switching from melatonin dominant to cortisol dominant and waking up,” explains Burrows.
“This can be part of the natural sleep-wake cycle, but it can also be due to high-stress levels.”
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Is not feeling hungry in the morning really a problem?
Well, that depends. Provided you’re replenishing your body throughout the day, not necessarily. But there are other considerations to take into account.
“My question would be why are you not hungry for breakfast within the first two hours of being awake?” asks Burrows. “If it’s because you’re masking hunger by consuming coffee, this isn’t a great start to the day. Caffeine does not provide energy to the cells in our body; caffeine causes neural excitation in the brain, which stimulates the adrenal glands to release adrenaline – this provides a false boost of energy. I would recommend not having caffeine until after you’ve had breakfast to support the appropriate regulation of adrenaline and cortisol.
“If it’s a timing issue, and you’re rushing out the door with no time to eat or you feel that you’re still too sleepy until lunch then focusing on circadian rhythm can help. Get daylight within 30 minutes of waking and work on your routine at night so you’re getting enough sleep.”
And if you’re taking medication, you need to be extra alert to the impact of a late start. “Avoiding breakfast can be an issue if you need to take medication first thing in the morning that requires food to be consumed with it,” warns Burrows. “Delaying eating can also contribute to poorer blood sugar control later in the day.”
How to boost appetite in the mornings
Eat something small
According to the BDA, there’s no right or wrong time to eat breakfast, as long as you’re fuelling your body properly, and the experts agree that it’s not uncommon to lack an appetite first thing, but if you’re still not hungry once you’ve taken a shower and got ready for your day, it’s worth considering a nutrient-dense snack to kickstart your appetite, ideally within 90 minutes of waking, Rose advises.
Manage stress levels
If you think that stress is the root cause or if you’re feeling way too nauseous to eat, Rose suggests starting your day with warm water with fresh ginger and lemon to kickstart the liver function.
“If stress is part of the picture and a likely contributor then it’s important to work on ways to manage the stress and support your body to relax,” advises Burrows. “Starting with a small breakfast (hold the caffeine) and taking small steps into rebalancing the body’s nervous system can see your morning appetite return.”
Rose advocates a little morning zen to kickstart your day. “Take a minute to do a couple of rounds of box breathing (breathing in for four seconds, holding the breath for four seconds, breathing out for four seconds and holding the breath again for four seconds). This will help regulate cortisol and get you out of ‘fight or flight’ mode,” she suggests.
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It’s important to note that other factors might also be at play, from certain medications to pregnancy. Seek medical attention if your lack of appetite persists all day long or if you’re at all concerned.
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