What’s the connection between having a broken heart and totally losing your appetite? A couples therapist and neurologist explain.
This article originally appeared in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL.
Whenever you see someone with red, swollen, and tearful eyes, it's either the beginning of spring and they forgot to take their allergy meds, or their relationship recently ended. Facebook—which creepily monitors our every move, including any changes in our relationship status—conducted some research and found that most relationships end in the springtime. The volume of breakups hits its approximate peak right now, in mid-May.
If you think about it, it's really not that surprising. In winter, we love to curl up next to someone while binging on the latest Netflix offerings, but we long to break free as soon as the sun comes out again. This phenomenon is called "cuffing season": during the cold months, people prefer to "cuff" themselves to someone else in order to get through chilly winter days. When the weather gets better, they're just as eager to remove those self-imposed chains.
If you're the one who initiated the breakup, you're usually A-OK. But when you're on the other end of it and would've preferred to stay cuffed a little bit (or a lot) longer, it's much more difficult.
A broken heart is an all-consuming, awful feeling, and it has an effect on the way you eat. I recently witnessed this firsthand: my coworker didn't eat for a full week after her boyfriend dumped her. "I want to," she told me, "but it seems physically impossible, as if there are two fat sumo wrestlers fighting each other in the pit of my stomach." One week later, she pulled a complete 180°: The contents of her bag were limited exclusively to chocolate bars and other kinds of candy. She also incessantly sang songs by Adele.
We may never always know why love ends, but I wanted to understand the bizarre effects a broken heart has on our appetites.
First, I got in touch with Gert ter Horst, Professor of neurobiology and Director of the Neuroimaging Center at the University Hospital in the city of Groningen. He told me that we definitely respond to heartbreak in a physical way. "Loss of love creates quite a bit of stress," he said. "So, all the responses that go along with long-term stress manifest themselves after heartbreak. Think about a higher heart rate, and increased levels of cortisol and adrenaline." This, in turn, leads to both sleepless nights, and a stomach that rumbles but simultaneously rejects food."
"We see something similar [happening] with activities like cycling and running," ter Horst added. "Cyclists need to eat a lot, but it's difficult for them [to do so]. They physically can't. Similar to being in a stressful situation, the level of adrenaline and heart rate both go up during excessive activity. Because of that, it's almost impossible to get food down your throat."
Not being able to eat after heartbreak is caused by the "fight" mode your body enters after the breakup, according to ter Horst. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in, which is the system that allows your body to respond quickly in the event of an emergency. Your pupils dilate, the pulmonary alveoli widen, and your heart starts to beat faster. Long story short: You're going into survival mode. Having a bite to eat becomes a secondary concern. To help out, the body has found a way to suppress the inevitable hunger pangs: There's fewer constrictions and relaxations of the muscles in your stomach and bowels, which consequently slows down the digestion of food.
Aside from all the physical responses to stress, your emotions also run wild. Being sad, depressed, or angry has an immediate effect on your appetite and the way you experience flavor. "The areas of the brain in charge of emotions and emotional pain also [regulate] how we eat, our need for food, and what we taste", explains ter Horst. "The areas that take care of these functions are close together, and can influence one another." If you suddenly can't stand your favorite food right after your lover has trampled all over your heart, this might explain why.
According to ter Horst, people often end up consuming fatty foods as soon as their appetite comes back. You'll have pizza much more frequently than the people around you, and breakfast, lunch, and dinner are start becoming heavier than they usually are. The reason? You start craving foods higher in calories. "Because you're in a state of stress, you need more calories. That makes it easier to choose junk food over healthier foods."
Leonoor van der Sloot, EFT (Emotional Freedom Therapy) counselor who works in the city of Lelystad, corroborates our quest for fatty foods from a psychological perspective. "When you fall in love, a lot of oxytocin is released. That makes you feel safe. When the relationship ends, the oxytocin levels suddenly plummet. So then there's a lack of it, and your body basically has to wean itself off, which might make you feel depressed and sullen. Some people try to get those levels back up by eating foods that make them happy, like chocolate. Emotional eaters are especially prone to binging on Ben & Jerry's."
That explains my coworker's behavior. A broken heart messes with you internally—your hormone levels go on a rollercoaster ride—and then you want to eat either nothing or inhale candy bar after candy bar.
Making things even more complicated—because obviously it's not difficult enough as is—are the differences between how men and women process heartbreak. "Women suffer much more from somatic complaints like stomach and headaches compared to men," ter Horst explained. And those are exactly the kinds of symptoms that influence the way we eat.
It hasn't been determined what causes women to suffer from an empty stomach and belly aches so much more than men. But ter Horst speculates that "The female brain has a different way of coping with stress versus the male brain." Still, both ter Horst and van der Sloot agree that the way the body responds after the end of a relationship also varies from person to person, and it really depends on whether or not you were the one who initiated the breakup.
So if you're currently swaddled up in a blanket, surrounded by used tissues, empty pizza boxes, and candy wrappers while trying to stop yourself from scrolling through your ex's Facebook timeline again, take heart: That's a completely normal reaction.