Many of us are all too fa¬miliar of the sensation of being “hangry” (hungry and angry)—the short fuse that is so easily set off when we’ve gone too long without a meal or snack. In this weary state, otherwise inconsequen¬tial upsets cause us to snap. We may feel anxious, frustrated, and overwhelmed for no rational reason.
You are not alone if you occasionally (or often) find yourself beset by “hanger.” You may take comfort in knowing that there’s a legitimate physiological reason for this desperate state—and that you can learn how to manage and avoid those hangry moments.
When you eat, your body processes nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and digests them into glucose, ami¬no acids, and fatty acids. They can then be passed through your bloodstream to other parts of your body, where they are used for energy.
This process generally works well—un¬til you go too long without refueling and your nutrient stores drop. Just like your muscles and other organs, your brain relies on nutrients to function properly. Specifically, your brain uses one nutrient: glucose. So, when glucose levels drop, your brain is deprived of fuel and goes into panic mode. This leads to hanger or a variety of challenges to your think¬ing, decision-making skills, patience, and common sense.
As if glucose depletion isn’t enough, your body also has a hormonal response that contributes to hanger: It works to protect the brain by recruiting other or¬gans to help release more glucose into the bloodstream. These hormones—namely glucagon, adrenaline, and cor¬tisol—help get needed glucose to your brain, but two of them (adrenaline and
cortisol) are stress, or fight-or-flight, hor¬mones. This explains the short fuse you can feel when you haven’t eaten enough.
We may joke about feeling hangry at times, but this state of low glucose and the irritation and outrage it can trigger is such a common issue that researchers have studied how hanger affects our per¬sonal relationships. A recent study was based on the theory that people can be more likely to resort to aggression and even violence when they lose self-control due to low glucose levels.
The researchers followed married couples for 21 days and measured their glucose levels as well as aggressive im¬pulses toward each other. To measure aggressive impulses, the researchers had participants stick between 0 to 51 pins in a voodoo doll (0 for no ag¬gression and 51 for the highest level of aggression). They also had partners compete against each other in complet¬ing set tasks. When one spouse lost, the other was able to blast him or her with a loud noise. This measured aggression.
Not surprisingly (and as anyone who has ever been hangry would have guessed), participants with the lowest blood glucose levels tended to show more aggression toward their respective partners. They both stuck more pins in the voodoo dolls and blasted the noise at a high intensity and for a longer du¬ration.
So what’s the best strategy for cop¬ing with hanger? Avoid getting too hun¬gry in the first place. Eat well-balanced meals with an emphasis on whole foods. Remember that the quick blood sugar spike that processed foods can provide will likely lead to an even faster crash, leaving you hangrier than before. If you tend to get hungry between meals, plan to have healthy snacks available. Your doctor or a registered dietitian can help you make smart choices to sustain your energy and blood glucose levels.
Salis, A. “The Science of ‘Hangry’”: Why Some Peo¬ple Get Grumpy When They’re Hungry.” CNN.com. Available at: . Accessed October 14, 2015.
Bushman BJ, Dewall CN, Pond RS Jr, Hanus MD. Low glucose relates to greater aggression in mar¬ried couples. Proceedings of the National Acade¬my of Sciences. 2014;111(17):6254-57.