Many of us have experienced the overwhelming grouchiness that takes over when we’ve gone too long without food. Turns out, there’s some science to explain why this happens.
The official definition of hanger is "a feeling or showing of anger due to hunger." As humans, we have the choice to listen to our hunger. Yet, in our busy and overbooked lives, we often choose to ignore this signal, waiting far too long to feed our empty stomachs. The body's response to being ignored is to cause an emotional reaction (like anxiety and stress) to prompt a reaction. And the longer the body is deprived, the greater the emotional response.
It’s important to realize that the stomach and brain are connected to one another, and part of the communication is related to signals of hunger and satiety. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found a correlation between hunger, feeling angry and having low blood sugar. Basically, when you’ve gone too long between meals, your blood sugar level drops, signaling the release of a cascade of hormones.
Ghrelin is a hormone produced in the stomach that stimulates feelings of hunger. It can also produce anxiety in the brain, which is where hanger starts. When you’re hungry, you're more more irritable and more aware of your emotions because it reinforces the drive to seek food and to satisfy nutrition needs. A release of ghrelin causes you to be hungry and should be the motivation for you to begin seeking out food. When you eat, ghrelin disappears and so does the anxiety. However, if this hunger signal is ignored, it can cause a disruption of other hormones in your body.
Cortisol and Adrenaline
A low blood sugar level also triggers the release of stress-related hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. As these two hormones increase, the body goes into a fight-or-flight response. From there, the effects of hanger are expressed mentally, emotionally and physically.
When you're hungry, your prefrontal cortex doesn’t function at a high capacity. This can affect personality, self-control, planning and even temporarily shut down long-term memory. Emotionally, your mind begins to feel anxiety and stress. This can lead you to lose patience and focus, or even act abnormally. Physically, your heart rate, blood pressure and respiration all increase.
If you continue to ignore the ghrelin and the spike in cortisol and adrenaline, your body will go into a panic mode and you will experience hanger in its full effects. At this point, the body releases neuropeptide Y, which has been found to make people behave more aggressively toward those around them. Additionally, this neuropeptide stimulates food intake with a preference for quickly digestible carbohydrates. Lastly, a release of neuropeptide Y increases your motivation to eat large amounts of food, while also delaying how long it takes for that food to make you feel satisfied. In a nutshell, hanger causes you to have a larger-than-normal appetite, especially for carbs, so you end up overeating.
Real-life Effects of Hanger
Example #1: One study that attracted attention a few years ago found that judges are less likely to set lenient sentences the closer it gets to lunch. Turns out, their hunger led to hanger, which impacted their decision-making skills.
Example #2: A classic study of married couples asked them to stick pins into “voodoo dolls” that represented their loved ones, to reflect how angry they felt toward them. They found that when people had lower blood sugar levels, the more pins they stuck into their dolls. Ouch!
How to Prevent Hanger
Listen for clues. If you notice yourself getting more irritable, hunger may be the cause. Take a break and find a snack that contributes to healthy eating. Most people should not go more than four to five hours between meals. This type of healthy eating pattern will help relieve your hunger and balance out your blood sugar levels to prevent riding the emotional roller-coaster of hanger.
Try to always keep snacks on hand that are travel-friendly, so you have them readily available. A snack should contain a blend of carbs, proteins and fats. Whole-grain carbs that are high in fiber (5 grams or more per serving) raise serotonin levels to give your blood sugar a quick boost, while the fiber keeps your stomach full. Proteins and fats are digested more slowly to give you staying power and keep you feeling full for longer. By having your own stash of healthy and fresh foods within reach, you’ll be less tempted to indulge in less-healthy fare that lack the nutrition your body craves.