We have all been there. Feeling extra irritable, unable to focus, and getting easily frustrated… maybe you didn’t get enough sleep, maybe something didn’t go like you wanted it to, or maybe you’re just hangry…
For those who don’t know what I am talking about or are unfamiliar with the term, being hangry refers to a feeling or showing of anger due to hunger.
But is hangry a real emotion, or is it just an excuse?
Yes, Hanger is a Real Emotion
As it turns out, being hangry is as real of an emotion as being happy or sad. Along with this, being hangry is often accompanied by headaches, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.
This emotion is, in fact, so common the term has been added to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, as, “irritable or angry because of hunger.”
There are several theories to explain why so many of us feel this way after skipping a meal. When you think about it, it makes sense that our bodies would react this way to feelings of hunger. Our bodies require energy to function. However, when we are not nourishing ourselves by taking in the required calories, we begin to experience various side effects, including the above-mentioned anger or irritability.
Why Do You Feel Hangry?
Several theories try to explain why people express the feelings of hanger. A handful of these theories fall under the evolutionary theory, such as the competitive theory. The competitive theory suggests that, historically, when food resources and availability is low, aggression becomes greater as a strategy to gain access to food.
Another theory, known as affect-as-information theory, suggests that “your mood can temporarily shape how you see the world. In this way, when you’re hungry, you may view things in a more negative light than when you’re not.” This theory further suggests hunger only becomes relevant in negative situations because hunger itself produces unpleasant feelings—making it easier to mistake the cause of those feelings to be the negative things around you, rather than your hunger.
Regardless of the proposed theories, there is also biological science to further support the core of the emotion. Research has shown that hunger and mood are connected through their activation of many of the same systems and hormones in the body.
Hanger and Biology
Hunger is activated by several hormones, one being ghrelin. Ghrelin, which is produced in the stomach, can stimulate feelings of anxiety as well as appetite. These feelings then act as motivators for you to begin seeking out food. Once you eat, the negative feelings subside. However, if you go on to ignore these natural signals, you can cause further disruption to the hormones and reactions in your body.
Likewise, when we go without eating for prolonged periods, our blood sugar begins to drop. Low blood sugar can cause the release of hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are associated with feelings of stress, and most commonly, for the fight or flight reaction.
As we know, the fight or flight reaction is relevant in stressful or dangerous situations. In these situations, the body responds by either “fighting,” implying that when danger comes, we will face it straight in the face and start swinging, or “flying,” meaning we will most likely run the opposite direction when faced with danger.
This stress response also alters the ability of the prefrontal cortex to function properly. The prefrontal cortex is involved in high-order executive function, regulation of limbic reward regions, and the inhibition of impulsive behaviors. So, when you’re hungry, you are more likely to make more impulsive decisions, which can affect the way you behave and what you choose to eat.
If you then go on to ignore the cues your body is giving you through the changes in hormones, your body may begin to panic and go naturally into defense mode. This is the point when hanger symptoms will be the strongest, as a result of Neuropeptide Y.
Research has found that Neuropeptide Y has been linked to aggressive behavior. Even more, spikes in Neuropeptide Y can generate cravings for quickly digestible carbohydrates all while delaying feelings of satiety. Consequently, once this point of hanger is achieved, most of us find ourselves with mountainous appetites, which can result in overeating.
Nevertheless, regardless of the signals our bodies give, many of us believe we are immune to experiencing hanger or can fight off the signs better than others. Yet the truth of the matter is, we are all susceptible to developing the hunger-driven feelings of impatience and annoyance.
Generally, children are known for being more susceptible to sensing and acting out on these emotions when going without food. However, adults can suffer from these episodes of hanger as well. In fact, men are potentially more prone to becoming hangry as they have more neuropeptide receptors; women, on the other hand, can become more vulnerable to hanger depending on fluctuations in estrogen.
Even more, the emotions of hanger not only affect how you feel, but it can also affect the ones around you. One study tested how the feelings of hunger impacted negative feelings. Researchers found that when blood sugar levels were low, participants were more likely to lash out to their loved ones.
How Can You Avoid Going from Hungry to Hangry?
One obvious solution to stop hanger in its tracks is to keep your emotions in check. Those who stay more in tune with their feelings are better able to control them. Interestingly, studies suggest that those who are more mindful of their emotions were less likely to experience feelings of hanger. Even if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t eat right away, realizing you are hungry can help you keep cool and collected.
Step 1: Eat a balanced breakfast. Breakfast has been coined as the most important meal of the day, and if you are going to have a morning meal, make sure you are eating something that will keep you going until your next meal or snack. Choosing to eat a breakfast that is high in sugar and carbs can cause a spike in blood sugar followed by a sudden crash. This, in turn, leaves us feeling hungry long before our next meal. Similarly, when we let our hunger go, we become impulsive and will eat anything we can get ahold of. This typically comes in the form of highly processed foods. If we can identify that we are hungry earlier, we’re more likely to choose healthier, more sustainable food options, which will keep us full and energized.
Step 2: Take care of yourself. It is important to take time to make sure you are taken care of. When the day gets busy, it is easy to forget about yourself and skip eating during your normal mealtimes. But it is essential to pay attention to your needs throughout the day. If you feel you are hungry, don’t try to push yourself to power through it. Instead, learn to recognize your own hunger cues and take a break to respond to them appropriately. Although most of us don’t intentionally neglect the signals from our bodies, hanger can sneak up on you, so if you find yourself becoming hangry, try to avoid any mentally or emotionally trying tasks until you’ve refueled. Taking a break to fuel up will leave you in a better place to think more clearly.