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The Science of ‘Hangry’: What It Really Means & How To Deal With It

We all know how it happens. We get busy. And we forget to eat. In the mornings, sometimes our focus is getting the kids out the door for school. At the office, we may be working away on a project only to look up and realize it’s 3 pm and we never had lunch. I know because it happens to me.

At these times, some of us are vulnerable to a very real feeling – hanger or being hangry. This term is a portmanteau of the words “hungry” and “angry,” and believe you me, it’s legit.

Has anyone ever snapped at you, only to apologize later and say they had missed lunch? Have you ever lost your cool for the same reason? If so, this doesn’t mean you’re a hothead, it means you were hangry. The long and short of it is that when we’re hungry, we more easily become agitated and short-tempered. And it’s not just in our minds; there are things going on in our body during these moments. Scientists have broken it down by looking at nature versus nurture and physiology.

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Hangry Nature

Some people get hangrier than others, and some don’t get hangry at all. It all boils down to our genetic makeup and something called neuropeptide Y.

Both hunger and anger are linked to common genes. One of these genes is responsible for producing our friend neuropeptide Y, which is a natural chemical released into our brains when we’re hungry. It stimulates our brains’ receptors to signal that we need to eat. One of these such receptors is called the Y1 receptor.

Interestingly, neuropeptide Y and the Y1 receptor are also responsible for regulating our anger or aggression responses. From a gene standpoint, folks who have high levels of neuropeptide Y in their cerebrospinal fluid tend to show higher levels of impulse aggression. It’s in their DNA.

The Physiology of Hangry

Here’s a simple overview of how food produces energy in our bodies. Proteins, carbohydrates and fats in our food are digested into simple sugars (like glucose), free fatty acids and amino acids. Our bodies need these little nutrients to keep chugging along, so they are passed into our bloodstreams and sent off to our organs and tissues.

As the time since your last meal increases, the amount of nutrients in your body begin to decrease. Glucose is vitally and particularly important for our brains. You’ve probably noticed a correlation between how hungry you are and how well you are able to concentrate. This is all because of glucose levels. So, if the brain senses a shortage of glucose, it will perceive it as a life-threatening situation!

And our concentration isn’t the only thing that suffers as glucose levels wane. Emotionally, we are less “on guard.” It’s more likely that we won’t be in control of our responses to others when these levels are down, leading to saying things we wouldn’t normally say or becoming agitated and snapping.

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A Few More Words on Glucose

Have you ever heard of the glucose counter-regulatory response? Well, you have now. Here’s what it means: when your blood-glucose levels are low, the brain sends out messages to your organs instructing them to synthesize and release hormones that increase glucose in the bloodstream.

There are four main glucose counter-regulatory hormones that are produced in this process. We are concerned with only two – cortisol and epinephrine (aka adrenaline).

Most of us know that adrenaline is the chemical behind the fight or flight response. Cortisol is also a culprit; it’s a sister stress hormone to adrenaline. So, imagine your body being flooded with these kick-starter hormones when you’re hungry. No wonder you snapped at someone for asking to borrow your stapler.

Don’t Fall Into The Hanger Trap

We all want to be nice. At least most of the time. So, let’s talk about how to avoid the hanger trap.

When you’ve entered the red zone of hunger, you may be tempted to scarf down a quick snack food, like potato chips or a chocolate bar. Avoid this temptation. Foods like these are like a rollercoaster – they create steep rises in blood-glucose levels that quickly come crashing down – and can ultimately leave you even hangrier.

Do a body good and eat nutrient-rich, natural foods that help satisfy hunger over the long-haul. For a quick bite, think of having a handful of protein- and healthy fat-rich nuts, for example. Oh, and make sure to check in with your body throughout the day. While we can’t always eat like clockwork during our busiest days, we can take our hangry temperature, and not deal with difficult situations when we’re in the red. Instead, eat, breathe and pause. Then take on the rest of your day with fresh eyes and a full stomach.

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