It’s been a little while since you’ve eaten, and any obvious signals of hunger have long passed. Focus wanes, you feel light-headed, and anything your partner/colleague/checkout assistant says is by far the most irritating words to be uttered on planet earth (…though you don’t really know why).
Then you chomp a chocolate biccie, and all is right with the world again!
That, my friends, is a case of hangry – a phenomenon of being both hungry and angry.
Some people experience hanrgy worse, or more rapidly, than others. If you haven’t been thrown into the depths of foggy brained, irrational hangry, you will likely know someone who has and with a bite to eat, a normal person returns.
So, what is hanger?
The combined experience of being hungry and angry is often due to low blood glucose levels (hypoglycaemia). Our brains, you see, are primarily dependent on the simple sugar glucose to function, and low blood glucose is a way in which neurons ‘sense’ hunger.
When we experience hypoglycaemia, all manner of activity begins to boost levels in order to keep cellular function keeping-on. This includes the release of growth hormone, glucagon, and stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol.
In addition, acting civilly (a.k.a. having some self-control over behaviour) is taxing on the brain, requiring a fair amount of glucose. If your food tank is running low, social inhibitions begin to dissipate as stress hormones rise and your brain encourages you to act aggressive/grumpy/cranky in order to get it some damn food!1
You see, a chemical released in the brain when you are hungry – neuropeptide Y – increases appetite, and also regulates anger. This is likely a survival mechanism to fight for your food (and you’ll be preoccupied ’til that need is met).
Hangry or hypoglycaemia doesn’t always present with anger, though. For some, there is increased anxiety, feeling shaky, fatigue, or flailing focus, among other manifestations.
How to avoid the hangry
What we aren’t saying here is reach for a spoonful of sugar to boost blood glucose and keep the hangries at bay. Quite the opposite!
Often when one is hangry one may reach for the quick sugar fix from a Mars bar, bag of Skittles, or some other sugary snack. Sure, there is momentary relief. But without nutrient dense real food, you are heading for a blood sugar crash, and the low blood sugar/hangry cycle begins again.
Also, consider the ramifications of stress hormone production as a result of the blood glucose highs and lows, which are produced to try and maintain some balance of glucose levels in the blood.
Higher circulating stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, makes it difficult for the body to get good quality sleep. Cortisol is an antagonist to the sleep-inducing neurotransmitter melatonin. And low sleep can lead to poor focus and cognition, mood and immune dysfunction, and poorer food choice (especially for the sweet stuff).
Focus on enjoying mostly nutrient dense real whole foods. A good breakfast and eating regularly (say every four hours) can help. Ensure you include healthy fats, protein, and fibre as these offer slow release energy, help stabilise blood glucose, and keep you powering on.
Think eggs, avocado and leafy greens or whole oats, plain yoghurt, berries and seeds for breakfast, and sliced apple with nut butter, some good quality cheese, a hard-boiled egg, or plain yoghurt and berries for snacks.
And if you need quick access to some naturally occurring sugar (lest you do something you regret), eat a piece of fruit. Mother Nature’s perfect pick-me-up.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)
- DeWall, CN, Deckman, T, Gailliot, MT, & Bushman, BJ 2011, ‘Sweetened blood cools hot tempers: physiological self-control and aggression’, Aggressive Behavior, vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 73-80.