Do you get “hangry”? Have you ever snapped at someone or felt short of patience because it’s been too long since you’ve eaten?
It doesn’t happen to everyone or all the time, but it does occur in some people often enough for scientists to want to investigate the phenomenon.
We all know our bodies need food in order to operate, but our brains are really particular about how often we eat – and they can rebel when we don’t pay enough attention to our food intake.
When you eat, all the nutrients, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are digested and broken down into macromolecules such as simple sugars, amino acids, and fatty acids.
After years of research into how food breaks down in the body, scientists now think one of the simple sugars – glucose – holds one of the keys to “hanger.”
When you eat carbohydrates specifically, your body turns 100% of those into glucose pretty quickly (fats and proteins can also produce glucose, but it’s stored elsewhere in your body and the process is slower). So after eating, your glucose levels are high. That also means that over time, those levels will drop as they scurry off to do their jobs all around your body.
If it’s been hours since you’ve eaten, your blood glucose levels start to drop and the organ most affected by this is your brain. In fact, your brain has evolved to treat a drop in glucose as a life-threatening situation.
When you’re brain isn’t functioning at its best, it can be hard to concentrate as well as tolerate people. We can’t find words, we forget things, and we’re short and snippy with those around us. We’re hangry.
And when we’re in negative situations (being interrupted, having too much to do, etc.), studies show that our “hanger” gets even worse.
But there’s another level to this brain backlash.
Because your body is constantly trying to keep you alive, it has ways of finding the nutrients it needs in other places. When your blood glucose levels drop, your brain sends signals to your other organs, like your liver, to create and release hormones that free up more glucose.
Here’s the problem – the result isn’t just a nice dose of glucose to satiate your brain until snack time. Two of the hormones delivering these messages – adrenaline and cortisol – are stress hormones. These are associated with the body’s “fight or flight” response. So now we’re on edge.
And that’s not all. Scientists also believe genetics are involved in the “hanger” response since hunger and anger might be controlled by the same gene.
Of course, there are a lot of genes involved in these reactions, but they’ve identified one that produces a chemical called neuropeptide Y, which your brain releases when it’s hungry. This chemical acts on a receptor in the brain called the Y1 receptor. The same chemical and receptor are also linked to anger and aggression.
While there’s a biochemical explanation for your “hanger,” this doesn’t entirely excuse you. There’s still some self-control involved.
Hungry people are more prone to anger, but they don’t have to express it. Culture and psychology are the factors influencing how we behave as a result of our body’s backlash.
Sorry to burst your bubble with a scientific explanation of how you get angry when you get hungry only to inform you that you can still chill the heck out and treat people nicely with some self-control.
In the end, your best bet is to follow the advice nutritionists have been giving for decades – eat more small meals.
And while carbs turning into glucose immediately might seem like an invitation to snack on junk food, you don’t need a scientist to tell you at this point that things like chips and candy give you the wrong kind of glucose rush. In fact, they lead to a crash much more quickly.
Junk food is probably the worst thing you can eat if you know you won’t get another meal in the next few hours.
So there it is, an explanation – but with a solution we’ve known all along.
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