We’ve all been there – it’s been a busy day and you’ve skipped lunch. It’s been hours since you last ate anything. You get home, your partner says something mildly provocative and… BAM! You’re a full-blown rage monster.
Eventually, you grab a bite to eat, have a moment to decompress, and you realize “Whoa! I really overreacted there!”
The term “getting hangry” (a mixture of hungry and angry) has been around for a few years now and has quickly been adopted into our popular lexicon for its rather accurate description of a condition that most of us have encountered at some point in our lives. Whether it’s you personally, or someone you know, cheerful dispositions tend to fade quickly in the face of prolonged hunger. Anecdotally, there’s ample evidence to support the existence of “hangriness” but what does science have to say about it?
One of the most widely-discussed studies about hunger and anger had over 100 couples measure their blood glucose levels regularly over 21 days. Couples were also provided with individual voodoo dolls to represent their partner and 51 pins, and were instructed to stick the doll with any number of pins each night before bed, based on how upset they were feeling with their partner.
After three weeks, the couples were brought in for a competitive, buzzer-beating exercise where the winner could blast the loser with a loud noise in their headphones.
Researchers found that the lower the blood glucose levels of the participant, the more pins they stuck into the voodoo doll. These individuals also chose to blast their partner with a longer, louder noise.
While this certainly isn’t to say that having a snack could lessen cases of domestic violence, it does offer some food for thought (no pun intended). At the very least, Dr. Brad Bushman – lead researcher for that study – advises that if you’re about to have an unpleasant talk with your partner, it’s best to do it over a meal so that any negative emotions aren’t made even worse by hunger!
At the biological level, we know that getting hungry causes a dip in blood glucose. This prompts the body to release epinephrine and cortisol in an attempt to raise those glucose levels back up, and also help signal the body that it’s time to get some food ASAP. Unfortunately, they’re also the hormones that are associated with stress and irritability. The lower your blood sugar goes, the hangrier you become.
Blood glucose is also very important when it comes to what’s going on in your head when you get hangry. The limbic system (sometimes called the “reptile brain”) is the part of your brain associated with basic, primitive drives like hunger, fear, anger, and anxiety. It creates automatic responses to everything, most of which are filtered out by our higher brain before you can act on them.
In a low blood glucose environment, however, the higher brain doesn’t function as efficiently. This breakdown in higher-level functions results in a lowered ability to exercise self-restraint and moderate your behavior. The limbic brain suddenly finds itself in the driver’s seat, and you become the proverbial rage monster.
The interesting thing about the brain is that while certain things tend to happen in certain places, the whole brain is interconnected. When neurons fire off in one area, they also create a ripple effect of activity within their neighbors. Left unaddressed over enough time, and that gentle ripple turns into a wave. In the case of hunger, its neighboring neurons all have to do with aggression and irritability.
Thanks to that proximity, when your hunger gets serious your brain doesn’t politely say “Hey bud, you should probably eat,” it says “If you don’t get some food this minute, s*** is about to get REAL!”
So, to recap: when you get hungry and stay hungry, the body starts producing hormones that stress you out. Simultaneously, your brain’s areas for anger start getting more and more excitable due to their sheer proximity to the hunger area, which is lighting up like a switchboard.
Meanwhile, your higher brain – the one that stops you from yelling at people all day – is getting weaker and less able to filter the anger from your thoughts.
Stay hungry for long enough and the lower brain is able to wrangle control, which, as we mentioned earlier, is when s*** gets real.
So what’s the best way to avoid getting hangry? Regularly scheduled meals and snacks are the obvious answers. The body thrives on routine, and staying committed to eating enough throughout the day will work wonders for your overall physical and mental health. If you’ve already crossed that line, however, it’s important to be smart with your choices.
While you’ll be craving highly sweet snacks to instantly fix your blood sugar, these will send you crashing back to Grumpsville just as quickly. Try to incorporate some protein in your snacks to prevent sugar spikes. Nuts and dried fruit are an ideal example of a great snack.
It also helps to stop and think about your emotions in the heat of the moment. Research has shown that when hangry participants were asked to consciously think about their feelings, taking stock of their emotional states (and why they might be feeling that way) caused their anger to greatly subside by the time they finished.
Next time you find yourself getting crankier than usual, take a minute to think about whether you might just be hungry – chances are you just need a little snack!