Have you ever caught yourself snapping at a friend or loved one and then magically found yourself feeling apologetic and guilty after consuming a small snack? Do you feel hungry and angry simultaneously but don’t know if you should use that trendy term to describe the feeling?
Go ahead because “hanger” is real. We’re not joking! There’s research to back up this experience that’s defined as a combination of hunger and anger. This combination is often prompted by intense feelings of hunger.
Not everyone gets hangry, but if you’ve ever had hunger pangs of any kind, you know how easy it can be for hunger to affect your moods. And whether you’ve experienced this yourself or been at the receiving end of a hunger-fueled temper tantrum, you may wonder why this happens and if there’s a scientific cause behind this phenomenon.
The Science Behind “Hanger” [Hungry Anger]—What’s Really Happening
Your blood sugar (or glucose) levels will dip when you haven’t eaten for some time. When this happens, your body releases hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and adrenaline is responsible for your body’s flight or fight response.
When you haven’t eaten for a while and begin to feel hungry, these hormones are released into your bloodstream to rebalance your blood sugar levels. With the release of these hormones, some people may experience anger, irritability, and sometimes even aggression.
The lower your blood sugar levels, the hungrier you may feel, and the more hormones are released. It’s basically your body’s way of ensuring that you get food to restore your blood sugar levels when you need it. Basically, the hanger you feel is a biochemical reaction caused by the release of hunger hormones.
Why Am I Angry Before I am Hungry?
Cortisol affects everyone differently. Some people react with more aggression than others to the stress hormone, which may explain the ‘anger’ part of being hangry. Additionally, low blood sugar can interfere with brain function. If this happens, you may find it harder to control impulsive reactions and emotions.
The Link Between Our Brains and Our Stomachs
Hunger is not only controlled by your blood sugar levels, the fullness of your stomach, and hormone levels but also by your hypothalamus. What’s a hypothalamus? It’s the part of your brain that controls your body temperature, pituitary gland, autonomic nervous system functions, and sleep cycles.
Your vagus nerve has also been linked to feelings of hunger. The vagus nerve is responsible for letting your brain know that you feel full, and it’s linked with your heart, digestive system, and lungs. This nerve connects to your brain, travels down your neck, connects to your heart, lungs, esophagus, and digestive tract.
It also regulates inflammatory responses in the body and is responsible for your relaxation response. So, when you receive signals from your hormones that cause stress or agitation, this is responsible for calming you down. Your vagus nerve is stimulated when your body relaxes. So, reducing stress and showing some love to our vagus nerve may be a great way to begin curbing hunger.
Other Health Consequences Associated with Hunger
- Mood Swings
- Confusion, or an inability to concentrate
- Nausea & stomach upset
Can Hanger Be Genetic?
Why is it that some people feel hangry, and others don’t? The leptin gene, or the LEP gene, is likely responsible for this. Leptin is found on the hypothalamus and is responsible for your body’s fat storage.
Seven identified disorders linked to the LEP gene are connected to excessive hunger, weight gain, and reduced hormone production. So the next time you feel hangry, you could actually blame it on your genes!
6 Ways You Can Prevent Hanger
While anger is a biochemical reaction, there are things you can do to prevent anger from bubbling up whenever you need a bite to eat. Here are a few ways to stop being so hangry:
Avoid eating an excess amount (remember - what this amount looks like can vary depending on your individual needs) of refined carbs, especially on their own without additional protein or healthy fat.
When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into sugar which will then cause your blood sugar levels to rise. Refined carbohydrates lack fiber, leaving your body to break them down into sugar much faster than when you balance your carbs with fiber and other macronutrients.
If you do not balance your meal with other nutrients, blood glucose levels will quickly drop, as your insulin begins to react to the spike. Resulting in you feeling hungry—or maybe even hangry—again.
Protein is a crucial part of our diet for supporting stable blood sugars. Protein can reduce cravings and leave you feeling fuller for longer than other foods like carbohydrates. It stimulates the production of the hormones that make us feel full and reduces the release of cortisol and adrenaline.
Healthy fats are also an essential part of a healthy diet. They help with digestion and stimulate the release of hormones, which tell your brain when you’re full. Some conditions such as IBS or IBD may cause your body to react differently to fats, so be sure to consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian before making dietary changes if you have pre-existing conditions.
Consuming caffeine on an empty stomach may lead to feelings of stress and anxiety for some people. It may also leave you feeling even more hungry than you would without drinking it. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, try to moderate consumption.
Drink your morning coffee alongside breakfast, and if you need an afternoon pick-me-up, make sure to pair it with a small snack.
Planning your meals and snacks throughout the day can help you avoid feeling hangry by ensuring that your glucose levels never drop too low.
Planning your food intake may also help you stick to healthier food options instead of reaching for junk food when you’re too busy to make a meal but too hungry to wait.
Plan your meals in advance if you suspect your schedule will be erratic or you’re usually busy throughout the day. Pack healthy, easy-to-eat choices so that you don’t become hangry when you miss a meal.
It can be helpful to note how your body feels throughout the day, especially when it comes to things like hunger. Try to remember how you feel before your hunger turns to hanger.
A great way to begin noting this is by using the Hunger-Satiety Scale. Try to eat when you hit level five, and definitely by number four. Once you hit the fourth level, you’re leaving yourself open to hanger!
What You Should Eat If You are Hangry
Here are some foods and snacks to eat when you are on the go and begin feeling hangry that will help you to sustain feelings of fullness:
- Nuts & seeds
- Fresh fruits
- Raw vegetables with a healthy dip
- Oatmeal (cold or warm)
- Smoothies made with whole fruits and vegetables
Engage with Your Blood Glucose Levels with Nutrisense
Your blood sugar levels can significantly impact how your body feels and functions. That’s why stable blood glucose levels can be an important factor in supporting overall wellbeing.
With Nutrisense, you’ll be able to track your blood glucose levels over time using a CGM, so you can make lifestyle choices that support healthy living.
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Natalie received her degree in Dietetics from Mansfield University and a Master’s in Clinical Nutrition from the University at Buffalo. Her career has included nutrition education and program development in her local community, adjunct faculty at several collegiate institutions, and clinical nutrition in both inpatient and outpatient settings.