The science ‘hangry,’ why some people get grumpy when they’re hungry

The science of ‘hangry,’ or why some people get grumpy when they’re hungry

12:59 PM, 21st July 2015
The science of ‘hangry,’ or why some people get grumpy when they’re hungry
A representation as to how chemicals in the brain can make you hungry and hangry.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: Have you ever snapped angrily at someone when you were hungry? Or has someone snapped angrily at you when they were hungry? If so, you’ve experienced “hangry” (an amalgam of hungry and angry) - the phenomenon whereby some people get grumpy and short-tempered when they’re overdue for a feed.

But where does hanger come from? The answer lies in some of the processes that happen inside your body when it needs food.

The carbohydrates, proteins and fats in everything you eat are digested into simple sugars (such as glucose), amino acids and free fatty acids. These nutrients pass into your bloodstream from where they are distributed to your organs and tissues and used for energy. When the blood-glucose levels fall far enough in the bloodstream, the brain will perceive it as a life-threatening situation as it is critically dependent on glucose to do its job.

You’ve probably already noticed this dependence your brain has on glucose; simple things can become difficult. You may find it hard to concentrate or may make silly mistakes. Or you might have noticed that your words become muddled or slurred. Another thing that can become more difficult when you’re hungry is behaving within socially acceptable norms, such as not snapping at people.

Besides a drop in blood-glucose concentrations, another reason people can become hangry is the glucose counter-regulatory response.

When blood-glucose levels drop to a certain threshold, your brain sends instructions to several organs in your body to synthesize and release hormones that increase the amount of glucose in your bloodstream.

The four main glucose counter-regulatory hormones are: growth hormone from the pituitary gland situated deep in the brain; glucagon from the pancreas; and adrenaline, which is sometimes called epinephrine, and cortisol, which are both from the adrenal glands. These latter two glucose counter-regulatory hormones are stress hormones that are released into your bloodstream in all sorts of stressful situations, not just when you experience the physical stress of low blood-glucose levels.

Just as you might easily shout out in anger at someone during the “fight or flight” response, the flood of adrenaline you get during the glucose counter-regulatory response can promote a similar response.

Another reason hunger is linked to anger is that both are controlled by common genes. The product of one such gene is neuropeptide Y, a natural brain chemical released into the brain when you are hungry. It stimulates voracious feeding behaviours by acting on a variety of receptors in the brain, including one called the Y1 receptor.

Besides acting in the brain to control hunger, neuropeptide Y and the Y1 receptor also regulate anger or aggression. In keeping with this, people with high levels of neuropeptide Y in their cerebrospinal fluid also tend to show high levels of impulse aggression.

As you can see, there are several pathways that can make you prone to anger when you’re hungry. Hanger is undoubtedly a survival mechanism that has served humans and other animals well.

The easiest way to handle hanger is to eat something before you get too hungry. While you may hanker for quick-fix foods, such as chocolate and potato chips, when you’re in the throes of hanger, junk foods generally induce large rises in blood-glucose levels that come crashing down fast.

Ultimately, they may leave you feeling hangrier. So think nutrient-rich, natural foods that help satisfy hunger for as long as possible, without excess kilojoules.

Also remember that, with time, your glucose counter-regulatory response will kick in and your blood-glucose levels will stabilize. Also, when you go without food, your body starts breaking down its own fat stores for energy, some of which are converted by your body into ketones, a product of fat metabolism. Ketones are thought to help keep your hunger under control because your brain can use ketones in place of glucose for fuel.

A final - and very civilized - way of handling hanger is to suggest that difficult situations be dealt with after food, not before!

© The Conversation Media Group News

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