The idea of being “hangry” (hungry + anger) sounds like fodder for pop culture and commercials. Yes, food is wonderful. Yes, skipping meals is frustrating. But can hunger be true source of anger? As things turn out, getting mad when you are hungry can and does happen. Science has found “hanger” has a biological basis, but the good news is, you can nip it in the bud. Here’s how.
The Brain-Glucose Connection
To understand how not eating can make you angry, it’s important to know how food is broken down in your body. Carbs, fats, and proteins are digested into more basic forms. These can range from amino acids to fatty acids to simple sugars, like glucose, or blood sugar.1
Blood sugar is the primary source of energy in the body, and the brain is the body’s biggest energy consumer. In fact, one-half of the sugar energy in the body goes to the brain.2 Blood glucose is directly tied to the brain’s major functions. These include thinking, memory, and learning.
When you skip meals, blood glucose levels begin to drop. As a result, when your blood sugar levels get low, you might find that some of the smallest, simplest tasks suddenly seem really hard. Do you find yourself forgetting things when you’re hungry? This is the brain trying to do its work without enough fuel.3
The Science Behind Hunger And Emotion
Science supports the idea that when the brain struggles with low blood glucose levels, anger may result. You might find yourself being short tempered, irritable, and generally, well, “hangry.” And this bad behavior might result in lashing out at those closest to you.4
One popular study focused on married couples. The couples had glucose levels taken each night. Tests were also done to determine participants’ aggression levels. At the end of a 21-day period, those with lower glucose levels showed less ability to control their anger towards their spouses. Even those with otherwise healthy relationships exhibited this behavior. Low blood sugar was also linked with more aggression in general.5
Low glucose can also play an indirect role in aggressive behavior. When glucose levels drop too much, the body reacts by releasing certain hormones, including epinephrine and cortisol. Cortisol, in particular, increases glucose levels, and it’s also known as the “stress hormone.” As cortisol floods the body, stress levels can increase. This can trigger aggressive feelings.7
When Do Things Go Wrong?
The thing to keep in mind is that occasional “hanger” is a normal occurrence. Skipping meals is never a good idea, but it’s bound to happen from time to time. The situation becomes problematic when you eat regularly, but still find yourself angry. If this happens, you might have a metabolic issue or another problem.8
But it’s not enough to just eat – you’ve got to eat right. If you eat a lot of processed carbohydrates or sugars, your body may begin to crave them. This can lead to glucose spikes and crashes, making the issue worse in the end. Strive for balance when it comes to sources of glucose. Instead of processed carbs, opt for healthier snacks, like a piece of fruit, fresh vegetables, or nuts.9
“Hanger” In Review
Even though it seems like a made-up term, hanger is very real, scientifically speaking. The next time you find yourself annoyed at work, consider taking a quick snack break. You may be doing more for yourself than you think.