The Real Reasons We Get 'Hangry'

We've all been there. You're stuck in what was meant to be 10 minute department huddle that has spiraled into an hour-long ideation session. An hour-long meeting smack in the middle of your lunch time. You begin to go through the five stages of grief. Stage one — denial: "This meeting will end any minute now." After another 10 minutes, you settle into stage two — anger. Every stupid idea your stupid co-worker proposes is just stupid. If anyone asks you for your opinion you might just give them a piece of your mind.

What you're experiencing is 'hanger,' and it's a common phenomenon in the fast-paced society in which we live. There are real reasons why even the most polite people can turn into the Incredible Hulk when they've missed their lunch break.

What is hanger?

Hanger is a portmanteau — a word that combines two separable aspects or qualities — hungry and angry. Simply put, if your hunger is causing you to become irritable, upset, or angry, you are have crossed into the world known as 'hangry.' It's no fun, but it's a real thing, and most of us have probably experienced at least once or twice.

Physiological causes

A researcher at the University of Sydney's Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders argues that the reason anger sets in when we are hungry is due in large part to our blood glucose levels.

Blood glucose — more commonly known as blood sugar, or even just sugar — is the amount of sugar in the bloodstream. Our bodies need sugar to supply energy to our cells to power through the day. Under normal circumstances, our body regulates our blood glucose levels to make sure we aren't getting too much sugar or too little. We get this sugar from the food we eat, so when we skip or delay a meal, our blood sugar levels can drop.

In an article published in The Conversation, University of Sydney researcher Amanda Salis said, "As time passes after your last meal, the amount of these nutrients circulating in your bloodstream starts to drop. If your blood-glucose levels fall far enough, your brain will perceive it as a life-threatening situation. You see, unlike most other organs and tissues in your body which can use a variety of nutrients to keep functioning, your brain is critically dependent on glucose to do its job."

When your brain gets stressed, even the simplest act, like being nice, becomes more difficult than normal.

That's what friends are for

Salis also pointed out when we do get hangry, we are more likely to "snap" with people we feel most comfortable around.

"While you may be able to conjure up enough brain power to avoid being grumpy with important colleagues, you may let your guard down and inadvertently snap at the people you are most relaxed with or care most about, such as partners and friends," she wrote.

This theory rings true, especially for married couples or those in long term relationships. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, married people with lower blood glucose levels were more likely to act out against their spouse than those with higher blood glucose levels. For 21 days, researchers tracked the blood glucose levels of 107 couples while also measuring their levels of aggression with activities like sticking pins in a voodoo doll that represented their spouse or blasting loud noises through headphones their spouse was wearing. Yikes!

Hormonal response

In addition to physiological causes, researchers believe that our hormones — specifically serotonin — also influence our hangry state.

In a study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, when we are stressed out or haven't eaten, our serotonin levels begin to fluctuate. Shifting serotonin levels impact the parts of the brain that allow us to control our anger. Researchers manipulated the serotonin levels of healthy volunteers through diet control. The volunteers were given functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of their brains as they watched faces with different expressions to determine how various parts of their brains reacted and communicated with each other. The study showed that low serotonin levels made communications between certain parts of the brain weaker than normal. This lead researchers to believe it may be harder for the brain to control emotional responses to anger when the serotonin level is low.

Participants were also asked if they had aggressive tendencies. The investigators found that participants who were predisposed to aggression had even weaker communication between certain regions of their brain when serotonin levels were low.

Gender bias

According to some dietitians, these hormonal hunger shifts impact women more than men. In an interview with the United Kingdom's Daily Mail, a British dietitian argued that women are more likely to succumb to hanger because our moods are greatly impacted by hormones.

There is little research to support those assumptions, but research does show that gender bias occurs in food consumption in children, which can ultimately impact the growth and development of a youngster and their future relationship with food.

Emotional response

While hunger (and our response to it) can be caused by hormones and our physiology, it can also be an emotional response. A study published in Biological Psychology found that stress and emotions (both negative and positive) impact our eating behavior. That study also found the way we eat changes when we're eating from emotions or from true hunger. That means it's not always easy to differentiate between being truly hangry, and being hungry because of a heightened emotional state, like anger.

Healthy and hangry

No matter why you're hangry, you should try to pick healthy options to satisfy your condition. That sounds like a tall order, especially since extreme hunger can often lead to extremely bad food choices. But when hanger strikes, consider reaching for smarter choices, like fruits, vegetables and even cheese.