Many people ask me how food affects our mood. A better question might be: How does lack of food affect our mood? We aren’t disconnected at the neck, so what’s good for our bodies is good for our minds — and vice versa. One way this connection becomes crystal clear is when we get so hungry that we become “hangry.”
“Hangry” — a mashup of the words “hungry” and “angry” — describes what happens when hunger makes you really cranky. Hunger can generate unpleasant feelings for pretty much anyone who goes too long between meals. Basically, when your brain senses low fuel levels, it triggers shifts in your nervous system, and your body starts releasing hunger hormones as well as stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. As you might expect, these hormones make you feel wired, tense and irritable — and that’s on top of the unpleasantness of being too hungry.
However, a 2018 study on hanger found that simply feeling the physiological effects of hunger doesn’t seem to be enough to become hangry. The situation we’re in when hunger happens, the study suggests, as well as how in tune we are with our feelings and what’s going on in our body, also appear to matter.
The researchers found people are most likely to get hangry in negative situations — for example, when working on a frustrating task, experiencing an insult or getting stuck in rush hour traffic. We’re less likely to get hangry when hunger happens in a neutral situation, such as walking down a quiet street, or a positive situation, like relaxing at home with a good book or an enjoyable movie.
While hanger isn’t a health problem, if you find you are prone to getting so hungry that you lash out at people you are otherwise fond of, that can be a relationship problem. Here are some steps to take:
Don’t ignore hunger. We have a complex web of “hunger hormones” that interact with each other to prompt us to eat, and we can’t suppress them or trick them. One of the better known hunger hormones, ghrelin, rises when we need to eat then falls quickly once we do eat. If we don’t eat, however, ghrelin levels will continue to rise, leading to primal hunger.
Practice tuning into your hunger. If you don’t notice the early signs of hunger, which for many people includes a growling or empty stomach but for others might be a dip in energy or concentration levels, then you’re at risk for becoming hangry if you’re also feeling stressed, tired or frustrated.
Practice tuning into your feelings. Because both hunger and unpleasant situations are negative experiences, when they happen at the same time, it’s easy to mistakenly think our hunger-induced feelings are being caused by, say, being stuck in traffic. If you know you will be facing a difficult situation, be sure you don’t go in on an empty stomach.
Communicate and set boundaries. This is especially important if your spouse, partner, friends or family can comfortably go much longer between meals than you can — most people need to eat every two to six hours, but that’s a big range. Few things can trigger a hanger episode like hearing, “How can you possibly be hungry already?,” when you are, in fact, quite hungry. If you are traveling or running errands with someone who’s not hungry yet, but you are, do what you need to do to take care of you.