When “Hanger” Strikes – The Reactionary Chain
of Hormone Response to Hunger
Maegen C. Stoner, Director, Fitness & Wellness
Have you ever felt the emotional impact that takes over when you’ve gone too long without food? Someone might label you as “hangry”, irritable, and/or grouchy. I’ll raise my hand for most of us 🙂 Usually if I’m in a foul mood, most people (especially my husband) will ask when was the last time I ate? I’m the 30-year old that carries snacks in her purse for herself ( I don’t have children yet!) Well guess what, there’s actually some science behind this phenomenon that has recently been published to explain why this might happen.
“Empirical evidence demonstrates that emotions impact every aspect of our waking lives, from visual perception to decision making and interpersonal processes” (MacCormack & Lindquist, 2018, pg. 1). There is a small body of scientific research that explains the hunger-induced emotionality or feeling of hanger is more that a mere colloquialism. Studies have shown that individuals who have not eaten and have entered a glucose-depleted state tend to be more impulsive, punitive, and aggressive. Additional research links hunger to negative mood as well (MacCormack & Lindquist, 2018). As humans, we are capable of listening to our hunger and satiety cues. However, in the busyness of our daily lives, we often ignore internal signals and wait far too long before consuming sustenance (Lewis, 2018). As we deprive or ignore these signals, our body responds with an emotional reaction, such as anger, anxiety, or stress, to illicit a response for us to seek food. The longer we go without eating, typically the greater the emotional response (Lewis, 2018).
Did you know that your stomach and brain are connected to one another? Well surprise, they are! They communicate via signals of hunger and satisfaction. In a recent study conducted by the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found a correlation between hunger, feeling angry, and having low blood sugar (Lewis, 2018, pg.1). When the time between meals increases, your blood sugar levels drop, which releases several hormones into the body. The release of these hormones then alters an individuals perceptions, experiences, and responses (MacCormack & Lindquist, 2018).
Your body excretes four hormones in response to the feeling of hunger; Ghrelin, Cortisol, Adrenaline, and Neuropeptide Y.
Ghrelin is produced in the stomach and stimulates feelings of hunger and it can also trigger feelings of anxiety in the brain. A release of ghrelin causes your body to recognize that you are hungry and should signal that you should begin eating. As you consume food, the release of ghrelin ceases and the feeling of anxiety dissipates. If you continue to ignore the hunger signal, other hormones in your body can also be disrupted (Lewis, 2018).
As your blood sugar levels drop, your body also releases cortisol and adrenaline, two stress-related hormones. As the presence of these two hormones increases, the body exhibits fight-or-flight and the effects of hunger can present mentally, emotionally, and physically. As you become hungry, the function of your prefrontal cortex is inhibited. This reaction can affect “personality, self control, planning, and can even temporarily shut down long-term memory” (Lewis, 2018, pg.2). The longer you go without eating, stress, anxiety, and loss of patience and/or focus can set in. Heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration can also increase (Lewis, 2018).
When ghrelin, cortisol, and adrenaline are released and you continue to ignore the feeling of hunger, your body resorts to full fledged panic mode. Basically, hanger in full effect! At this point, the body releases neuropeptide Y. In recent studies, the presence of this hormone has been found to make people behave more aggressively towards others (Lewis, 2018). Neuropeptide Y is responsible for stimulating food intake and also has an affinity for quickly digestible carbohydrates. The release of neuropeptide Y is also linked to an increased intake of large quantities of food and delays the signal of satiety (Lewis, 2018).
Research suggests that you be mindful and prepared. Listen to your body for cues. If you are becoming irritable, think about when the last time you ate was. Hunger may be the cause for this irritability. Take a brief break and find a snack that aligns with healthy eating. A good rule of thumb is that most people should not go more that 4-5 hours between meals. Developing a healthy eating pattern will help decrease the likelihood of “hanger” and balance out your blood glucose levels so you avoid sharp peaks and low drops (Lewis, 2018). We want to avoid the roller coaster effect!
So remember when I was revealing about my snacks on hand habit? I do this so I’m always prepared whether I’m stuck in traffic, attending a meeting over the lunch hour, or just have not made the time to have a meal. I too get caught up in an overbooked schedule periodically. Look for travel-friendly snacks that can be readily available. It’s best to have a snack that has carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and fiber. The carbohydrates will provide a quick source of energy, while the protein, fats, and fiber will provide longevity as they are digested slower and keep you feeling fuller for longer. Having snacks on hand helps to keep us from reaching for less healthy options that likely lack the nutrition your body needs.
Lewis, Rebecca. (2018) The Science of Hanger. Retrieved June 25, 2018, from https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/7006/the-science-of-hanger.
MacCormack, J.K., & Lindquist, K.A. (2018). Feeling Hangry? When Hunger Is Conceptualized as Emotion. American Psychological Association, pp. 1 -17.
Dahlitz, M. (2017, January 4). Prefrontal Cortex [Digital image]. Retrieved September 25, 2018, from https://www.neuropsychotherapist.com/prefrontal-cortex/.
This blog post was written to provide educational information only. This article should not be used as a substitute or a replacement for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have questions or concerns about your personal health, you should always consult with your physician. It is recommended that you consult with your physician or health care professional before beginning any fitness regimen to determine if it is suitable for your needs. The use of any information provided by this article is solely at your risk.