Hangry? The Science behind hunger, anger and low glucose levels

Have you ever been irritable, annoyed or negative only to realize that you are hungry? If so, you’ve experienced “hangry” (an amalgam of hungry and angry) – an episode in which some people get short-tempered and grumpy when they have gone too long without eating.

But where does hanger come from? The answer lies in processes that occur in the body when it needs food. When food is consumed, the carbohydrates, proteins and fats are digested into simple sugars (glucose), amino acids and free fatty acids. These nutrients are then delivered from the bloodstream to organs and tissues. As time passes after your last meal, the amount of nutrients circulating in the bloodstream begins to decline. If blood glucose levels drop to a certain threshold, your brain will perceive it as a life-threatening situation. Unlike most other organs and tissues, your brain is critically dependent on glucose to do its work. Lower blood glucose levels can make it harder to concentrate and perform simple tasks. It can also make it more difficult to behave within socially acceptable norms.

New research published in the Journal of Pharmacology found that “hanger” is real.  The study examined whether chronic, long-term hypoglycemia – low blood sugar – is a risk factor for developing depression-like behaviours. “Evidence revealed that a change in glucose level can have a lasting effect on mood,” said Francesco Leri, professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of Guelph. Leri and his team administered a compound to the rats that temporarily blocked their cells from absorbing glucose.  They were then placed in a specific chamber. On a separate occasion, the rats were injected water and placed in a different chamber. The rats seemed more sluggish when given the glucose blocker. Also, when given the choice of which chamber to re-enter, the majority of rats actively avoided the chamber where they experienced hypoglycemia. “This type of avoidance behaviour is an expression of stress and anxiety,” Leri stated. The researchers tested blood levels of the rats after they experienced hypoglycemia and found more corticosterone, an indicator of physiological stress.

“When people think about depressed mood states and stress, they think about the psychological factors, not necessarily the metabolic factors. But we found eating habits can have an impact,” said lead researcher Thomas Horman from the University of Guelph.

The next time you feel impatient or agitated ask yourself when you last ate. Here are a few ways to ward off “hanger”:

Eat something before you become too hungry;

Create a consistent eating schedule;

Plan ahead. Carry healthy snacks, eat a protein-rich breakfast or lunch to give you lasting energy;

Give it a time-out. Deal with more challenging situations after food, not before.

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