Hangry isn’t just a random colloquial throwaway term that combines the words ‘anger’ and ‘hungry’: It’s an actual emotion.
Dubai-based Emma Burke, an Irish expat, didn’t think the word ‘hangry’ was an actual phenomenon till she went travelling with a friend. “We learned the hard way with her,” she says. “When we did road trips and if there were a couple of hours where we weren’t thinking about eating, she would be an absolute terror when hungry,” explains Burke. This “terror” would include her friend storming around at night, and hunting for restaurants that would be open.
The patterns were easy to spot after several incidents: It starts off with a few eyerolls, proceeds to sharp changes in the tone, and finally descends into a series of snappish retorts, and once, even a tearful yelling. “Yes, she fought with my friend so much over his musical choices in the car. He wasn’t even playing any songs, she just picked a fight with him,” remembers Burke. “For one hour, there was nothing but an unnecessary argument about metal and rock music.”
And so now, they hastily bundle sandwiches in the car before a road trip.
She’s happy. Everyone’s happy.
Symbolically and biologically, food represents nurture. When we are deprived of nourishment, feeling un-nurtured and uncared for, our body responds in kind, essentially manifesting a 'tantrum' as a physical reaction to this deficit. ‘Hangry’ is an interplay of physiological and cognitive factors that affect emotion regulation
That’s the curious phenomenon of hangry: It’s an actual thing. Food is not just a requirement for the body to sustain; it’s deeply intertwined with our emotional well-being, as the medical experts explain. “Symbolically and biologically, food represents nurture,” explains Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist based at wellness clinic LightHouse Arabia, Dubai. “When we are deprived of nourishment, feeling un-nurtured and uncared for, our body responds in kind, essentially manifesting a 'tantrum' as a physical reaction to this deficit. ‘Hangry’ is an interplay of physiological and cognitive factors that affect emotion regulation,” she says.
‘The perfect storm for irritability and aggression’
Food is actually an emotion; the statement isn’t just said by foodies for hyperbole.
So, when a person is hangry, it’s a manifestation of many biological and physiological factors. Hunger leads to several shifting of hormones, brain processes and the functioning of the peripheral nervous system. For starters, the problem is amplified when there is a low level of glucose in the body. The brain needs glucose to function.
“When we go without food for extended periods, our blood sugar levels drop. This triggers the release of hormones like glucagon and cortisol, which mobilise fuel for the body,” explains Dubai-based clinical dietician, Munawara Yahaya. Increased levels of cortisol are a warning sign for excess stress, as cortisol is also the stress hormone. This contributes to further irritation, which compels us to feel hangry. “There will be effects like increased heart rate, anxiety and yes, irritability,” she says.
The brain also has a different battle to fight, when it comes to hunger. Going without food affects the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, particularly serotonin and norepinephrine, she adds. Serotonin affects mood regulation, while norepinephrine is involved in the fight-or-flight response. When the serotonin levels dip and norepinephrine rises due to hunger, it creates the “perfect storm” for irritability and aggression, she says.
“Your stomach also sends out ghrelin, a hormone, which stimulates the feelings of hunger. This is where the hanger begins,” elaborates Ruhil Badiani, a family physician at the Dubai-based Cornerstone clinic. “Ghrelin creates the motivation for food, but it also produces anxiety. Anxiety can lead to anger in some people,” she explains. There can also be the release of adrenaline, which triggers aggression in people.
Your stomach also sends out ghrelin, a hormone, which stimulates the feelings of hunger. This is where the hanger begins. Ghrelin creates the motivation for food, but it also produces anxiety. Anxiety can lead to anger in some people
If the hunger is not sated and the level of glucose in your blood decreases, this triggers a cascade of hormones, the glucose counter-regulatory response, including cortisol and adrenaline, which can lead to more aggression in some people, she says. Impulse controls are considerably blurred, as the low levels of glucose affect the higher functions of the brain.
‘Hunger is a cerebral need‘
The region in our brain, that is associated with hunger, fear, anxiety and anger is called the limbic system, explains Susan Feyman, a British clinical dietician. The limbic system triggers automatic responses. These are modulated before they reach higher regions of the region, and controls most of our behavioural patterns. However, if you have low glucose patterns, it means that the higher brain functions are not working well. So, there’s an impairment that modulates the primitive responses, which leads to the hangry state.
So hunger isn’t just a physical need; it’s a cerebral need as well. The lack of food causes certain filters in the brain to malfunction or even shut down, adds Feyman. Hunger also impairs cognitive processes and lead to difficulty concentrating and making decisions. This cognitive strain can contribute to increased frustration, stress, and anger, adds Afridi.
Explaining the cerebral impact further, Badiani says, the brain relies on glucose as its main energy. When this energy is depleted, the cognitive functions in the brain are in disarray, leading to frustration and anger. “The neuropeptides, specifically neuropeptide Y, in the brain, controls the brain chemicals that are released when hungry. They are also the same for anger, which undoubtedly is a survival mechanism,” she says.
The physiological impact of being hangry
It’s almost like a cascading effect. While hormonal shifts begin to affect your mood, there are physiological changes as well, adding fuel to an already hungry fire.
There’s growing muscle tension, when you’re hangry. “The hormonal changes associated with hunger can lead to increased muscle tension, particularly in the shoulders and the neck,” adds Yahaya. This leads to feelings of fatigue and discomfort, amplifying the negative mood. There’s also the added consequence of headaches, as low blood sugar triggers headaches. And so, you feel unwell, and rather out of sorts.
If that wasn’t enough, hunger also leads to other digestive issues, including indigestion and heartburn, she explains. Why is that? That occurs because, if a person does not eat for a long time, acid builds up in the stomach in preparation for digesting the next meal. These physical discomforts wreak havoc on an already emotional state, resulting in further annoyance and irritation.
A valid emotional state: How hunger turns ‘up the dial on anger’
Neuroscientists and psychologists have conducted several studies over the years to understand the complex hangry phenomenon.
Kristin Lindquist, assistant professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the American University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and co-author of the study ‘Feeling Hangry? When Hunger Is Conceptualized As Emotion’, came to some interesting conclusions. Through a battery of tests, Lindquist and her team observed that when hungry, people are more likely to be in a negative mindset than those who were well-fed.
One of the tests put participants in rather tedious situations — like being faced with a computer malfunction and having to start an arduous task again. The participants who hadn’t eaten were annoyed and peevish. Later, when given an evaluation of the research assistant’s performance, they provided rather negative feedback, saying that the assistant had been “judgmental” towards them. Lindquist later told NBC News, that “hunger turns up the dial on your anger in the face of a frustrating experience”.
How do you counter hangri-ness?
Well, eating would be too obvious a solution, but here are a few others.
"‘The hangry phenomenon’ highlights how profoundly interconnected physiological, biological, and psychological factors are in response to hunger," says Hala El-Shafie, consultant dietician at Sage Clinics, Dubai. "It serves as a reminder of the importance of maintaining regular and balanced meals to properly fuel our bodies as well as safeguarding our emotional well-being," she explains.
So, by making a conscious effort to nourish ourselves adequately by eating regular balanced meals and snacks, we can promote significantly healthier emotional states and better interpersonal interactions. "Simply put - you’re going to be a lot more pleasant to be around, as you’re less likely to lose your cool, burst into tears or fly into a rage, leaving you and those around you wondering why you’ve had yet another emotional outburst," she says.
The hangry phenomenon’ highlights how profoundly interconnected physiological, biological, and psychological factors are in response to hunger. It serves as a reminder of the importance of maintaining regular and balanced meals to properly fuel our bodies as well as safeguarding our emotional well-being...
“Look for something high in glucose,” adds Feyman. This would be found in grains, berries and cereals, which could quickly be broken down. This will provide fuel for the brain.
Yahaya provides some suggestions:
•Eat regular meals and snacks: Aim for balanced meals and healthy snacks throughout the day to prevent your blood sugar levels from crashing.
•Stay hydrated: Dehydration can mimic the symptoms of hunger and worsen irritability. Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
•Carry healthy snacks: Keep nuts, fruits, or yogurt handy for those times when you can't sit down for a proper meal.