We all know someone who morphs into a raging hellion when they’re hungry. The phenomenon is so pervasive, there’s even a word for it: Hangry, a handy portmanteau of hungry and angry. As well as a bunch of pretty memorable Snickers ads:
What is it, though, about an empty stomach that motivates an uptick in anger and aggression in some, but not others? According to nutritionist Dr. David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, it’s mostly due to blood-glucose levels.
Specifically: The carbohydrates, proteins and fats found in the foods you eat are mostly digested into simple sugars (like glucose) to be used for energy. But when your stomach is empty, the amount of glucose circulating through your bloodstream begins to diminish. This is bad news for your brain, which is critically dependent on glucose. “You’ll experience difficulty concentrating, make simple mistakes, become light-headed and eventually experience slurred speech,” Friedman says. “This alters your mood, and can make you angry.”
Friedman adds that the brain sometimes perceives low glucose levels to be a life-threatening situation, which can trigger a massive release of adrenaline and other hormones meant to increase the amount of glucose in your bloodstream. Unfortunately for whoever’s dealing with you and your empty stomach while this is happening, that flood of adrenaline is likely to have you all riled up.
So riled up, in fact, that a 2014 study found that compared to satiated couples, glucose-deprived people stuck more pins into voodoo dolls meant to represent their spouses. The underfed study participants were also more likely to blast their partners with unpleasant noises.
Which brings us to the question we started with: Why do some people experience hanger, while others don’t? The unsatisfying truth is: All sorts of reasons. While many physical factors contribute to hanger (e.g., how your body processes glucose; how your brain reacts to that glucose; how the hormones your brain releases affect your mood), we’re all a little different, biologically speaking. This means you may experience hanger simply because you’re more prone to aggression in the first place.
If you are one of those people, Friedman recommends keeping these foods handy:
- Walnuts: “Walnuts are known to be the best source of nourishment for the brain, helping improve concentration and making us more even-keeled,” Friedman explains. “They’re high in omega-3 fatty acids, which makes the brain very happy.”
- Whole Grains: “These offer mood-enhancing properties,” Friedman says. “A great combination is whole grains and a complex carbohydrate, like brown rice, which helps boost serotonin, the brain’s happy hormone.”
- Turkey: “Turkey is high in tryptophan, an amino acid thought to have a positive effect on stress, since it helps the brain produce feel-good chemicals,” Friedman notes. “It also increases your brain’s levels of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine — all of which help you to stay calm and alert.”
- Bananas: “These contain vitamin B and potassium, which help the body relax,” Friedman adds. “They also help reduce glucose shortages, which will aid in defusing that hanger.”
If you don’t have food handy, it can help to remember that, with time, your brain will release hormones to stabilize your blood-glucose levels. So just try to avoid any sort of social interaction — kicking down your boss’s door and calling him a “******* ***** ***** *********** *** **** ******* ********!!!!!!!” for example — until then.