The science of hanger:


- Words James Shackell

Why you chuck a wobbly when you’re all out of snacks

While backpackin­g through Europe with my wife, I discovered an excellent strategy for not killing one another. Whenever she would get hungry and irritable, I’d retreat to a safe distance, perhaps behind a low hedge or cobbleston­e wall, and lob packets of chips in her general direction, only emerging when the munching sounds had ceased. I actually carried a small supply of travelling rations in our pack for this purpose.

Because, although my wife is smarter, funnier and more brilliant than me in every possible way, she suffers from the terrible affliction known as ‘hanger’ (a catchy portmantea­u of ‘hunger’ and ‘anger’). When she doesn’t eat, she gets hangry. Symptoms may include grumpiness, irritabili­ty, a shorter-than-average fuse, and chasing your partner down the street with a baguette.

Scientists have been studying the link between hunger and mood for quite a while, and they’ve found some pretty concrete evidence that hanger is not only real, but also hardwired into the human condition. We were born to be hangry – and with good reason. It works like this: when we eat food, our bodies digest all the fats, carbohydra­tes and proteins and turn them into stuff the body needs to function, like simple glucose sugars, amino acids and fatty acids. Glucose is particular­ly important – it’s the stuff that keeps our brains working normally. Basically, it’s brain fuel.

When we don’t eat, our blood glucose level drops, and the brain naturally assumes this is a life-threatenin­g situation – perhaps we’re being chased by something hairy with teeth – triggering all sorts of physiologi­cal fight-or-flight responses. Our pituitary gland starts pumping out growth hormones. The pancreas bustles off to make glucose-boosting glucagon. Our adrenal glands bulk-buy adrenaline and cortisol (aka the stress hormones). And neurons in the brain begin secreting neuropepti­des – a type of neurotrans­mitter connected to things like anger, aggression and general fury.

In other words: hanger is a survival mechanism sparked when your brain is hungry. Which makes sense, really. If our ravenous ancestors sat back politely while other cave people ate their grub instead of being maddened by their growling bellies, we as a species might not exist today.

Despite some crappy stereotype­s, studies have confirmed that women are definitely not hangrier than men. If anything, there’s a slight neurologic­al skew the other way (men have more receptors for those pesky neuropepti­des). Personally, when I’m hungry, I just power down like an android, conserving precious energy by sulking quietly in the corner. According to my wife, that’s more annoying than irritabili­ty.

Across the many hanger-related experiment­s that have taken place, one thing is clear: the hungrier participan­ts were, the more likely they were to experience a situation as stressful or unpleasant. (In the words of psychology and neuroscien­ce professor Kristen Lindquist, “feeling hungry can turn up the dial on lots of negative emotions.”) One of the weirder trials occurred in 2014 at Florida State University, and was helpfully titled “Low Glucose Relates to Greater Aggression in Married Couples”. In it, folks were given a ‘voodoo doll’ representi­ng their spouse, a sharp pin and the power to blast loud noises through headphones worn by their partner any time they felt angry with them. Scientists measured blood glucose levels throughout the experiment – presumably while giggling behind a one-way mirror. The results? Participan­ts with lower glucose levels “stuck more pins into the voodoo doll and blasted their spouse with louder and longer noise blasts.” Matrimony is a complex and wonderful thing.

If you find yourself – or your spouse – suffering from hanger and you’re all out of pins, there are a few simple things you can do. Eating is the obvious answer, but try to avoid sugary junk foods. They’ll definitely spike your blood glucose level, but they’ll also send you rocketing down the other side, which probably explains why so many eighth birthday parties end in tears. The best things to eat are natural, nutrient-dense foods like grains, berries, cereals and nuts. Anything that can be quickly broken down into ATP – the brain’s favourite type of glucose.

If eating isn’t an option, perhaps because you’re stranded somewhere in western Europe, experts recommend tuning in to your emotions, listening to your body, and realising this isn’t your fault. You’re a wonderful, patient, rational human being. Your brain is just hankering for sugar. Now, for the love of god, eat an almond.

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