Science behind being “hangry”

Illustration by Carly Adams

Studies prove that being “hangry,” or increasingly irritable when hungry, is the brain’s reaction to a lack of glucose, according to Amanda Salis’ IFLScience article “The science of ‘hangry,’ or why some people get grumpy when they’re hungry.”

“When I’m hungry, I have no patience and I can’t deal with people like I normally can,” Bailey Kilian, freshman in elementary education, said.

Digested food gets turned into simple sugars such as glucose, fatty acids and amino acids. These nutrients are distributed throughout the body and used for energy, according to Salis’ article.

The brain relies heavily on glucose to function. As time passes between meals, the blood glucose levels in the body drop, making simple tasks harder to perform, according to the article. Lowered levels of glucose can make it harder for someone to concentrate or behave within social norms, consequently causing them to snap at people or become “hangry.”

Eating proteins and whole grains will result in fullness for longer periods of time and can be a solution to avoid becoming “hangry,” Kristi Glessner, Hy-Vee dietitian, said.

“A carbohydrate and a protein is going to be your best snack combination,” Glessner said. “So like a fruit with peanut butter or cheese and crackers, that’s going to be useful for longer.”

The lowered levels of glucose also activate the brain to send instructions to other organs in the body to release hormones and increase the amount of glucose in the bloodstream, according to Salis’ article.

Two of the glucose counter-regulatory hormones that are released, adrenaline and cortisol, are the same hormones released in stressful situations, according the article. This promotes similar responses to being stressed and irritated.

The gene neuropeptide Y is a brain chemical that is released when an individual is hungry. This gene stimulates feeding behaviors by acting on a variety of receptors in the brain, including one called the Y1 receptor. Neuropeptide Y and the Y1 receptor also regulate anger or aggression, so increased levels of neuropeptide Y in brain fluid can also result in higher levels of aggression, according to Salis’ article.

Serotonin, a hormone that helps regulate behavior, fluctuates when we have not eaten or are stressed out, according to Mary Elizabeth Dallas’ Everyday Health article “Research Reveals Why Hungry People Get Cranky.”

In her article, Dallas said a recent study done by researchers at the University of Cambridge revealed that low levels of serotonin can make it harder for the brain to control emotional responses to anger.

Not everyone experiences hunger-induced anger, and some people are more susceptible to it than others, according to Jennifer Nelson’s Humana article “Do you get Hangry?”

“The easiest way to handle ‘hanger’ is to eat something before you get too hungry,” Salis said in her article.

Junk foods can increase “hanger” by temporarily spiking blood glucose levels and then declining faster later, according to Salis’ article.

Julie Gibbs, director of Health Promotion at Lafene Health Center, said she suggests having snacks throughout the day.

“I think with the busy lifestyles students have, it’s important for them to take snacks with them so they don’t go for a long time without eating enough,” Gibbs said.