Feeling irritable and hungry? Researchers say being 'hangry' is a thing
Many of us have experienced “hanger” — the irritable, short-tempered feeling we get when we’ve gone too long without eating.
If you’re not prone to getting “hangry” yourself, you may have been on the receiving end of someone else’s hypoglycemic wrath when, say, a colleague gets grouchy or your kid loses it in a grocery store aisle.
New research published in the Journal of Pharmacology found that “hanger” is no joke. The study using rats examined the impact on emotional behaviour of a sudden drop in blood sugar.
“Essentially we asked the question of whether a sudden drop in glucose availability to the body can indeed have an emotional effect that is aversive,” said Francesco Leri, professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of Guelph.
Although he said he was initially skeptical about the hanger phenomenon, “there’s a lot of people who will tell you when they’re hungry, they become very sensitive to that and they have change in mood.”
So he and his team administered a compound to the rats that temporarily blocks their cells from absorbing glucose. “We administered that compound in a particular environment a few times,” said Leri.
The rats seemed more sluggish when given the glucose blocker.
“You might argue that this is because they need glucose to make their muscles work,” said Leri. “But when we gave them a commonly used antidepressant, the sluggish behaviour was not observed. The animals moved around normally. This is interesting because their muscles still weren’t getting the glucose, yet their behaviour changed.”
Later, when the rats were drug-free, the team observed what happened when they were presented with that same environment where the glucose blocking had gone down.
What they found was that the rats avoided the area where they had experienced the blocked blood sugar. “The animals stayed away from that environment,” said Leri, adding that this behaviour is considered a good indicator that the animals have experienced something unpleasant.
But the researchers didn’t base their findings on behaviour alone.
The rats’ blood was tested for cortisol, a hormone that’s produced in response to stress. The levels were elevated, said Leri.
What can people who experience hanger take away from these findings?
“It’s a biological validation that there’s nothing wrong with them,” said Leri. “The implication here is that if these mechanisms are dysregulated in some individuals, then nutrition plays a key role in mental health.” Even without extreme hypoglycemia like the kind the rats experienced, he said, some people may find themselves experiencing higher levels of stress when they’ve gone too long without a meal or snack.
Toronto psychologist and author Sara Dimerman, who was not part of the research, said she wasn’t at all surprised to learn about the study results.
“Especially when a client presents to me with mood or emotional regulation issues, I will often ask about their eating patterns and the foods they consume over the course of a typical day,” said Dimerman.
“What I’ve observed is that certain people — students who don’t have the motivation or time to prepare healthy food or to create a consistent eating schedule, or people who are cooking for one, for example — may be impacted by what and how often they are feeding their bodies, and indirectly, their minds.”
Dimerman said that, in some cases, she’ll refer clients to a dietitian.
Her advice? Next time you feel particularly “agitated, angry, impatient or irritable,” ask yourself when you last ate or slept, and how well. “The fix may be as simple or a nourishing snack or nap, and could avert an avoidable bad exchange or situation.”
Brandie Weikle writes about parenting issues and is the host of The New Family Podcast and editor of thenewfamily.com. Follow her on Twitter: @bweikle