Ever notice how when your tummy is rumbling, you’re more likely to lash out at unsuspecting loved ones or even innocent bystanders? This sudden, irrational rage is often referred to as “hanger” (a combo of hunger and anger) and experts say it is a very real thing.
“When we do not eat, blood sugar goes low,” explains Deena Adimoolam, MD, an assistant professor in the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Bone Disease at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. When your blood sugar falls, the hormones cortisol and epinephrine are released in an attempt to raise it back to normal. But those hormones also happen to lead to irritability, which explains why you’re so crabby when you skip breakfast.
Another hormone, called Neuropeptide Y, plays a role in hanger too, adds Dr. Adimoolam. Neuropeptide Y helps create a hungry feeling when your body needs more food—and it’s also linked to aggression.
Researchers have documented the hangry phenomenon in relationships: A study from Ohio State University on married couples found that the lower the participants’ blood sugar level, the angrier and more aggressive they felt toward their partners.
So when, exactly, does hanger kick in between meals? “It varies by every individual,” says Dr. Adimoolam. “But the lower your blood sugar goes, the hangrier you are. It’s our body’s defense mechanism to get food ASAP.” The tricky part is, hangry people tend crave cookies, pastries, chocolate, or candy, she says. These sugary snacks will raise your blood sugar quickly. But that spike inevitably leads to another crash—and you’ll be acting like a crankpot all over again.
So what’s a girl to do when hanger strikes? “Carry healthy snacks with you—like vegetables, fruit, and yogurt—so that when you are hungry [they] will hold you over until the next meal,” says Dr. Adimoolam. Eating three full meals a day will also help curb intense hunger, and the freakouts that come with it. (Sign up for our 21-Day Healthy Lunch Challenge to get recipes for balanced, protein-packed midday meals that will keep you full well into the P.M.!)
And if hanger sneaks up on you still, try to avoid any mentally or emotionally taxing tasks until you’ve had a chance to refuel, says Dr. Adimoolam. “Get in a meal and your mind will be in a much better place.”