Coworkers know the perils of the end of the day: that terrible time when people are ravenous to get home and gorge.
It’s the perfect environment for bouts of ‘hanger’, a mix of hunger and anger, typically with some short-temperedness and grumpiness thrown in just for good measure. ‘Hanger’ has been in the news this week for finally becoming widely used enough to be accepted into the Oxford English Dictionary as an official entry, but where does ‘hanger’ really come from? And why can’t grown adults seem to get a handle on this feeling? After all, you’re probably not worried about when your next calories are coming from. The answer lies in the body processes that happen when your internal systems are low on food.
Typically, carbs, proteins and fats are digested into simple sugars, amino acids and free fatty acids. There nutrients are passed into your bloodstream where they arrive at your organs and tissues for use as energy.
But when you haven’t had anything to eat, the number of nutrients circulating in your bloodstream drops dramatically, and your organs and tissues don’t receive the energy they need.
If your blood-glucose drops too low, the brain perceives this as a life-threatening situation. The brain needs fuel to regulate emotions, so without food turned fuel, the brain becomes less capable of regulating anger — the most difficult of all emotions to regulate.
Unlike other organs that use a variety of nutrients to keep functioning, the brain relies solely on glucose. You may notice hunger makes concentration difficult, or you may make mistakes easily — this is a result of low blood glucose levels.
Behaving normally also becomes difficult. While you may know better than to snap at co-workers, friends and family, it becomes increasingly hard to do so.
When you’re hungry your brain also sends signals to several other organs to produce and release glucose into the bloodstream. Adrenaline and cortisol, both from the adrenal glands, are released during stressful situations. In fact, adrenaline is released when you perceive any threat to your safety — called the “fight or flight” response — including everything from a potential attacker to low on fuel. In the same way it prepares to you for the possibility of a “fight,” it also makes you ready to shout in anger at someone, making it that much more likely you’ll snap at someone.
All of this makes sense when you look at food in evolutionary terms. If you’re an animal and you need food to survive, it’s natural that you would feel anxious and irritable until you find food and have that basic need met.