Hunger, which lowers your blood sugar, can affect your mood, aggravating conflicts. In short, hunger can make you "hangry." Here's what you should know.
Have you noticed that you’re often irritable, confused, or even jittery? The problem could be fluctuating blood sugar levels.
When you skip meals or take too long between them, the amount of glucose (sugar) in your blood drops, which can trigger a cascade of hormones, including cortisol, the stress hormone, and adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone.
Your body is trying to raise your blood sugar. But you feel stressed, may have less self-control, and may opt for the “fight” side of fight-or-flight.
To test that blood sugar fluctuations cause irritability, researchers at Ohio State University tracked the nightly blood sugar levels of 107 married couples for 21 days. The team also gave participants a way to express anger: voodoo dolls representing their spouses and a personal stack of 51 pins.
In a second test, spouses were put in separate rooms and told that they were competing against each other in a computer game. In fact, each spouse was pre-set to lose 13 of 25 trials in a random assortment. The spouse that won had the opportunity to blast his or her partner with a loud ugly sound — or opt for “no noise.” The noise was a mixture of fingernails scratching on a chalkboard, dentist drills, and ambulance sirens.
Winners could also choose from one to 10 noise levels, as high as the volume of a fire alarm, and whether the sound would last along a spectrum from half a second to 5 seconds — a lab measure of aggression that has been used for decades.
Spouses also had the option of delivering no punishing noise if they won. When they were on the receiving end, a computer delivered a random blast.
Guess what? Participants with below-normal glucose levels during the previous three weeks chose to punish their spouses with louder sounds, and for longer.
Other studies have focused on the so-called “hangry” effect. People who drank sweet lemonade were less aggressive in a similar computer test of aggression. People with diabetes, who may have fluctuating sugar levels, emerged as less forgiving in another study.
In “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister, PhD, and his co-author John Tierney from The New York Times made the point simple: "No glucose, no willpower."
Tamping down anger requires willpower directed towards self-control.
These experiments, however, don’t nail down the underlying idea, which remains controversial: There is a direct relationship between your blood sugar level at any one point in time and your capacity for self-control.
The answer isn’t to eat a candy bar before important discussions. You can build up your self-control with good habits, over time, Baumeister observes.
If you know you tend to get irritable, perhaps later in the day after missing meals, don’t let your health damage your relationships.
Regular exercise can protect you against developing blood sugar problems and help you avoid being hangry.
Balanced snacks that contain some protein are a good bet during the day — especially nuts. Keep them at the office if you find you are missing lunch and getting irritable around co-workers and demanding bosses.
If hunger doesn’t make you angry, it might make you tired, or sleepy, or interfere with your concentration and coordination. You might find yourself making mistakes in your work or in risky arenas like driving. People who have diabetes or pancreatic or liver disorders should be especially careful.
The bottom line: Don’t go on strict diets that make you irritable. Make sure you have enough healthful food; stay away from junk food; and make sure you drink enough water, since dehydration can make your blood sugar more concentrated.
December 08, 2022
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA and Janet O'Dell, RN