Allison Hagendorf by Allison Hagendorf

Have you ever been “hangry”? It’s that demonic dynamic that results when hunger and anger rear their ugly heads (and growl) at the same time. It turns out that it’s not just a funny Instagram hashtag. Hanger is a real phenomenon that is caused by your endocrine system. It’s your primal instincts telling you to “FEED ME.” It’s also a signal that you might need to make some key changes to your daily routine. 

What Do Hormones Have to Do With It? 

It’s important to keep in mind that all of your body’s systems are intertwined and that the fluctuation of hormones is to blame for this not-so-pretty, but largely avoidable scenario. 

When you are hungry, your primal instincts trigger a “fight-or-flight” response to help you secure food. Adrenaline and cortisol rise to help you “hunt,” and often times your first inclination is to go for something sweet as a pick-me-up. Bad move. That sweet treat will spike your insulin levels, causing a subsequent sugar crash that will bring you right back to where you started. Hangry. Stop the vicious cycle by eating nutrient-dense, whole foods to help stabilize blood sugar levels. 

Serotonin, which helps regulate our behavior and emotional impulses, tends to fluctuate when we are hungry or stressed. When serotonin levels are low the brain isn't able to communicate optimally. As a result, we are not able to implement a coping mechanism as we normally would. Hence, the uncharacteristic anger we tend to unleash. 

Ghrelin is another hormone responsible for the hangry phenomenon. This hunger hormone functions to increase the sensation of hunger. Although it is produced in the stomach, it has receptors throughout the body and can also trigger anxiety if food is nowhere to be found. 

Even our genes get in on the hangry train. When you are hungry, genes such as neuropeptide Y release chemicals in the brain that help regulate anger. 

How to Avoid Getting Hangry 

The good news is that although hanger is real, it is also very preventable. Here are five things you can do to keep the hanger pains at bay: 

1. Plan your meals. Make sure mealtime doesn’t become a negotiable time slot that gets filled with other priorities. If this happens, hanger will make sure it will become a priority as well.

2. Prepare yourself with on-the-go fuel like raw nuts. Keep a stash of raw nuts in your desk, purse or car to help stave off hanger when you don’t have time to sit down to a real meal.

3. Go for real food. Ditch the processed, high-carb snacks. Better yet, rethink the word “snack.” Skip the vending machine and keep an insulated lunch bag or cooler of hardboiled eggs and sweet potato rounds under your desk.

4. Get some rest. When you don’t get adequate sleep, your levels of ghrelin (the “time to eat” hormone) increase by 28 percent and your levels of leptin (the “let go of the fork” hormone) decrease by 18 percent.

5. Hydrate. Sometimes you may think you are hungry, when really you are just dehydrated. If you drink a glass of water when you are hungry, it is possible to slightly weaken and satisfy the influence of ghrelin, which can help you temporarily control your hunger. But make sure you find a nutrient-dense whole food in the near future.