This story is from an episode of Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4. It was presented by Jane Garvey and produced by Rory Galloway. To listen to more episodes of Woman’s Hour please click here. Adapted by Sarah Keating.
Two weeks into a low-carbohydrate diet, comedian Jess Fostekew got “hangry”.
“I had a terrible, terrible road rage incident,” she remembers. “The car behind me, which happened to be full of large men, bibbed me for not having gone through a light quickly enough.” After getting out of her car and challenging them to a fight, only to be greeted with laughter, she got back in her car and drove.
“I pulled over and I sobbed – rageful sobs – and then vowed to never ever give up carbs again.”
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So what had happened?
“We’ve long recognised that hunger leads to irritability in science,” says Sophie Medlin, lecturer in nutrition and dietetics from Kings College London. “But the wonderful world of social media has merged the two words for us and now we know it as ‘hanger’.
“When our blood sugars drop, cortisol and adrenaline rise up in our bodies – our fight or flight hormones.”
These then have an impact on our brain. That is because neuropeptides, secreted by neurons, control the chemicals in our brain. “The ones that trigger for hunger are the same ones that trigger for anger and rage and impulsive type behaviours. So that’s why you get that sort of same response,” she says.
We have all experienced that bubbling irritation as a hollow sensation of hunger bites at our insides, but it is often depicted in mainstream media as being more applicable to women than men. Articles about being “hangry” are often illustrated with shouting, stressed-out women. And much was made of American snowboarder Chloe Kim’s tweet during the Winter Olympics last month.
"Wish I finished my breakfast sandwich but my stubborn self decided not to," wrote the gold medal winner. "And now I'm getting hangry."
So are women more vulnerable to this affliction?
“Absolutely not,” says Medlin. “It can happen to anybody and perhaps in terms of neuroscience it’s actually more likely to happen to men than women.”
In fact, interestingly men have more of the receptors for neuropeptides, the chemicals that affect your brain, she explains. The chemicals “are affected by things like fluctuations in oestrogen, so it might be that some women experience hanger at different times in their cycle,” Medlin says. But “biochemically, in terms of neurology, men are much more likely to experience it than women”. That is because of a higher level of testosterone combined with more of these receptors.
Ultimately, the view of ‘female hanger’ may simply be another incarnation of prevailing gender stereotypes, including the stigmatisation of men declaring their feelings. “Perhaps it’s that [men] don’t yet feel able to talk about the emotional relationship they have with eating and with hunger and perhaps that’s why it’s assumed that it’s a female thing to have hanger where, of course, it’s humanwide,” says Jess Fostekew.
“Everyone has a fairly complicated relationship with food,” agrees Sophie Medlin.
‘Hanger’ can have a real impact on your personal relationships, too – as shown by a 2014 study which found that low blood glucose levels relate to greater aggression among married couples.
Participants were asked to stick pins into a ‘voodoo doll’ representation of their spouse in response to being angry with them. On top of this, the angry spouse would blast a loud noise through headphones worn by their unfortunate partners. Blood glucose levels were measured throughout the experiment.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, “participants who had lower glucose levels stuck more pins into the voodoo doll and blasted their spouse with louder and longer noise blasts.”
How do we avoid the dreaded hanger?
“It depends on how long it’s going to be until your next meal,” says Medlin. “Ideally you want something that’s going to bring your blood sugars up a little bit and also maintain them there. So a sort of savoury carbohydrate type snack would be the best thing to have.”
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