Ask Healthy Living: Why Do We Get 'Grumpy Hungry'?

Ask Healthy Living: Why Do I Get 'Hangry'?

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Why do I get so grumpy when I'm hungry?

Hangry. Grumpy hungry. No matter what you call it, we've all experienced it: that overwhelming irritability that takes over when we've gone too long without food. Turns out, there's some science behind it -- skipping meals can trigger us to feel overwhelmed with feelings. According to appetite behavior expert Paul Currie, a professor of psychology at Reed College, hunger can certainly prompt us to become emotional, and that can often manifest as feeling stressed or anxious.

"An organism, when it's hungry, can ignore hunger signals if it wanted to, but it wouldn't survive very long," Currie tells HuffPost. But if, in addition to those growling stomach pains, there was also a mind aspect -- increases in emotionality, anxiety and stress -- then those signals will be more likely to get the organism's attention.

"You might think we eat because it's pleasurable, but let's think about it, when you're truly hungry and watching everyone else eat, you're going to get a little bit emotional and anxious," Currie says. "Irritable, angry certainly, and the longer you deprive, there will be an increase in emotional response."

Our guts and our brains are not as disconnected as we may think, Currie adds. The appetite hormone ghrelin, for instance, is produced in the stomach, but receptors for ghrelin are present elsewhere throughout the body, including the brain's hypothalamus. In addition to stimulating feelings of hunger, ghrelin can also produce an anxiety response that goes away when you eat.

"It makes sense because these circuits and systems interplay with one another: same receptors, same anatomical structures," Currie says. "These behaviors don't occur in isolation, and it makes sense we're more irritable, more aware of our emotions [when we're hungry] because that'll reinforce the drive to seek food and to satisfy nutritional needs."

Recent research pinpointed another hormone that could play a role in the emotion and hunger link: serotonin. The University of Cambridge study, published in 2011 in the journal Biological Psychiatry, showed that the behavior-regulating hormone seems to fluctuate more during stress and during hunger -- and these fluctuations affect the parts of the brain involved in regulating anger.

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