Dr. Kim Foster: Wicked Health


On Being Hangry: Does Your Mood Need A Sandwich?

Do you ever get so hungry you get irritable and grouchy? There's a reason for that

When I’m hungry, I often turn into a different person. I get irritable and grouchy, and my sense of humour evaporates. Does that happen to you, too?

Turns out there are good physiologic reasons why many of us get hangry. Specifically, there are hormones at play.

The hormone ghrelin is produced by the stomach lining, in response to a lack of food. Ghrelin then travels to your brain and stimulates the hypothalamus to feel hunger and turn on your primitive drive to find food (nuts and berries, bacon double cheeseburger, whatever...). This stimulation of the hypothalamus also triggers a variety of emotional changes, like stress and anxiety.

More recent research has uncovered other hormonal responses, too. A University of Cambridge study, published in 2011, showed that serotonin plays a role in producing that hungry grumpiness. You’ve probably heard of serotonin because of its role in depression and anxiety disorders. Well, the Cambridge study also showed that serotonin fluctuates and drops during times of hunger, which affects the parts of the brain that regulate anger.

It makes evolutionary sense, too. An organism that can easily ignore feelings of hunger would not last long, survival-wise. An organism that has both physical and emotional drives to satisfy nutritional needs would likely fare better.

So how to tame hanger?

Well, for starters—and at the risk of stating the obvious—eat regularly! Know yourself, and if crankiness tends to strike after a mere 2-3 hours without food, make sure you’re having frequent, smaller meals evenly spaced throughout the day.

Beyond that, there are certain “mood foods” that, according to recent research, may increase serotonin levels.

Try including more of these in your daily diet:

  • tryptophan-containing foods like poultry, beef, eggs, nuts, soybeans. Tryptophan is an amino acid required by your body to make serotonin. 
  • omega-3 containing foods like salmon and other fatty fish, flaxseed, and nuts. Research has shown that omega -3 improves function in the parts of the brain that regulate emotion and mood.
  • low glycemic carbs (or “good” carbs), like whole grain grain bread, rice, and oatmeal. Carbs are important because they actually help tryptophan (the building block for serotonin) get into your brain.
  • vitamin D-containing food like milk, fish, and mushrooms.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.