You know "hanger," that raging storm cloud of grumpiness that rolls over you when you haven't eaten in a long time? The word—a portmanteau of hunger and anger—is now defined in the British Collins Dictionary as an adjective, hangry, meaning "irritable as a result of feeling hungry."
Being hangry is like stepping into an awful second-skin version of ourselves. It makes us look and act like dicks, and it's shitty for everyone involved. But how aware are we of it before it's too late? Before we end up disgracing ourselves because we don't have immediate access to a burger or a stack of cookies?
Picture the last few days of your life in breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. How many of those meals were eaten after your stomach had already started purring? And how many times did you have to rush to eat because you were so hungry that you were no longer capable of holding a rational conversation? We're all busy, and because of that our appetites get sidelined—just one more phone call, one more email, one quick meeting, then we can eat. According to Susie Orbach, an author and psychologist who's been writing about the human appetite for 40 years, being out of sync with hunger like this is "a very modern phenomenon."
Maybe this is why we're not fully aware of just how connected our guts and brains are. How can hunger so radically alter our mood? Paul Currie, a professor of psychology at Reed College, says it's mostly because of one hormone called ghrelin. "When we're hungry, there's an increased release of ghrelin from the stomach, which increases our motivation to consume food," he told me. "Elevated levels of ghrelin might also activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, otherwise known as the stress axis."
Ghrelin receptors are also present elsewhere in the body, namely in the Spaghetti Junction of our metabolism, the hypothalamus. The more this hormone circulates, the more churned up the brain gets. "Animal studies show that direct ghrelin injections into the hypothalamus increase anxiety-like behavior, suggesting there's overlapping brain circuits mediating food intake and emotional behavior," said Paul. The gut and brain, then, essentially have a hormonal highway running between them.
Our senses go into overdrive when we're hungry: Noises seem louder, lights brighter, smells smellier. It could be why your neighbor listening to motherfucking "Thrift Shop" again might be more annoying when you're hungry. But while being hungry may not stand up in court as justification for your smashing a hole through a wall with a broom, it might ease your conscience knowing that it's chemical—that it kind of isn't your fault.
Hanger can literally put people in prison. In 2011, a paper examining 1,000 rulings by Israeli judges in parole hearings was released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Over ten months, the authors found, more lenient verdicts were given in the mornings and immediately after scheduled breaks, i.e. lunch. Favorable rulings for parole candidates peaked in the morning at around 65 percent, then declined over the course of the day. After a meal break favorable rulings rose again to around 65 percent. The old adage that justice is what the judge ate for breakfast is clearly more than just an adage.
Hunger is, along with the need to shit and sleep, a base impulse. Needing food and then getting it are one of the first experiences of fear and satisfaction babies ever encounter. But while an infant can scream its tiny pink lungs out until a nipple or bottle is put into its mouth, grown-ups don't really have the same luxury. We rely on physical prompts—the sad, squelchy sounds of our empty gut wrestling with itself. So when hunger tips over into mental discomfort, is our body trying to get our attention a different way?
"This is exactly what we think might be going on," said Paul Currie. "The increases in arousal [anxiety, for example] elicit the appropriate behavioral response—to satisfy our need for food or energy. The brain circuits mediating intake, motivation, arousal, and emotion are overlapping."
Would these overlapping circuits explain why eating can provide such an immediate calming effect after feeling hangry? Why even a few mouthfuls of a sandwich can settle our mood? "Yes," Paul told me. "Once you actually start to eat, ghrelin levels in the brain decline rapidly, reducing the arousal and continued signalling associated with seeking out food."
This information makes the surge in popularity of certain diets—like juice fasting, a.k.a. "cleansing"—worrying. When you're getting your nutrients purely through liquid, it practically guarantees hanger and some degree of mental upset, and that can "compromise our physical, emotional, and cognitive function," according to Paul. Fasting is as old as time and still practiced, carefully, in certain religions, but the juice cleanse boom in the Western world has something sad and complex at its heart. Any doctor will tell you that (A) any weight lost will return when you eat normally again and (B) the "cleansing" part of it is bullshit.
Still, smart, high-functioning people still keep falling for the Gwyneth Paltrow approach to sustenance. Why? "We're in placebo territory," said nutritionist Claudia Louch, who runs London's Harley Street Nutrition Clinic. "The human body is the perfect machine. Our liver, kidneys, digestive system, and skin remove toxins very effectively. Anyone with a sound understanding of the body will know that [cleansing] isn't the healthy option people are duped into believing it is."
Does the popularity of this kind of dieting suggest not only that certain people have an otherworldly resistance to hunger but that some of us actually thrive on hanger? It's significant that juice cleanses are more popular with women, which Susie Orbach suggests could be because of "our constant bombardment with weight-consciousness" and the fact that "we are addicted to the idea of a quick fix."
Nearly 40 years after breaking ground with her book Fat Is a Feminist Issue, which urged women to return to eating within the rhythm of their appetites, Susie believes that "appetite, and therefore satisfaction, is tainted with fear." So it seems that feeling hangry, for some peoplne, means feeling in control—of desire, their impulses, and, most of all, weight.
If we're constantly stuck in a spin cycle of dieting, it's a given that we'll be hungry more. Lisa Sasson, a professor in NYU's department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, told the New York Times in 2005 that weight-consciousness may explain why women might report "hunger-related moodiness" more. "Women sometimes feel that, if they are satiated—if their bellies bulge the tiniest bit beyond flatness—then they may have overeaten," the Times article reported.
This makes me want to drown my sorrow in a pint of lard, but there must be a way to feel good about yourself without starving to the point of rage. Obviously it's impossible to shut out all the noise surrounding weight loss and food, but Susie says we should "really dare to learn to eat with our hunger." It takes practice, she said, "but being aware of our different levels of fullness is a start." On one day we might be hungrier than the next, and that's fine. "Follow the hunger urge like you would the urge to pee."
Sometimes hanger is unavoidable—we can't always eat exactly when we need to. But pre-empting where and when we might get hungry is probably a good thing, because unlike hunger—which merely tells us when we should eat—hanger is horrible.
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