As my boyfriend and I walked down the cobblestone streets and alleys of the ancient capitol of Guatemala, a dusty, colorful and quaint remnant of Spanish colonialism, I grew quiet. Everything around me faded as if the world beyond a five-foot diameter was an undefined white miasma.
Then I blurted out: “Just to let you know, I’m going to need to eat in the next five minutes.”
The ‘oh-shit’ look transformed his features as we embarked on a not so pleasant adventure to find the closest eatery that had: 1) food; 2) vegetarian options that wouldn’t cause vomiting or severe intestinal cramping; and 3) had a chance of being delicious and heathly.
Here’s the confession: I am one of those people. You know the kind. The ones who go from 0 to scary in five minutes if they don’t receive immediate nourishment.
It’s embarassing, and causes its share of problems. As my boyfriend has pointed out, food is the source of 95% of our arguments. Considering we don’t fight often, that’s significant.
So what is it that drives me to become the explosive ice queen whenever I get hungry? Or ‘hangry’ as some people call it.
As it turns out, there’s a science-backed answer in the giant morass of the great intergalactic library called the Internet.
That’s right … Science is on my side. (And my physiology is to blame.)
Hungry is an emotion
Some things are happening in your body when you get hungry. The concentration of glucose in your blood is depleting. Once it achieves a certain level (from 3.8 to 2.8 mmol/L), your brain, which survives on glucose, initiates a desparate cry for help. A progressive SOS goes out to the pituitary gland, pancreas, and adrenal glands who in turn respond by releasing growth hormone, glucagon, and adrenaline and cortisol, respectively. The body releases these hormones in stages. Early stages are supposed to trigger glucogenesis, a process whereby the body converts amino acids into glucose so that your greedy, gluttonous brain doesn’t have to stop bingeing. Adrenaline and cortisol come into play when the glucose levels further drop.
Being low on glucose is a bit like being drunk. Muddled thoughts, slurred speech, and difficulty concentrating are some typical symptoms. Being really low on glucose is dangerous, and can lead to seizures, coma and death. Seriously.
The link between adrenal, cortisol and anger seems obvious, however it’s not the only thing driving this irrational behavioral response. You know how genes provide the basis for our programming. Well, the one controlling hunger also controls anger. Neuropeptide Y (benign name for such an implement of destruction) is found to be significantly elevated in the cerebral spinal fluid of some lucky individuals, together with a higher incidence of the Y1 receptor. [ASIDE: Neuropeptide Y, like many things in the body, has different functions, and can induce various responses to diverse stimuli. For example, it plays a role in obesity, aids in dealing with PTSD, enhances performance under stress, and may provide protection against alcoholism.]
Is anger ever a good thing?
Evolutionarily speaking (because who doesn’t like gazing back on those knuckle dragging days with misty-eyed nostalgia) increased aggression while hungry probably served a very important biological function… like making sure you beat out the competition and didn’t die of starvation.
As it turns out, my irritating habit of losing my rationale mind when I get hungry may have been beneficial in some kind of yesteryear. I imagine my ancient self racing across a muddy savannah, flecks of earth sailing through the air like miniature bombs against the smoke-filled sky. Spear in hand. Prey trying to escape me, but turning its sharp tusks at me once I finally corner it.
It’s no excuse, nor is it fair to my amazing friends and family to become she-hulk when my blood sugar drops. How do I combat evolutionary biology? I haven’t quite figured that out yet. Some basic tricks are always having a healthy snack on hand, no matter where on the planet I am. Maintaining blood sugar levels requires a bit of vigilence, as well as a deeper knowledge of our own internal bio-rhythms.
Perhaps the main thing is to remember a moment of hanger is temporary, and to stay grateful for my boyfriend, who is so patience with me, and keeps an internal map of all the closest eateries.