“You’re not you when you’re hungry.” Has someone ever told you this? When we don’t eat often enough it’s harder for our brain to control our aggressive impulses. Surprisingly, hangry isn’t just millennial slang. It’s actual science.

Feelings of hunger can easily shorten our temper’s fuse and thus the term hangry was born. Many people experience hanger (the combination of hungry and angry) when they’re long overdue for a meal.

“What’s interesting is hanger is actually a survival mechanism,” said Brenda Bustillos, M.S., R.D.N., L.D., a registered dietitian with the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health. “The amount of glucose available for the brain declines as more time passes between meals. Food is important because when glucose levels become too low, our brain triggers the release of stress hormones.”

Why exactly is glucose so important? Simply put, glucose is brain food. When your brain is “starving,” it makes simple tasks and small interactions with people more difficult than usual.

Think about it: When you’re hungry, you wouldn’t jump to work out – or stress your body in any way. Like our bodies, our brain also needs fuel.

“Glucose is the number one fuel for the brain and it aids with concentration and our thinking abilities,” Bustillos said. “There is a definite linkage between lack of glucose—because of lack of food intake—and limited self-control responses.”

According to Bustillos, being hangry is the result of control and regulation mechanisms in our bodies gone awry. “When we’re unable to receive food, we experience a physiological response that creates frustration,” she said. “In a brain lacking glucose, it’s harder to control signs of anger. Acute bouts of hunger trigger the release of stress hormones which makes it harder to manage our anger and irritability.”

Luckily, hangry is not a condition without a cure; and the cure is pretty much common sense: Do not wait until you feel hungry to eat. “It’s relatively easy to combat hanger when you’re not experiencing food insecurity,” Bustillos said. “We can make a conscious effort to curb our hanger by consuming small portions of nutrient dense foods throughout the day. Investing in smart habits will help stave off these undesirable symptoms.”

Bustillos also emphasized the importance of making healthy decisions when dealing with stress and hunger. “Many people engage in behaviors they can control when dealing with stressful situations,” she said. “Most often this translates into unhealthy stress eating. Managing the release of these stress hormones is essential if we want to kick bad food habits.”

— Lauren Thompson

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