When Your Brain is Hungry, it Makes You Angry

An in-depth look at ‘hanger’ and how to handle it

Nabil Alouani
Sep 24, 2020 · 8 min read
“Rest assured dear reader, you’ll understand the cover photo choice in a bit “— Photo by DESIGNbyJA from Pexels — modified by author

My super talkative-in-sometimes-annoying-way sister knows she can call me anytime — except when I’m ‘Ramadanned.’ Ramadan is a particular month for Muslims in which they fast from sunrise to sunset. During this time, no food, water, or cigarettes are allowed in their systems, and if you’re wondering, no sex either.

With all of these restrictions, it happens that people get a little bit edgier and slightly more aggressive than usual. I’ve been calling this state ‘being Ramadanned’ until I found a technical term for it: Hanger.

Hanger is a combination of hunger and anger. It’s what makes us overreact, yell, and even break things for no good reason — except being hungry. The problem is: We rarely notice hanger because we’re not aware of its existence. That’s why science decided to tackle hanger and teach us how to reduce its disastrous side-effects.

An Empty Stomach is Bad News for Your Brain

Hanger starts in the brain. Despite representing a tiny 2% of your body weight, the pink walnut-shaped organ that’s allowing you to read these words consumes up to 20% of your calories.

So, not only is your brain the CEO of your body, but it’s also its biggest client. That’s why, when your brain is starving, all your body mobilizes to satisfy its needs. This mobilization translates into switching on your hungry predator mode to transform you into an agitated hunter ready to jump on anything that moves — hence the increase in your aggression level. To quantify the latter, scientists used fake lemonade and sound blasts.

Specialist in aggression and professor at Ohio State University, Brad Bushman, conducted an experiment where he asked college students to fast for three hours. Then he invited them over for lemonade. Bushman gave the first group real lemonade, which contained sugar. The second group had lemonade with Splenda — a 0 calorie substitute for sugar.

In short, group (A) had fuel for their brains, group (B) had none, and nobody knew. Bushman told his participants that the experiment was about the relationship between types of food and reaction time in the brain. In reality, Bushman measured the correlation between sugar levels in the system of his participants and their aggressivity.

First, Bushman made the members of each group compete against each other through a tiny video game to distinguish two sub-groups: winners and losers. Then, Bushman told the winners that they earned the right to punish the losers by sending them sound blasts through headphones. The severity of the sound blasts ranged from 0, representing a total absence of sound, to 10, which resembled a fire alarm ringing directly into the victims’ ears. The winners also controlled how long the losers suffered — from 0 to 5 seconds.

The research team found that those who had their brains running on fumes were significantly more aggressive — surprise, surprise.

Satisfied with his first trial, Bushman decided to replicate his experiment in a natural setting to strengthen his findings. The replication participants were couples who played along for twenty-three days. The experiment involved blood glucose meters intended to measure sugar levels at home. As for anger levels, participants used voodoo dolls and pins — more pins planted in a doll at the end of each day meant more anger towards the spouse.

The voodoo doll results validated those of the lemonade experiment. This means that the “more hungry = more angry” equation doesn’t only apply to starving students who torture each other in a lab. You and I are also concerned.

To explain why people get Ramadanned or Hangry, Bushman said, “Because they have less energy for their brains to exercise control over angry feelings and aggressive impulses.” This can lead us to ruin our mood and that of others, to make mistakes, and create problems out of thin air.

Try to recall the last time you had a meaningless fight. Odds are you were hungry. I know because I started to observe myself and found that I’m less patient when I’m hungry. For instance, last time I was at the embassy to renew my passport, I left home without breakfast. First, the waiting time seemed endless, even though it was less than twenty minutes. Second, on my way home, the metro line was jammed, so I had to make a detour. Usually, whenever I don’t have a time limit, I’m happy to make detours. It allows me to spend more time walking, reading, and texting my loved ones — but not this time. I was cursing my luck and complaining about the Parisian metro. The same metro that saved my ass countless times. Finally, I almost picked up a fight with my sister, who reached out to ask how my day was going despite her busyness with her sick child. Hanger turned me into an impatient, ungrateful monster. In hindsight, I was lucky for not having any other impactful appointments that morning.

Bushman was right when he pointed out that the take-home message of his experiments is: “Don’t talk about anything important on an empty stomach.”

How to Tame Your Hangry Self and Others

If you’re anything like me, being aware of a lovely life hack doesn’t mean that you’re applying it. It can take some severe logistics and exhausting mental reminders to keep track of your hunger level whenever you’re about to talk about something important.

To avoid checking on my belly every time my girlfriend calls me or my clients send me an email, I integrated two simple avoid-hanger tips into my personal system. I like using the previous two sophisticated words to describe my calendar and notebook. But I promise; the tips are everything but sophisticated. Here’s how to apply them.

1- Pick digestion hours for your professional conversations

In my previous life as an IT consultant, pissing off a lot of people was a daily routine. One the one hand, I had to tell coders that their ‘awesome’ updates degraded the system. On the other hand, I had to tell clients that validation tests failed (again.) If I wanted to solve my daily issues, I had to pick the least lousy timing to bear bad news. Otherwise, people get upset and refuse to help — especially when they’re hangry. So, to avoid sterile work discussions filled with aggressiveness, I adapted my schedule.

My time management became more oriented toward meal times than working hours. ‘After breakfast’ and ‘after lunch’ used to be my favorite timeslots to make a call or set up a meeting that involved terrible news. Whenever something urgent happened around 4 p.m, I invited my counterparts into a nearby coffee shop for a lemonade — without Splenda. Despite bringing irritating news, my colleagues showed less aggression and more rationality.

In addition to replicating the same scheduling pattern we just saw, there are a few tips you can use at work to handle the hangry impulses of your colleagues. Here are four additional examples that cover varied situations.

  • Bring and ask your colleagues to bring snacks and juice to brainstorming sessions. It’ll motivate everybody and bring a good mood to the work meeting.
  • Ask your regular colleagues about their eating routines. Intermittent fasters and religious people can be unpredictable. Adapt.
  • Begin your phone calls with food-oriented questions like “How was your lunch?” This will allow you to break the ice and take the temperature of the caller’s mood.
  • Keep healthy snacks like cereal/protein bars and fruits close to you. First, you also get hangry. Second, junk-food worsens your mood.

With this being said, keep in mind that your colleagues can be lazy and slow during digestion time as their bodies enter into rest mode to process the food. Sure, it’s an advantage when you’re about to make a lousy announcement, but it can sabotage creativity and excitement. So, if you’re looking for high focus and energy, aim for timeslots an hour or two after digestion.

2 — Prepare decision-snacks and conflict-treats at home

When my girlfriend, who lives in another country, came to visit Paris for the first time, I filled my notebook with things to do and places to explore. Tina and I enjoy half-baked plans. We define three main things to do each day and improvise in between. The catch is, improvising necessitates decision-making — a.k.a brainpower. So, to avoid transforming our half-improvised plans into a hangry mess, we snacked. For instance, after visiting a museum, we ate nuts and fruits. As we were chewing, we decided to take some pictures in a nearby garden and explore a few narrow streets — No fights, no grumping, no frustration — nada.

You can use the same trick by filling your bag with snacks whenever you spend time outside with your friend or spouse. It’s always pleasant to share food, and it’ll make you more prone to making thoughtful decisions instead of impulsive reactions.

During Tina’s stay, I’d used her old phone because mine was broken. Tina’s old phone is synchronized with her current cloud. After she got back to Germany, she found questionable pictures that needed explanations. Tina called me on my way home from the gym. She knew I was hungry. She also knew about hanger. Despite her itchy curiosity, she asked me to call her back after dinner. We could’ve had a meaningless fight over screenshots a friend sent me to make a joke, but we didn’t. Instead, we had a funny conversation over dessert. I could’ve felt offended by her questions and answered rudely. An impulsive reaction on my side could’ve escalated a simple question into a fight. But our full stomachs made us rather laugh at each other — so, thank you, glucose.

Whether you’re near your family or far from them, hanger can affect your relationships. In France, we say, “prevention is better than cure.” Steal the wisdom of this line and anticipate hangry quarrels. On top of filling your bag with snacks and delaying sensitive conversation for after dinner, here are four tips you can keep in mind as hanger-preventions.

  • Make sure you go shopping with your spouse after a meal. Not only will both of you be more patient with each other, but you’ll also avoid impulsive purchases.
  • When you go out, don’t wait until your friends or family are starving to start looking for a restaurant. By the time you get there, they’ll already be on edge — so anticipate. Start by regularly asking them how they feel. As soon as you hear: “I’m a little peckish” or “A bit low on energy,” take the next turn to a place serving food.
  • If you have kids, insist on giving them an easy-to-carry snack like a peanut butter sandwich or fruits whenever they leave for a day-long activity. Then, call them to point out they have food in their bag. Children can also succumb to hanger — also, they get hungry more often than we do.
  • Whenever possible, greet your guests with some savory appetizers as soon as they step into your house. You never know what kind of day they had, so at least take away their hanger with delicious snacks. It’ll improve everybody’s mood.

Before You Go

Not only are you what you eat, but also your relationship with food determines your mood.

Whenever you notice you or your peers are being aggressive for no reason, do a collective stomach check. By making sure no stomach is completely empty, you’ll keep hanger at bay.

Now, I know part of you wants to use this article as a grab-a-snack-any-time free card. Before that happens, remember that glucose is best harnessed from natural sources like fruits, cereals, and vegetables.

Got it? Or should we discuss this over dinner?

Also hey, I’ve started a short thoughts-letter in which I share my top two ideas from each month. Here, it’s two clicks away.


How to be your best self.

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