I suffer from a severe but common affliction that affects me on a daily basis. One moment I'm wandering around the shops or casually pondering where to eat with my friends, the next I've completely snapped and ordered them to hurry the hell up. They look at me, and with a tone reserved only for stroppy toddlers, ask, 'are you hungry?'
Hanger, a combination of 'hunger' and 'anger', is a very real though easily dismissed phenomenon. It's your body's way of telling you that your blood-glucose levels have dropped since your last meal. Your brain perceives this as life-threatening and sends signals to other organs in the body. Adrenaline is released to up physical performance and neuropeptide Y, a chemical used to regulate aggression, is activated to communicate hunger to the rest of your body. The chemicals and hormones released during this process may cause you to snap, just as you might snap in stressful or life-threatening circumstances.
Displays of anger or frustration born out of hunger are always a source of embarrassment once we've eaten, but in other animals, hunger is something of an evolutionary advantage. In rodents, it's been shown to invoke a motivational state that speeds up mental processing. In a study led by Sabrina Diano of Yale University, high levels of ghrelin, the 'hunger hormone', in rodents were proven to have improved their performance on memory and learning tasks. Dr Diano told The Scientist that memory may be enhanced during food deprivation because of the increased cognitive skills animals employ to find food.
Hunger is a survival mechanism, but in humans it's become a liability that drastically affects our decision-making skills. In a study published by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers asked 63 undergraduates not to eat for four hours. Then they treated half of them to as much cake as they liked. Each of the 63 participants was then presented with a binder clip and invited to take as many more as they felt they needed. The members of the cake-deprived group went home with 70% more binder clips than their peers.
The same researchers also surveyed 81 shoppers in a department store in America, recording when and what they last ate and examining their receipts. They found that the hungriest shoppers had spent as much as 60% more than those shoppers who had eaten more recently. In these instances, the urge to consume something to eat translated into an urge to consume in any capacity. In humans, hunger doesn't lead to the same potentially rewarding behaviour that it does in other animals.
So when did hunger become hanger? Is it that we've only come to name it recently, or is hanger a distinctively modern phenomenon?
I'm prepared to venture that hanger is unique to modern society for two reasons. Firstly, the urge to hunt and gather has been rendered redundant by vending machines, local shops and supermarkets. Instincts that would prove useful in the wild are of little use in the office when mid-morning cravings are setting in hours before our designated lunch break. Instead, the increased adrenaline and chemicals pulsing through our bodies when we feel hungry are channelled into our emotions.
Secondly, we regularly skip meals, eat on-the-go, grab something light and binge on junk food when we have the chance, so our bodies aren't getting what they need when they need it. We also rely too heavily on sugary and salted foods which can cause hormonal and blood-sugar fluctuations as well as addictions. These lead to cravings which, when unsated, lead to withdrawal. Together with the nine-to-five lifestyle, the modern diet distinguishes hanger from hunger, thereby making it a distinctly contemporary experience.
As I explain this to my partner, I conclude that there are two ways people can deal with feeling hangry: eat something or suck it up until their blood-glucose levels eventually stabilise. 'That's no use for you,' she says. 'You're a nightmare when your hungry.' In response I remind her that I said the latter approach is an option for people, not for me.