Oh, hanger. I’m sure we’ve all done something crazy under its influence or been the victim of someone who has.
If you haven’t, please allow me to paint a picture for you…you’re waiting for a table at a crowded restaurant that doesn’t accept reservations ("What kind of stupid, snotty restaurant doesn’t take reservations?") and haven't had anything to eat since lunchtime ("I’m starving. Literally starving."). Your friend won’t stop going on and on about something that happened at work. ("Your voice is like a jackhammer chipping away at my sanity.") A missing check or invoice. You’re too preoccupied looking for tables that are wrapping up to pay attention to her. "STOP TALKING. You’re being so dramatic. It really doesn’t sound like a big deal at all. And it’s Friday night—just get over it already. And when the heck are these people going to get up and leave?" Oops—you said that last one out loud. [Steals French fry off passing busboy’s tray.]
No, it’s not a pretty picture. Because when you experience hanger, your blood sugar levels have plummeted to a point where your body is starting to enter panic mode and wants to get them back up as soon as possible. But here’s the thing: Most often, you’re not actually starving. Chances are, you’ve gone only a few hours without eating, not a few days.
So, why is it that your blood sugar levels have dropped so low that it triggers this alarm state?
"Hanger" is a consequence of blood sugar imbalance. Whenever we eat a sugary food or carbohydrate-rich meal, our blood sugar levels spike. Such extreme spikes in blood sugar cause blood sugar levels to plummet below normal once insulin is released and they fall. Though the body’s stored glucose reserve (glycogen) is tapped into in order to bring things back into balance, extreme blood sugar lows can be too much for glycogen to effectively balance, and so the body is left screaming "MUST. EAT. NOW!" During this time, the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are also called on to help raise blood sugar levels and give the body the energy it feels it desperately needs. Since adrenaline and cortisol are stress hormones, they contribute to the "anger" in hanger, as well as jitteriness and lack of concentration.
Hanger isn’t the only consequence of blood sugar imbalance. The blood sugar highs and lows behind hanger are also to blame for intense sugar cravings and that midafternoon energy slump that has you relying on coffee to power through the day. Even more troubling, they increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, promote chronic inflammation, suppress the immune system, weaken the vascular system, slow metabolism, and inhibit the ability to lose weight.
For these reasons, maintaining balanced blood sugar levels is a critically important aspect of nutrition and health that we all need to focus on—not just diabetics. Luckily, there are a few simple ways to do so:
1. Include fat and protein with each meal.
Since protein and fat are digested more slowly, they slow glucose absorption into the bloodstream, providing the body with a steady stream of sugar rather than a heaping dump. Protein and fat also keep us feeling fuller longer, which is key to overcoming sugar cravings and so preventing you from reaching for a food that is sure to dramatically spike blood sugar levels.
2. When sugar cravings come a-knockin', reach for fat and protein rather than carbs.
Again, fat and protein are going to keep you full and satiated, whereas carbs are going to set you off on or continue the blood sugar roller coaster. Fat bombs are a great, quick-cravings-crushing snack option as are nuts. I always keep these creamy coconut mints on hand to fight back against cravings—they work double duty since they’re not only loaded with healthy fats but also since mint suppresses appetite.
3. Focus on fruits and vegetables as your primary source of carbohydrates.
Like fat and protein, the fiber in fresh fruits and vegetables slows down carbohydrate digestion and so helps prevent a dramatic spike in blood sugar levels. Sugar and simple carbohydrates, on the other hand, lack fiber and are quickly digested, causing a rapid spike in blood sugar levels.
4. Get a good night's sleep.
A lack of sleep causes a rise in the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn increases blood sugar levels. It also drastically reduces insulin sensitivity. This connection is so significant that researchers found that "less than one week of sleep restriction can result in a prediabetic state in young, healthy subjects."
5. Exercise regularly.
Since muscle requires more glucose, exercise helps to lower blood sugar levels. It also helps to increase insulin sensitivity. But as with all things, be careful not to overdo it! Strenuous exercise is stressful to the body, and, again, the stress hormone cortisol increases blood sugar levels.