Hunger is one of the most common reactions experienced by the human body. People of all ages and races, irrespective of gender, occupation, and personal choices, experience the feeling of hunger. In fact, it’s such a usual occurrence that the average person gives no second thought to the hunger pangs they feel when hunger strikes. Much like breathing or like swallowing, it's almost like a reflex to find some food and gulp it down when we feel the first few hunger pangs gnawing at us.
But behind this seemingly ordinary experience is a science that’s fascinating and worth learning about. If you’ve ever stopped in your tracks when you were hungry and wondered what those hunger pangs were, what caused them, and what the general mechanism behind the gnawing feeling at the pit of your stomach is, then read on to find out more about this intriguing aspect of the human body.
What Are Hunger Pangs?
A pang, as common usage would have it, means a sharp physical pain or a longing emotional ache. It’s safe to say hunger pangs lie somewhere in the gray area between these two kinds of pain. More specifically, hunger pangs are gnawing, uncomfortable sensations, often bordering on painful, typically experienced in the upper left side of the abdomen. These sensations occur when you’re hungry, when you’re craving food, or simply when your stomach is empty. Sometimes, when left unattended for a long period, hunger pangs can cause a rumbling noise in the stomach, which is why we often say that our stomach is growling with hunger.
Do Hunger Pangs Always Indicate Hunger?
Despite the misleadingly obvious name, hunger pangs may not always indicate that you’re hungry. Sometimes, it can simply happen because you’re used to eating food at set times every day, and you may have skipped a meal you usually have. So, even if you’re not hungry, you could feel hunger pangs because of the body’s habit of ingesting food at that particular time.
Hunger vs. Cravings
With an increase in the bad lifestyle choices we’re adopting in recent years, it has become rapidly difficult to read our own body’s cues. This is why, more often than not, we tend to mistake cravings as hunger, and consequently end up eating food even when our body isn’t hungry. Let’s look at what hunger is and what cravings are, specifically.
Hunger is the body’s way of letting you know that it needs fuel. This is better known as physical hunger, which is often accompanied by a feeling of an empty stomach, gurgling sounds in the abdomen, and lightheadedness if left unattended for long periods. Some of the characteristic features of physical hunger are:
Cravings, on the other hand, can cause hunger pangs even when you are not actually hungry. This is what’s also known as psychological or emotional hunger. Unlike real hunger, which can be impossible to resist, it is actually possible to resist cravings and get over them. Some of the characteristic features of emotional hunger or cravings are:
The Science Behind Hunger Pangs
To understand the science behind these contractions that we casually refer to as hunger pangs, we need to take a quick detour and revisit the mechanism of digestion. Here’s what happens in your stomach when you eat a meal.
The Mechanism Behind Digestion
When you tuck into a filling meal, the upper section of your stomach, known as the fundus, stores all the food you ingest. It’s kind of like a pantry where all the food drowned in is stocked up before it’s sent out in batches to be digested. The food from the fundus moves through the central region of the stomach, known as the corpus, and into the lower section, known as the antrum. Here is where the process of digestion takes place most fervently, as the stomach’s muscles contract and churn your food, mixing it with acid and digestive juices to break it down into proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Once the food has been churned into a mushy state called chyme, the stomach squeezes it into the duodenum through the pyloric sphincter, at a rate of one squeeze nearly every 20 seconds.
The Hormones Behind Hunger Pangs
Funnily enough, the science behind your hunger pangs doesn’t begin in the stomach; it originates in the brain. The hypothalamus, which is a tiny region of the brain located near the pituitary gland, is the center that is responsible for interpreting hunger signals and preparing your body to eat. These hunger signals are primarily linked to the levels of two specific hormones – ghrelin and leptin.
Ghrelin is secreted from the linings of your stomach when it’s empty. The release of this hormone activates the hypothalamus, and the brain then sends signals to the stomach to prepare it for digestion, causing it to release digestive acids. This is why sometimes when you let your hunger pangs go unattended, you suffer from acidity. Once ghrelin is released, your appetite is stimulated and you’re more likely to feel hungry.
Leptin, on the other hand, is a hormone released by adipose tissues and its primary role is the opposite of ghrelin. Leptin informs the hypothalamus that you’ve had enough food, and that there’s enough fat in your body, signaling that it’s time to stop eating or to eat less. When adequate levels of leptin aren’t released, your hypothalamus does not get the signal that it’s time to stop the hunger pangs, thus leaving you feeling hungry.
Causes of hunger pangs, and what to do about them
Some people think hunger pangs only occur when you’re hungry. However, they can also be triggered by several other factors. Some of them are explained below.
Lack Of Sleep
Hunger pangs are directly linked to poor sleep cycles and inadequate sleep. This is because lack of sleep increases the effects of a chemical that makes eating sweet and salty foods with a high-fat content seem more appealing.
Hunger and thirst can sometimes manifest as similar symptoms. Thirst, which is often caused by dehydration, can also make you feel lightheaded and irritable, and leave you with stomach pains that feel uncannily like hunger pangs.
Quality Of Food
Poor quality foods like processed items contain high levels of simple carbs and sugar. Eating them causes the body’s insulin levels to spike rapidly and the dip down drastically. Falling insulin levels in turn spike up the levels of ghrelin, causing you to feel hunger pangs.
States of emotional distress like anxiety can also trigger hunger pangs. That’s what led to the popular term ‘stress eating.’ Stressful situations can lead to the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, whose levels, if they remain unregulated, can also lead to hunger pangs.
While there’s no way to eliminate hunger pangs altogether (because they’re a natural reaction that the body has to hunger), here are some tips that can help you manage them.
Choose Your Foods Well
Eating a balanced meal can help curb hunger pangs because they prevent insulin levels from dipping. Try to eat meals that contain all essential components of food like proteins, whole grains, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables, and vitamins and minerals.
Keep Yourself Hydrated
The old rule about eight glasses of water a day probably was a good rule after all. Try to sip water at regular intervals throughout the day to keep yourself well hydrated. Also, limit consumption of caffeinated drinks, which can dehydrate the body.
Eat At Regular Intervals
If you have a meal schedule you’ve been following for a long time now, it’s advisable to stick to it. This is because ghrelin is usually released at intervals that mark your usual mealtime. Switching it up may mean the release of the hormone and consequent hunger pangs even if you’re not hungry.
Get Enough Sleep
The right circadian rhythm is a fascinating concept that keeps the body functioning correctly. Establishing a sleep routine that lasts between 7 to 8 hours, and sticking to it religiously, can keep you from suffering from hunger pangs in the middle of the night.
Hunger pangs are rarely any sources of concern. They’re the body’s natural reaction to a number of factors and taking the steps to eliminate unnecessary triggers can ensure that you suffer from minimal hunger pangs. This is especially important if you’re on a limiting diet because keeping your hunger pangs in check with prevent you from giving in to cravings, thus allowing you to focus on and achieve your bodyweight goals while remaining healthy.