Want to stick pins in your partner? Face it, you’re hangry

An increased willingness to insert pins into your partner, or rather a voodoo doll representing him or her, is proof that low blood-sugar levels increase aggression between spouses, according to researchers at Ohio State University, in the US. The number of pins was said to show the level of aggression felt towards a partner, with more pins inserted when blood glucose levels were low.

While being “hangry” has a certain logic, it could also be argued that low blood-sugar levels make someone more able/willing to think that voodoo is a real thing. Brace yourself for the headline: “Hunger causes married couples to use black magic!” My money is on the Mail.

This finding might come as a surprise. How can what we eat make us behave differently in such a direct manner? Surely the mind dictates diet, not the other way round? We’ve all been told at some point that healthy eating is “a matter of willpower”, or words to that effect. And the fact that eating disorders exist surely suggests that our psychology overrules our biology when it comes to what we consume.

This is often the case. Some reports of amnesiac patients suggest that they gain weight purely because they can’t remember they’ve eaten; or despite sufficient food being in their systems, they feel compelled to eat again. But to assume that it’s purely a one-way relationship between diet and brain is naive.

The brain is, aside from all else, a biological organ. And it needs nutrients to function. The link between good nutrition and effective brain function is widely acknowledged. Seeing as much of the brain is dedicated to maintaining the body and ensuring survival, it can be very sensitive to what is put in the body. Or what isn’t, as the case may be. The famous Minnesota starvation experiment revealed some alarming psychological consequences of food deprivation, such as an increasing inability to focus on things that weren’t food-related.

Patients with eating disorders also experience numerous associated psychological problems, many of which could be, or are, linked to poor diet. For example, anorexia causes a devastating loss of body fat, but adipose tissue (what body fat is made of) releases the hormone leptin, which has numerous regulatory roles in the brain, particularly to do with diet. No body fat means the brain stops getting information that controls the appetite response and inconsistent appetite means you eat less, thus creating a vicious cycle.

These are extreme examples, of course. But as the Ohio State study shows, diet can influence the brain far more immediately. It wouldn’t be such a problem if the brain weren’t so fussy about what it needs, but it only metabolises glucose, and it won’t store anything, so it needs a constant, ready supply of energy-providing foods. If you eat at set times, your brain grows to expect it.

If your blood sugar drops, your brain will detect this. You will then, on some level, feel the urge to get food (food is a fundamental motivator). If finding food is a priority, anything that distracts from that will be harder to tolerate – eg an unrelated but emotionally draining exchange with a spouse. Ergo, hungrier partners are less tolerant partners.

It makes you wonder how many marriages could have been salvaged for want of a sandwich. – By Dean Burnett © Guardian News and Media 2014

Image – Flickr / Charli White

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