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Physical & Mental Effects of Hunger

“On an empty stomach, I can’t _____.”

Everyone can fill in that blank. The adverse effect of hunger on the brain is universally understood – but what does hunger actually do to your mind and body?

Here are four things:

1. Hunger alters perception

Studies in animals have shown that hunger activates extra nerve cells in the brain that control perception. When an animal is hungry, certain senses are heightened, and that can lead to loosened inhibitions and a willingness to take risks. In the wild, an animal might pursue a possible food source that it would normally deem too dangerous. In a person, hunger can result in anything from misreading a situation to binging on food. Your body may be reading normal hunger feelings as much more intense than they are, and being focused on that can cloud your judgment in other areas.

2. Over time, your body can become desensitized to hunger

Your appetite is controlled by “hunger hormones” that tell your body when to eat and when you have had enough. But regular overeating can cause these hunger hormones to change so that the body becomes unable to deploy appetite-suppressing hormones. That, in turn, leads to a decreased ability to recognize when you’re full.

Furthermore, when we eat unbalanced meals with highly processed or fried foods, our bodies’ notification systems don’t work as effectively, so our hunger doesn’t shut off when it should. A diet rich in “good” carbohydrates (vegetables, fruits), “good” fats (avocados, certain nuts/seeds and nut butters) or protein (chicken, fish) suppresses the hormones that cause hunger more effectively than unhealthy meals.

3. Stress makes hunger worse

If you’re stressed, your body produces adrenaline, which subdues hunger for a period of time. But once that wears off, hunger returns and can feel more intense, which can lead to overeating. Also, continuous stress may boost your cortisol level, a hormone that increases hunger. Once you address the stress, your cortisol should decrease, but it’s best not to let it get out of hand in the first place.

4. Smells trigger hunger

If you’ve ever driven by a BBQ restaurant and found yourself craving ribs, you know smell is a powerful sense when you’re hungry (and even when you’re not). Smell can bring back memories or cause cravings, which is why your brain (and in turn your stomach) expects that your body is about to receive whatever your nose smells.

The solutions

Don’t wait until you’re ravenous to eat

If you’ve ever exclaimed, “I’m starving!” you’ve waited too long to eat. Eating smaller, regular meals that include protein spaced out over the course of the day may help keep you from experiencing extreme hunger, which can lead to better choices.

Get plenty of sleep

Lack of sleep can cause the hormones in your body that control hunger to become irregular, which can lead to overeating.

Drink water

It will help you stay hydrated and has even been shown to decrease hunger as it helps fill up your stomach and keep your body working more smoothly.

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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WellTuned provides inspiration and practical advice for healthy living.
WellTuned does not offer medical advice. Any personal health questions should be addressed to your doctor.

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