A few years back, when I was working longer and more stressful hours at the office, I would often come home to find my husband, John, had set out a plate of olives, cheese and crackers with a glass of wine for me.
It was a kind way to welcome me home, as well as a smart move of self-preservation.
Long before I’d heard the word “hangry,” I knew I got cranky when I was hungry. I’d long kept what John describes as my squirrel stash in a desk drawer at work so I could nibble instead of snapping at a coworker. John’s happy hour snacks were serving the same purpose at home.
So I wasn’t surprised when I read about research that showed couples snap at each other more when their blood sugar is low.
Ohio State University researchers gave couples a voodoo doll and pins, with instructions to stab the doll with more or less pins to indicate how angry they were with their spouse. Participants with low blood sugar stuck more pins in their dolls than those with higher blood sugar levels.
The OSU team also gave couples the ability to blast each other with an unpleasant noise. Participants with lower blood sugar were more likely to blast their partner, and to give longer and louder blasts.
What’s at work there? NPR wrote:
“What we conclude is that glucose is the food for the brain that we need to exercise self-control,” (Brad) Bushman says. “And when people’s glucose levels are low, they are poorer at exercising self-control.”
Blood sugar is clearly not the only factor involved in whether someone gets angry. But low blood sugar probably makes it harder for the brain to control emotions, says Emil Coccaro, a psychiatrist at the University of Chicago.
“The brain uses only sugar for its energy needs,” he says. “So when there’s less sugar available, the neurons aren’t going to function as well.”
“Hunger is one of many external forces that play a part in frustration and temperament,” said Dr. Scott Weltzer, vice chairman of the department of psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center and the director of its Supporting Healthy Relationships program. He added that this phenomenon is often even more evident in close relationships, such as those between married couples.
“Marital tension is analogous to a taut rubber band, and hunger can be the force that causes it to snap,” he said. “We are all less inhibited around our loved ones and more likely to lash out at home than we are in the workplace.”
I also know that John and I can get snappish with each other when we’re tired, stressed or drinking, so if we start to argue, before it escalates too far, I try to take a mental inventory of our risk factors. Are we actually mad at each other or are we just off kilter?
There’s a difference between a real argument and just being crabby.