Why Your Spouse May Be 'Hangry' for a Fight

By Alok Patel, MD

It may be that domestic arguments are an unavoidable part of matrimony. For some couples, however, the answer lies not with a marriage counselor, but with a visit to the kitchen.

Hunger could be the sinister culprit behind your argument, according to a new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers in The Ohio State University's department of communications and psychology followed 107 couples, married for an average of 12 years, and found a link between levels of blood sugar and feelings of aggression against a spouse.

"We know there is a link between self-control and blood sugar levels," said study author Dr. Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. "The lower your blood sugar, the lower your ability to control your aggression.

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"This is the first time we have tested this theory outside of a controlled environment. Married couples represent as a perfect real-world extension."

To test their theories, researchers rolled out some unique strategies - using voodoo dolls and a computer game.

Each night, couples measured their aggression toward one another by placing needles, up to 51, in small voodoo dolls, meant to represent their spouse. Later, at the end of 21-day study, couples then competed against one another in a computer game, with the victors winning the opportunity to "blast" their partners with obnoxious noises, such as fingernails on a chalkboard or a dentist's drill.

Both of these phases of the study proved a single point: When a person's blood sugar is lower than normal, they were more likely to act aggressively. It was at these times that the voodoo dolls got stuck the most and their partners were subjected to the loudest blasts of noise.

According to Bushman, this result is exactly what past research has predicted. When your blood sugar is lower than its set baseline, your ability to curb negative emotions is impaired. So universal is the phenomenon that it has even entered the vernacular as its own term: "hangry." This type of hunger-induced anger has recently been popularized in candy bar commercials and popular sitcoms as well.

Dr. Nathan DeWall, professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky and one of the study's researchers, said the study demonstrates how self-control requires energy - energy that is in short supply when we are famished.

"Self-control, impulse control uses energy, both mental and physical," DeWall said. "When we deplete that energy, we have a higher tendency of doing things we regret, such as hurting our loved ones."

Relationship experts not involved with the study said it demonstrates how crucially hunger can affect our emotions.

"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 taught 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."

Doctor's Take

Clearly if your marriage is defined by aggression, a chocolate chip cookie is not going to solve all of your problems. But what this study reinforces is that there may be something to the idea that an empty stomach can lead to occasional marital strife - and that maintaining healthy blood sugar levels may indeed help us curb our aggression toward the ones we love.

So what's the best way to replenish your control and decrease the odds of a quarrel?

Refined carbohydrates in sugary treats may not be the answer; such foods lead to quick sugar spikes and may actually worsen your chance at peace. Rather, options such as fruits and whole grains are a healthier way to keep blood sugar out of the "hangry" zone.

Bushman's recommendation: "If you have a sensitive topic to discuss, it's best done over dinner."