What happens when we’re hungry?

Hunger can affect more than our mood
It can also influence our willingness to engage in risky behavior

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC

Hunger and the Brain

You have probably noticed that being hungry can affect your overall mood and feelings of well-being — and that hungry people are often difficult to deal with.

Memes all over the internet frequently
describe that feeling as “hangry.”

But did you know that hunger can also influence the way you respond and make decisions, encouraging you to engage in risky behavior? This reaction can be seen in a wide range of species in the animal kingdom.

Experiments conducted on the fruit fly, Drosophila, by scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology have shown that hunger not only modifies behavior, but also changes the use of neural pathways, revealing that hunger affects decision making and risk perception.

For those who don’t understand why scientists bother studying fruit flies:

  1. the fruit fly is a wonderful genetic model organism for circuit neuroscience (studying connections) and gene/behavior influences.  (Model organisms that are especially valuable when similar early-stage research simply could not be carried out in humans);
  2. their extremely short life-cycle allows research labs to observe effects over many generations quickly – in an extremely cost-effective manner;
  3. their small size means that the equivalent of the entire population of a city like New York could be kept on a measly stack of trays in a single laboratory
  4. scientists and labs usually don’t have to overcome a public perception problem.  Except for incredibly ignorant comments like the ones made by Sarah Palin when she complained loudly about “totally wasted research funds” during the 2008 Presidential campaign, very few educated people rally to object to research on fruit flies.

Related posts:
A Lesson for Sarah Palin on Fruit Fly Research – YouTube
Mapping behavior in the fruit fly brain — ScienceDaily

DID YOU KNOW THAT, among other things . . .

…they can be used to study sleep — that coffee keeps them awake, and that old fruit flies sleep less than young ones?

…the first “jet lag genes” were found in these flies, which aided in their discovery in humans?

…the first learning genes were discovered in fruit flies and operate in the same manner in humans?

…in fact, about 75% of human disease genes have a recognizable match in fruit flies? (i.e., “Homologous” – having the same or a similar correspondence, as in relative position, structure and/or function)

…since they can get drunk and addicted to alcohol, they have been immensely helpful in addiction research?

…they have advanced our understanding of cancer, epilepsy & Alzheimer’s enormously and can be used to help develop future medicines for these conditions?

…they have functionally similar stem cells and have taught us a great deal about their behavior and regulation?

…they lead the way in dietary research, helping science discover what to eat for healthy ageing?

…Drosophila is the insect behind 10 Nobel laureates in Physiology or Medicine?

Source: Why the fly? | Manchester Fly Facility

And NOW they are helping scientists study the effect of hunger and nutrition on behavior.

Field observations and studies of other lab animals have shown us that the willingness of many animals to take risks increases or decreases depending on whether or not the animal is hungry. (For example, a predator in the wild only hunts more dangerous prey when it is close to starvation.)

In recent years, this behavior has even been documented in humans: one study showed that hungry subjects took significantly more financial risks than their colleagues who had eaten their fill.

In addition, it seems that the fruit fly, Drosophila, changes its behavior depending on its nutritional state.

But how does that work in the brain,
and what can we learn from it?

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What we are learning from fruit flies

Max Planck Institute (from their website)

Facing the prospect of food, hungry animals of all types seem to be significantly more willing to take risks than sated ones.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried, at the southwest border of Munich, conducted several interesting experiments to find out why and how.

Testing their theory that certain decision-influencing nerve cells are activated and deactivated by different levels of hunger, they analyzed signals in the brains of fruit flies that were put in a situation where hunger was combined with a normally threatening situation.

Source: SciTech Daily, Hunger and the Brain

Animals usually perceive even low quantities of carbon dioxide to be a sign of danger. However, the fruit flies’ main sources of food also release carbon dioxide — rotting fruit and other plants.

HOW does the brain differentiate to make those behavioral decisions?

To begin to explore the question, researchers put fruit flies in environments containing carbon dioxide alone or a mix of carbon dioxide and the smell of food.

They learned that the hungry ones overcame their aversion to carbon dioxide significantly faster than the well-fed ones – as long as there was a smell of food in the environment at the same time.  NOT so great where staying alive is concerned.

By taking advantage of the ability to make changes in the brain of a large sampling of fruit flies, neurobiologists at the Institute have now discovered how the brain deals with the decision conflict between a hazardous substance and a potential meal.

Scientists believed that two different areas of a fruit flies’ brain controlled different aspects of their behavior, so the researchers disabled each area individually to see how their behavior changed.

By temporarily disabling the area used for learning and making decisions (“the mushroom body”), they found that, when hungry, the flies showed no reaction to the danger of carbon dioxide.

Those hungry fruit flies went about their business as usual, despite the fact that carbon dioxide was present.

But how does the brain manage to decide between these options?

Previously, the nerve cells in the mushroom body were thought to be linked only with behavior patterns that are based on learned associations. Avoiding carbon dioxide is an innate behavior, so was expected to be generated outside the mushroom body in the fruit fly’s brain.

Remember, however, that when the scientists temporarily disabled these particular nerve cells, hungry fruit flies no longer showed any reaction whatsoever to carbon dioxide. The behavior of fed flies, on the other hand, remained the same: they avoided the carbon dioxide.

In further studies, the researchers identified a projection neuron that transports the carbon dioxide information to the mushroom body.

This projection neuron forwards carbon dioxide information to the region in the fly’s brain where the animals can gauge internal and external signals.

This nerve cell is crucial in triggering a flight response in hungry, but not in fed animals. (Purayil & Kadow for the Journal Neurobiology).

“In fed flies, nerve cells outside the mushroom body are enough for flies to flee from the carbon dioxide. In hungry animals, however, the nerve cells are in the mushroom body and the projection neuron, which carries the carbon dioxide information there, is essential for the flight response.

If mushroom body or projection neuron activity is blocked, only hungry flies are no longer concerned about the carbon dioxide,” explains Ilona Grunwald-Kadow, who headed the study.

The results show that the innate flight response to carbon dioxide in fruit flies is controlled by two parallel neural circuits, depending on how satiated they are.

“If the fly is hungry, it will no longer rely on the ‘direct line’ but will use brain centers to gauge internal and external signals and reach a balanced decision,” explains Grunwald-Kadow.

“It is fascinating to see the extent to which metabolic processes and hunger affect the processing systems in the brain,” she adds.

Max Planck Institute — Publication: Lasse B. Bräcker, K.P. Siju, Nelia Varela, Yoshinori Aso,
Mo Zhang, Irina Hein, Maria Luisa Vasconcelos, Ilona C. Grunwald Kadow, “Essential role of the mushroom body in context dependent CO2 avoidance in Drosophila,” Current Biology, June 13, 2013, DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2013.05.029


What does this mean for human beings?

Quite possibly, this information could make a huge difference between success and failure, happiness and unhappiness, or states of calm and high-anxiety.

Since hunger seems to shift decision making between different parts of the brain, altering the natural fight or flight reflex in response to danger that is shared by many animals, these fruit fly studies have implications for many other stresses of modern life for most of us.

Stress impacts our brain’s “danger” mechanism.
Hunger is extremely stressful, even if we don’t realize it.

Satiated individuals are hypothesized to react more strongly to risk-aversion than hungry individuals, albeit below conscious awareness in both cases.

In hungry individuals, the brain’s response to its desire for sustenance well may override perceived danger in areas besides food gathering.

In other words, in response to the below-conscious-awareness perception of “danger” when we skip meals, we’re likely to take more chances, engage in more risky behaviors, and make more decisions we later regret.

Since it also seems that inadequate nutrition plays a role in the brain’s perception of hunger, a diet of junk food may well promote similar ill-advised behavior.

Yet another good reason to
watch what we eat?

Check out Sally Cronin’s excellent nutrition series on her Smorgasbord Invitation blog for ton’s of great information intended to help us make better choices (always available from the second line of her top menubar).

The two below will get you started:

* The basic shopping list for your body’s nutritional needs
* Nutrient directory and the foods that supply them

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

114 Responses to What happens when we’re hungry?

  1. Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mmmmmmmm……Oh wise one! What I’ve been telling people with brain injury for I don’t know how long……But you do it so more eloquently. Cheers,H

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article Madelyn. I know when I am hungry I don’t function at my optimum level.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Christy B says:

    So much here and so well explained, Madelyn! Oh those fruit flies and what we can learn from them – who knew?! I’ve known people that think they’re getting ahead calorie-wise by skipping meals but it’s just so bad for their bodies and not the way to go! Your article reinforces that in my head. I’ll be sharing this one across my social networks today 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Christy — and especially for sharing this information with your network. Keeping our blood sugar stable has a lot of benefits in a lot of arenas – and other studies suggest that starvation encourages our body to slow down its metabolism, “conserving” fat – indicating that skipping meals is a probably a lousy idea for most dieters.

      We still have to be careful that we don’t get too black and white about interpreting these studies, however. It depends on the result we’re looking for – and the environment in which we are using whatever it is those studies suggest.

      THIS study was about hunger and risk. There are others about hunger and longevity that indicate that skipping meals is actually a GOOD thing (the “intermittent fasting” studies).

      The one thing that they all seem to have in common is the importance of feeding your body what it needs to stay healthy and operate efficiently — i.e., junk calories are NOT good for us and good nutrition really matters.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Fascinating. I never knew that so much research was conducted on fruit flies. Amazing!
    Food matters. Eating healthy wholesome food can help our bodies maintain, recover and keep illness/disease at bay.
    After I had a stroke at age 49 and repeated hospital visits I knew that I had to increase my efforts. Thus I cut back on salt, sugar and red meat.
    No fast food.
    I do my best to eat more fruits and vegetables. I try to be consistent in my juicing.
    Juicing does help and it tastes good. One must choose, make the decision to live a healthy lifestyle. I’ve had my setbacks but since eating is necessary for the most part I eat to live a vital life.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. lwbut says:

    Homologous – what a great word! I’m going to have to add that to my WOTD list! 🙂

    Apart from that i found the post fascinating!

    I rarely, if ever find myself feeling hungry for very long and have no problem (other than deciding WHAT to eat) resolving that sorry state. 😉

    I’m conflicted though because i have seen research that shows fasting to be of considerable benefit to our bodies if done regularly for short periods like a day or two.

    Currently i am engaging in a deal of financial activity that requires a certain level of risk-taking and this information is very timely and may prove to be of considerable value 🙂

    Never deal on an empty stomach may well become my motto! 😉

    Just proves yet again that our bodies are interconected in more ways than we usually ‘think’ and that what is in ( or not in) our gut can have definite effects on our mental processes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes – but the fasting research is on *longevity* and other health benefits – not decision-making and risk tolerance. And those fasting reports seem to be all over the map right now. There are proponents of many different types of fasting – and each seems to think the way they do it is the best, of course.

      Toward one end there’s the 8-day water-fast, suggested twice a year (and some folks say 10-12 days is better). At the other is “intermittent” fasting (meaning concentrating all of each day’s calories into a small window, “fasting” for most of the hours each day). Some swear by the importance of eating breakfast; others swear it’s lousy for insulin sensitivity, possibly pushing some individuals over the Type II edge. ::sigh::

      Glad you found a new word for your Series. LOTs of good words in scientific literature. Good luck with your upcoming financial activity. “Never deal on an empty stomach” LOL — may you fatten your wallet and not your body. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • lwbut says:

        You may have heard of the 5 and 2 diet (five serves of veg and 2 of fruit every day for a well balanced dietary intake)? Dr Michael Mosley of the BBC doco series has found research to support ( and has applied it to himself) the idea of a 5 and 2 fasting regime (eat five days a week normally (healthy!) fast for two – by fast he means eating no more than 800 cals a day) https://thefastdiet.co.uk/

        It seems to achieve most of the positive effect of fasting while having the advantage of being easier to stick to to maintain weight loss – not that either of us really have to worry on that score i’m sure! :-)… and hopefully it might also ease the risk taking complication as well? 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Interesting, Love — thanks. I had not, in fact, run across 5 and 2 (nor the idea that “fasting” could include eating anything LOL). But it makes intuitive sense to me that periodic (and regular) downturns in calorie consumption would result in a gradual dropping of pounds.

          I’m not on a weight-loss DIET, but I am eating to gradually drop 5 pounds (not so much for a 5’8″ frame) – without having it make my face look older than the dinosaurs. I might give this idea a try for a month or two after the New Year. (During the holiday eating season, my total focus is on not GAINING any weight.) 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  7. John Fioravanti says:

    Reblogged this on Words To Captivate ~ by John Fioravanti and commented:
    Madelyn Griffith-Haynie helps us to understand how physical hunger can affect the decision-making process. Please, read on and share…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Now this is really interesting information, Madelyn. Lots of people I work with either skip breakfast or lunch. I never do as I suffer from low blood pressure so I have to make an effort to eat regularly. I have shared to my Facebook and tagged my sisters.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Tina Frisco says:

    I just watched a few videos on MR-guided Focused Ultrasound for Essential Tremor and realized that manipulating brain cells, along with advances in genetic research, will most likely give scientists the means to create entire new bodies for us. Perhaps we’ll even have a choice of make and model 🙂 Perhaps we’ll be able to live a few hundred years ~ a few thousand ~ forever! Fascinating article, Madelyn. It sure stimulated my little grey cells ♥

    Liked by 1 person

  10. dgkaye says:

    What a fascinating steady. Whodathunk the fruit fly would have similar brain/nerve functions. And as for Sarah Palin . . .LOL she’d fit in perfectly with the morons who hijacked the Whitehouse now. 🙂 xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  11. paulandruss says:

    Madelyn WHAT RUBBISH!!!!!

    Sorry just had a biscuit… meant to say GENIUS AS USUAL!

    Seriously though you highlighted some fascinating stuff about fruitflies,I knew about the early genetic work where they would double genes to make the poor creatures grow 2 sets of eyes or a leg where the mouth was and other horrific Island of Doctor Moreau stuff but not the more recent stuff you outlined. It just goes to show how two forms of life separated by almost a billion years have genetic mechanisms in common.

    As a second point, and you will probably know a lot more than me. Years ago I came a cross a study in rats where the animals were deprived of an essential vitamin (or something). When offered two identical bowls of food (but one enriched with the deficient item) they instinctively ate from that even though they could not tell them apart. Have you ever come across in your studies? Luv Px

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for another wonderful comment, Paul — and thank heavens for biscuits! I think you are talking about what we call cookies here in the US. Here more people butter their biscuits (more like fluffier scones) – except in the South where they smother them with gravy.

      I’m not sure what studies you are citing, but I doubt they specifically set out to make the flies grow double sets of body parts. They were most likely working with certain genes trying to find out what happens when something goes wrong there, and oops . . . that’s interesting!

      But yeah, evolution conserves it resources. Living organisms are surprisingly similar at the genetic level.

      I don’t recognize the rat study you are referencing, Paul, but I’ll bet it is similar to cravings in pregnant women. They crave what their bodies need.

      Liked by 1 person

      • paulandruss says:

        You know you are right Madelyn in the US they are cookies, I think biscuits are more like what we would call plain scones. Talk about two cultures divided by a common language!

        Again you are right. I remember things from the dim past but not in full detail. On reflection maybe it wasn’t genes maybe it was transplanting different parts from the undifferenciated cell mass in development to see if they developed as intended or adapted to the new site on the embryo. But if it was genes I think you are spot on. Despite the reputation for being mad scientists most experiments have some logic other than trying to recreate the Jeff Gloodbloom Brundefly in the Lab!!!

        The rat study goes back some 30 years when I was doing psychology in college when we looked at it in passing – you are exactly right it is definitely the same thing as pregnant women It was about animals instinctively knowing when there is a deficiency and eating to address said deficiency.

        Maybe I should think more before commenting.. but as long as you don’t mind… where’s the fun in that! Px


        • I not only agree that plotting what you are going to say before you comment would be a major drag – it would shut me down totally. I’d NEVER comment.

          I sort of think out loud. I wend my way through as I go, Even tho’ it makes me laugh to see where I end up sometimes, it’s also a kick-starter for new ideas — especially when folks like YOU play too.


  12. I’m hypoglycemic, and we’re known for getting cranky when we don’t get to eat when we should. I’m fond of saying that “I don’t get cranky. I get mean!” 😀 LOL. Happy weekend, Madelyn. Hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you for this very useful information. Therefore the (german) forces during the WW2 got Pervitin. Today some dumb yougsters use the self brewed version “Crystal Meth”. ;-(
    Have a nice weekend. 😉 Michael

    Liked by 2 people

    • ALL good points, Michael. Thanks. We could probably link stupid political solutions “allowed” by a hungry population to famines and food shortages around the world.

      I wish I could study the diets of our political “leaders.” I’ll bet most of them are starving nutritionally – and making unfortunate choices for ALL of us as a result. Shoot, just look at the food served TO them during meetings etc.

      Dr. Daniel Amen (a “protect your brain” advocate) did a TED talk about the horrid food offerings on church tables – cookies, donuts and hotdogs, for example – going on to share the AMAZING health benefits in one congregation who worked with him to improve the nutritional content in their church — along with other benefits in their lives.

      And this study explains a bit of what’s going on in the brain that makes it all possible – beginning with what we choose to put in our mouths. Cool, huh?

      Liked by 2 people

  14. I’m REALLY glad I ate before reading this post Madelyn. Full belly = relaxed mind better able to receive and reflect on new information.

    The flashbacks on all the hours of Drosophila studies we had to endure during Genetics in med school reminds me that these projects do serve a valuable purpose.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Fascinating research study, Madelyn. Sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Fascinating research – thank you, Madelyn! I wonder, though, if the tendency to think out of the box, created by hunger, is not one of the sources of artistic creativity. In Russian, the word for “artist” has the same root as the word “emaciated,” and the joke, based on play of words, is that a true artist should starve because it makes him emaciated.
    Michelangelo routinely forgot to eat when he was involved in work, and when he was working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he refused to come down from scaffolding when his assistant brought food.
    Of course, Picasso, who had a serious business acumen, never had to starve, which obviously had not prevented his genius from developing, but he is an exception.
    There are anecdotal records of other creative people who deliberately starved themselves in search for inspiration. This concept presupposes, however, that a person has a creative talent in some area. I don’t think it applies to the majority of population (otherwise I’d have no followers!) 😻

    Liked by 2 people

    • What an interesting thought, Dolly. Those Russian artists, especially during your hunger years probably found that hunger helped allow them to make the choice to take the risks associated with producing art – especially the writers.

      I wonder if those creatives who found hunger creatively inspiring were actually dampening the brain’s areas of inhibition. I know of no studies of hunger and creativity, but it would be a fascinating area to research.

      As always, I love your thoughtful comments, Dolly, and I doubt you’d lose a single follower either way. I’ll bet I’m not the only one who reads your blog for your intro’s every bit as much as for the recipes.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. -Eugenia says:

    Awesome post, Madelyn. I hate to think what happens to those that don’t know where or when they will see their next morsel of food.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. I could testify to the authenticity of this research, I’ve been known to get testy while making dinner for the family. Hangry ? Maybe, but mostly stressed out, and a bit demanding. I wouldn’t have needed to kill those fruit flies to verify. Thanks for another informative post. You are an educator, M.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Excellent piece! I often don’t feel hunger signals, except getting anxious and shaky for no known reason. I’ve since figured it out and coached my husband and staff – if I get anxious or extra-absent-minded or cranky, it’s because I’m hungry and don’t know it; just advise me to eat something 😉. GREAT read, especially the fruit flies as properly valid research models 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼❤️

    Liked by 2 people

  20. Lady Quixote says:

    Reblogged this on A Blog About Healing From PTSD and commented:
    This is a fascinating, informative post by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, from her blog ADD and So Much More:

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you so much for reblogging. I don’t know if any studies about the development of PTSD and the emotional response to hunger and/or poor nutrition in soldiers are in the pipeline, but it sure would be a good idea to check it out, wouldn’t it? I’d bet it would prove to be important information for all sources of trauma.

      MEANWHILE, it couldn’t hurt to eat regularly and healthily to see if it helps.

      Liked by 2 people

  21. Thanks for the mention Madelyn.. fascinating study xxx

    Liked by 3 people

  22. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Time to share another of Madelyn Griffith-Haynie’s fascinating posts on the human condition. Fruit flies and hunger are the topic today. Research is revealing the link between hunger and risky behaviour which makes sense if you consider how strong the drive to survive is in humans and it is confirmed in fruit flies. Find out if your hunger is leading you into situations you would normally avoid and head over and read..#recommended

    Liked by 3 people

  23. mihrank says:

    wow – this is so deep, informative article to read and learn…

    Liked by 3 people

  24. I totally agree… if we are hungry our brain starts to play tricks… and it leads us to the wrong food what brings belly aches and meow-graines…

    Liked by 3 people

  25. Ritu says:

    Sooo much to absorb and learn in this article…see.. this is what I mean about you and your thought and research into your articles!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  26. Norah says:

    It is amazing what neuroscientists can learn from the tiny fruit fly, isn’t it. I love use of the term, hangry. You don’t want to get between me and food when I’m hungry! If I leave it too long before eating, I tend to get shaky, eat too quickly, then don’t feel satiated. Great article, Madelyn. Thanks. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Wow and wow what an awesome read, Madelyn, never knew so many things about food and what effects it has on our bodies and even the fly you mentioned. Beautiful post and so information and inspiring. Great, thanks for the awesome share.

    Liked by 3 people

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