One major topic on the PaleoHacks site is about hunger and identifying the different types of hunger: “mind hunger,” “gurgling sensations,” “hunger pains,” “body wants fuel,” “starvation mode,” “and hypoglycaemic hunger.” Here are some of the most popular types of hunger listed: hypoglycemia, empty stomach, and compulsion to eat.
So what exactly is hunger, anyway, and why do we experience it? Are there more types than those listed here?
Hunger is the feeling you get when your body requires food. Appetite (or mind hunger), on the other hand, is the feeling of wanting to eat even when you are not hungry.
The sensation of hunger generally makes itself felt within a few hours of eating and most people find it unpleasant. Different people can experience hunger at different times according to their eating habits.
Biological Mechanisms of Hunger
The hormones ghrelin and leptin fluctuate within your body to convince you to eat. When you eat, leptin is released and signals to your brain that you are full, or at least reduces your motivation to continue eating. After a few hours without food, those leptin levels drop and ghrelin is released, which brings back those feelings of hunger.
Other hormones like cholecystokinin (CKK) and insulin are released when you eat. These work to reduce hunger signals. Epinephrin and glucagon rise when you don’t eat and work to stimulate hunger.
Just before a meal, your glucose levels drop and your insulin rises.
Neural Signals from the Gastrointestinal Tract
Vagal nerve fibers can transmit signals between the GI tract and your brain. When you eat and your stomach is stretched, those stretch receptors tell your brain you are full and your hunger is reduced.
Several nutrients send signals to your brain to indicate you are not hungry. These may include elevated amino acids, rising glucose levels, and fatty acids in the bloodstream.
Physical Sensations of Hunger
The different types of hunger may cause different sensations. When your stomach is empty, you may experience “growling” sensations, or minor cramping. You may have increased salivation or even “tight throat” feeling. This sensation doesn’t usually last long, about an hour, and then it will go away.
Appetite, or the desire to eat even when you’re not necessarily hungry, is all in your mind. This pesky issue can cause some problems with some people who either can’t recognize true hunger sensations, or choose to ignore them for the sake of eating that one last donut or cookie.
When your body’s main fuel source is glucose, and you don’t eat enough carbs to produce glucose, your body might experience hypogylycemia. This is the condition where you have abnormally low levels of blood sugar.
This type of hunger is rare in Paleo eaters. Sure, when you first switch to a Paleo lifestyle after eating a lifetime of the Standard American Diet high in processed junk and sugar, you will probably have a few days or even a couple weeks where you will experience uneven energy and intense sugar cravings. You might experience anxiety or lightheadedness, the jitters, the shakes, brain fog, difficulty concentrating, extreme hunger, and energy crashes after eating and in the late afternoon.
The good news is, our bodies can make energy from carbs and from fat. If you have moved from a high-carb, low-fat diet to a lower- to moderate-carb, high protein, high fat diet, you will probably experience hypoglycemia for the first few days or week as your body adjusts. After that, your body will become accustomed to using a combination of fat and carbs (or just fat, if you follow a keto diet) for energy.
To make sure your body can produce energy from fat in an optimal manner, Chris Kresser suggests you ensure your nutrient levels are high, particularly ones responsible for this process, like carnitine and riboflavin.
Carnitine helps to move fatty acids into the mitochondria. If carnitine levels are low, fatty acids won’t be moved efficiently and your energy levels will drop. Genetic polymorphisms, a diet low in legumes or protein (source of lysine), or digestive impairment can all lead to a deficiency in carnitine.
Riboflavin is a main component of burning those fatty acids as fuel inside the mitochondria. Foods high in riboflavin are meat, green beans, asparagus, bananas, dairy products, fish, eggs, chard, okra, and persimmons. Things like dysbiosis or intestinal inflammation can affect your body’s ability to absorb riboflavin. Signs of a riboflavin deficiency include mouth ulcers, inflammation of the tongue and mouth, cracks at the corner of the mouth, and cracked and red lips.
Other nutrients that play a role in blood sugar regulation and energy production are chromium, biotin, magnesium, CoQ10, and choline.
Improve Your Body’s Fat-Burning Capacity
If you suspect your body is having a hard time metabolizing fat and you have issues with hypoglycemia, you might want to consider boosting your fat-burning nutrients as mentioned above, and improving your absorption of amino acids. Address any digestive issues you might have, and replace stomach enzymes and acids if they are low.
To regulate your blood sugar, experiment. Keep your carbs to fewer than 75 grams a day, eat more frequently (like every two to three hours), eat your breakfast with lots of protein within 30 minutes of waking up, eat a snack with fat and protein before you go to bed, and keep an eye on how you feel. If you need more carbs, then up your intake. Intermittent fasting may also be helpful.
Getting through that first adjustment period may be hard, but after that, you shouldn’t experience hypoglycemic reactions at all.
Most people don’t realize it, but thirst often manifests as hunger. If you choose to eat when you feel this sensation but don’t drink, your body will continue to feel “hungry” even after you are past being satiated with food.
Practically every process in your body requires water, so ensure you are properly hydrated. Have some water every hour; different people have different water requirements, but generally, around one cup of water per hour should be sufficient. If it’s a very hot day, or you are hard at work doing something strenuous, are breastfeeding, or are on certain medications, you may need more. When you feel hungry next time, drink some water and see if that helps the sensation.
Head over to the PaleoHacks message boards to contribute to the topic of “Types of Hunger.”