Human Face

The physiology of hunger and anger

When farmers who till the soil and grow our food go hungry because they have nothing to eat, it means trouble not only for them but also for us. Much like when bees begin to disappear, planet Earth is in trouble.

Hunger and anger ruled when policemen and thousands of protesting farmers clamoring for rice met at the Cotabato-Davao highway in Kidapawan, North Cotabato, on April 1. The aftermath: three dead and scores of injured from both sides. Then came blame-throwing, cries for investigation, and speculations on how the protest march began and ended in a bloody encounter.


It is good to know that donations of rice from entertainment celebrities and private persons have started to pour in despite the North Cotabato governor’s protestations and misplaced resentment. What a great gesture, indeed. But although we advocate free speech, I hope these generous donors could keep their “Ang sarap ng feeling” (It feels so good) sound bytes to themselves for now. Please.

The poor know what hunger is in the most physical sense—as an intense need for food, as a weakening of the body for lack of it. Food is the first in the hierarchy of needs of all living creatures.


Experts often discuss hunger in such a macro and global way. On their side of the divide, the nonhungry discuss the politics and economics of hunger. The spiritually inclined speak about prayer as a hunger. The health buff with a great horror for obesity watches out for that wicked craving.

What happens in the body when one is hungry? Not that the hungry poor care to know, for they know how it feels already. But it behooves us to realize that hunger is as physiological as blood circulating, and breathing in and breathing out during meditation. Hunger is not some diffused, nameless feeling. It is real.

Most people think of hunger as something felt in a stomach that’s gone empty. We talk about cramps: humihilab ang tiyan. Indeed, there is some turbulence of the acids in there, and a stomach left empty for prolonged periods could end up with ulcers. But hunger is more than hilab. Ever felt faint because you skipped breakfast? That is physiological hunger. It’s different from psychological hunger or a craving for, say, comfort food like dried fish on a rainy day. The psychology of hunger is another story.

That feeling of faintness because of lack of food is hunger in the truest sense. Hunger does not originate from stomach pangs. I read up on hunger and learned that the physiology of hunger is influenced by body chemistry (insulin and glucose), the brain (hypothalamus), the so-called set point, and the basal metabolic rate.

The hypothalamus gland is mainly responsible for the feeling of hunger and satiation. The lateral hypothalamus (LH) brings on hunger. When the body is deprived of food, its blood sugar drops and the LH releases orexin, a hunger-triggering hormone. The ventromedial hypothalamus (VH), on the other hand, is responsible for depressing hunger. When the VH is stimulated, an animal will stop eating, but when destroyed, the eating will be unstoppable.

These complementary areas in the hypothalamus influence how much glucose is converted into fat and how much is available to fuel activity and minimize hunger. The brain system monitors the body’s state and reports to the hypothalamus, which then sends the information to the frontal lobes which decide behavior. Go, get fried rice, or a spoonful of sugar.

When the poor are constantly feeling hungry in the absence of food, it is not just the glucose level that is sending signals; their bodies are also screaming for the wide array of nutrients of which they have been deprived. Think of pregnant mothers who crave for food because their bodies and babies need it.


So, yes, the poor’s hunger is, first and foremost, as physiological as what the books say. The politics and economics of it are beyond many of them and us.

Now, the anger. In his article, “The physiology of anger,” Dr. Harry Mills examines what happens in the human brain when a person is angry.

“Emotions more or less begin inside two almond-shaped structures in our brains which are called the amygdala… As you become angry your body’s muscles tense up. Inside your brain, neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines are released causing you to experience a burst of energy lasting up to several minutes. This burst of energy is behind the common angry desire to take immediate protective action.

“At the same time your heart rate accelerates, your blood pressure rises, and your rate of breathing increases. Your face may flush as increased blood flow enters your limbs and extremities in preparation for physical action. Your attention narrows and becomes locked onto the target of your anger. Soon you can pay attention to nothing else. In quick succession, additional brain neurotransmitters and hormones (among them adrenaline and noradrenaline) are released which trigger a lasting state of arousal. You’re now ready to fight.”

When hunger is discussed in relation to poverty, it is often used interchangeably with malnutrition, starvation and famine. But these are four different stages and situations. Malnutrition is the inadequate intake of any of the nutrients required by the body. Starvation is lack of food intake that results in body deterioration or even death. Famine is a massive situation of hunger, malnutrition, starvation, disease and death. It could be caused by many factors such as war, natural calamities and government neglect.

What is the cause of the hunger that turns into anger? In the case of the protesting farmers, the answer is obvious. We cannot put the blame solely on El Niño. This we must know: When hunger and anger meet, there is danger.


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TAGS: Anger, hunger, Kidapawan, Poverty
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