Food, water, sleep—as ordinary as they may seem, a deficiency in one or all three can lead to what feels like extraordinary symptoms, from extreme frustration and body-slamming fatigue to a Charley horse that screams out in agony. (“Hangry,” after all, was invented for a reason.)
But oftentimes, we mistake vending-machine cravings for dehydration—or think we need a power nap when we what we really need is protein. What’s hunger, what’s thirst, and what’s exhaustion? Here’s how to tell the difference so you can take proper action.
Hungry—or is it something else?
Specific hormones signal feelings of hunger, whether they’re mild (an apple would be nice) or, no pun intended, all-consuming (I need a turkey-bacon-melt right this second).
One of those hormones is ghrelin. Released in the stomach, it tells the brain that it’s time to eat—and also when it’s time to stop. But when we haven’t slept well or are legitimately exhausted (hello, candle at both ends), ghrelin and our other “hunger hormones” are triggered. (Who hasn’t been positively ravenous after a red-eye flight?) We might not need the calories, per se, but we do experience hunger pangs.
The same hormones are also released when we’re stressed. “Once our fight-or-flight response is triggered, the body starts looking for more nourishment but we don’t actually need all those extra calories,” says science and health journalist Linda Carroll. Similarly, there’s science behind the cliché of eating boatloads of ice cream during a break-up: When we’re down or lonely, our brains crave sweets and other treats that provoke “feel good” hormones like dopamine and serotonin. We’re desperate to feel pleasure, and, quite frankly, chocolate sometimes delivers.
Compound all this with the common problem of confusing thirst for hunger. When we’re thirsty, our stomach can grumble, much in the way it does when we genuinely need food. The other symptoms associated with dehydration—dizziness, lightheadedness, poor concentration and lethargy—often mirror the symptoms (and consequences) of hunger as well. Furthermore, when we’re tired, anxious and emotional, chances are we’re not keeping the closest eye on our water intake and are, as pointed out, looking for other means of relief. Indeed, as the Seattle Times reports, a recent study revealed that people responded “appropriately” by “drinking water when they were thirsty but not hungry” only two percent of the time.
But mistaking heartache, stress, unsound sleep and dehydration for hunger can backfire. Chief among those complications? Weight gain. When we consistently eat to fill a hole that can’t be satisfied—so to speak—we simply ingest more calories than our bodies need. What’s more, believing that thirst and tiredness—as well as stress and emotionalism—can be cured with food keeps us from getting to the root of the problem and making necessary shifts.
So: How can you tell the difference between hunger, thirst and tiredness?
Use the process of elimination—and the insights your own body can give you.
First, it may seem like a no-brainer, but start with a glass of water. As the CDC reminds us, water does more than soothe a parched throat—it also keeps “your temperature normal, lubricates and cushions joins, protects your spinal cord and other sensitive tissues and gets rid of wastes through urination, perspiration and bowel movements.” If you immediately feel better—your hunger pangs vanish, you have a punch of energy and clarity returns—in all likelihood you were merely thirsty. (Note to self: Keep a bottle of water with or near you, sip (and refill) over the course of the day and aim for at least half your body weight in ounces throughout.)
If fifteen minutes have passed and you’re still feeling famished, check in with yourself. If it’s been longer than three hours since you last had a bite, those hunger pangs are probably valid. If dinner is around the corner, snack smartly with a mix of protein and fiber. (A few solid go-tos: carrots with hummus, an apple topped with almond butter or a hardboiled egg with a handful of cashews.)
Still feeling the symptoms of fatigue, irritability, dizziness, even sadness? You may need a nap—or to aim to get better sleep in general. Seven to nine hours of sleep per night are recommended but only you can find that magic number. To achieve this, as well as to find optimal health, avoid caffeine and alcohol, both of which can negatively impact your sleep patterns. (And if these symptoms continue after making lifestyle changes, be sure to see your doctor.)
Most of all, cultivate an understanding of your body’s cues. If you’ve grown accustomed to ignoring—or even flat-out denying—your hunger pangs, you may be turning to water, sodas, energy drinks, caffeine and naps when what you really need is nutrition. If you persistently scrimp on sleep, understand that unusual hunger is just one of its penalties (and do something to mitigate it). And if you repeatedly reach for food when you actually need to reach out—to a friend, a partner, a colleague, an assistant, a counselor—you’ll prevent yourself from receiving the emotional (and practical) nourishment you also need. Food, water and sleep—as well as stress management and emotional support—may seem basic, but they all work together to create genuine well-being.