Hunger pangs, or hunger pains, are a natural reaction to an empty stomach. They may cause a hollow or gnawing feeling or an empty sensation.

But hunger pangs can happen even if the body does not need food.

Several other situations and conditions can lead to hunger pangs, such as sleep deprivation, dehydration, and eating the wrong foods.

Read on to learn more about hunger pains and discover how to ease them.

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People get hunger pangs or hunger pains for several different reasons. Seven reasons are explained here:

1. Hunger hormone

The brain triggers the release of a hormone called ghrelin in response to an empty stomach or in anticipation of the next meal.

Ghrelin signals the body to release stomach acids to digest food.

Studies have shown that ghrelin increases hunger by up to 30 percent when it is administered to adults.

2. Quality of food eaten

Hunger pangs can happen even when the body does not need calories.

This is because ghrelin interacts with insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar. Falling levels of insulin cause ghrelin, and therefore hunger, levels to rise.

Highly processed foods may contain high amounts of sugar and refined carbohydrates. Eating it causes a spike in insulin levels, followed by a quick drop. Ghrelin then increases, even though the food was consumed only an hour or so beforehand.

In this way, eating even large amounts of poor-quality food can increase hunger and cause the pang response in the body.

3. Dehydration

Many people cannot tell the difference between hunger and thirst because the symptoms are so similar.

Thirst can cause symptoms such as:

Learn more about dehydration.

4. The environment

Some people experience pangs in response to smells and sights. Many people have a physical response to the smell of freshly baked goods or cooking. Images of food on TV or online can also cause the mouth to water.

Although this type of hunger may not be based on a need for food, it causes very real physical symptoms, including hunger pains.

5. Lack of sleep

Overeating and excess weight have long been associated with sleep deprivation. It appears that hunger pains may be linked to a lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep.

Lack of sleep increases the effects of a chemical that makes eating sweet, salty, and high fat foods more appealing, an older 2016 study suggests.

The sleep-deprived study participants ate a meal containing 90 percent of their daily calories but were unable to resist highly processed snack foods just 2 hours later.

6. Emotional state

People may mistake their brain signals for food as hunger pains in some cases. This situation can occur when someone is in a heightened emotional state.

Research suggests that stress and other negative emotions can make it seem like the body urgently needs food, even when it may not. These emotions may also affect food choices, with some choosing unhealthy foods over healthier ones.

Some people may find it helpful to incorporate an intuitive or mindful eating style, which focuses on being aware of their perceived level of hunger and noting cues for stopping food.

Learn about intuitive or mindful eating.

7. Medication and medical conditions

Hunger pangs may be caused by medical conditions in rare cases. This is true for people with diabetes, as hunger increases when blood sugar crashes.

It can indicate an infection or digestive illness that requires medical attention if pains occur alongside other symptoms. Look out for symptoms such as:

Some medications, including certain antidepressants, may interfere with hunger signals and ghrelin release.

Hunger pains feel like a gnawing or rumbling in the stomach. They may also present as contractions or the feeling of emptiness.

Other symptoms may include:

  • cravings for certain foods
  • tiredness
  • lightheadedness
  • irritability
  • strong desire to eat

Once food is consumed, hunger pains and other hunger symptoms usually go away. The stomach adjusts to this new level of fullness (or emptiness), so they may even subside without eating anything.

Older research on mice has found that there is an instinctive desire to reduce hunger pangs and other hunger signals. Certain neurons in the brain kick in to fuel appetite once a certain amount of body weight has been lost.

This may explain why it is challenging to stick to a diet when experiencing hunger pains.

There may be other ways to control hunger pangs while losing weight, even though the researchers suggest that manipulating these neurons will help people maintain their diets.

To alleviate hunger pains, especially when dieting, people can try the following:

Eat at regular intervals

Ghrelin is released in response to what someone’s usual mealtimes are.

Sticking to a schedule will ensure food reaches the stomach in time to meet the stomach acid released in response to ghrelin spikes.

It can also be helpful to carry healthful, low calorie snacks, such as fruit and nuts, when outside the home, in case it is not possible to eat a full meal at a designated time.

Choose nutrient-dense foods

Avoid insulin dips by choosing healthful food options instead of processed ones.

Eat balanced meals that contain:

  • lean protein, such as beans, lentils, and skinless poultry
  • whole grains, including brown rice, oats, quinoa, and whole-wheat products
  • fruits and vegetables, including fresh, frozen, and canned (without added sugar)
  • healthful fats, found in avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds
  • low-fat dairy products or dairy alternatives

A person should try to limit the intake of foods that are high in sugar, salt, saturated fats, and trans fats. Whenever possible, choose foods that are whole foods without excess added sugar to help promote overall health and meet nutritional needs.

Fill up on low calorie foods

Some low calorie foods are considered high-volume, meaning they take up space in the stomach yet do not contribute to weight gain.

A full stomach will cause ghrelin levels to drop, alleviating hunger pains. High-volume, low calorie foods include:

  • salads
  • raw or lightly steamed green vegetables
  • homemade vegetable soups

Hot tea may also help tamp down hunger.

Stay hydrated

Sip water throughout the day. The overall amount of fluid a person should intake can vary from person to person.

Limit diuretic drinks, such as caffeine and alcohol, which contribute to dehydration.

Learn more about how much water to drink each day.

Get enough sleep

It is sensible to avoid food cravings caused by sleep deprivation by establishing a good sleep routine. It helps to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Adults should aim to sleep for 7 to 9 hours nightly.

Practice mindful eating

When eating, focus on the taste and texture of each bite. Chew food thoroughly. Do not watch television during mealtimes.

Use distractions

A person can try to ignore hunger pains if they are not based on a real need for food.

Effective distractions include:

  • reading
  • dancing
  • exercise
  • working
  • socializing

Consult a doctor if hunger pains regularly persist despite eating balanced meals. Stomach pains may suggest a gastrointestinal disorder or infection.

People who experience the following symptoms along with their hunger pangs should also see a doctor:

Stomach pains are a normal response to hunger. Although they may signal a need for food, it is possible to experience hunger pangs in response to other situations, including dehydration, sleep loss, and anxiety.

Hunger pains rarely need medical attention, as they usually go away once food is eaten.

People who are dieting may wish to take steps to alleviate their hunger pains to meet their weight loss goals.