Hunger Pangs: Why Do They Happen and How to Prevent Them?

As well as being caused by an empty stomach, they can also be secondary to dehydration or stress. Have you ever felt hunger pangs? We explain them to you.
Hunger Pangs: Why Do They Happen and How to Prevent Them?
Mariel Mendoza

Written and verified by the doctor Mariel Mendoza.

Last update: 11 June, 2023

Hunger pangs, or hunger pains, are usually a response to an “empty stomach”. They can appear as a strange sensation in the pit of the stomach, a sound coming from the abdomen, or even cramps.

However, hunger isn’t the only cause for this symptomatology. The quality of the last meal consumed, sleep deprivation, dehydration, medication intake, and stressful situations should also be considered.

Hunger pains are caused by the release of the hormone ghrelin. The best way to avoid them is by taking care of your eating habits.

Why do hunger pangs occur?

Hunger pangs occur in response to the hunger hormone ghrelin. After we have gone several hours without eating, this substance is released by the stomach to prepare for the arrival of food. In itself, it stimulates the brain to increase the sensation of hunger.

Ghrelin also promotes the release of gastric acid and digestive enzymes.

In addition to the hormonal factor, the mechanical factor must be considered in these pains. The stomach, being a muscular organ, can stretch and contract. After eating or drinking liquid, it stretches and gives a feeling of fullness. However, when it’s empty, it can contract.

The contraction generates a kind of colic, which varies in intensity from person to person.

Also, in the absence of food intake, there is no neutralization of gastric acids inside the stomach. Therefore, irritation of the mucosa occurs. This, together with the contraction of the walls, results in hunger pains.

Clinical manifestation of hunger pains

Hunger pains can manifest as a sensation of emptiness, cramping, or stomach contractions. There may also be grunting or rumbling in the abdomen.

Other associated symptoms include the following:

Hunger isn’t the only cause

Although they’re known as “hunger pangs”, this isn’t the only associated cause. The following are common situations that can create disturbances in the stomach.

Food quality

Ghrelin and insulin interact. When insulin decreases, ghrelin is released and the sensation of hunger is activated. In turn, ghrelin stimulates insulin secretion by the pancreas, so adequate levels of ghrelin are considered protective against metabolic diseases.

That’s why, if only refined sugars and simple carbohydrates are consumed, there’s an abrupt increase in insulin levels with a subsequent rapid fall as well. So ghrelin increases its concentration, producing hunger pangs.

It is for this reason that diets high in simple sugars do not cause satiety.

Sleep deprivation

In a 2016 study, it was shown that sleep deprivation produces increased hormones that stimulate appetite. Hence, there’s an increased need to eat refined sugars, more sodium, and saturated fats after a poor night’s rest.

In addition, sleep is also associated with the upregulation of ghrelin and leptin, which is linked to satiety. Not only that. Sleep deprivation produces high cortisol levels that lead to more hunger.

In response to stimuli

Hunger pangs can occur in response to appetite-stimulating or “mouth-watering” smells or images of food, even after eating. The same response occurs as if the stomach were empty.

Hunger pangs in stress, depression, or anxiety

Hunger pangs commonly occur in stressful or emotionally charged situations. To differentiate them from a real need to eat, it’s necessary to consider the associated noise. In stressful situations, there are usually no classic stomach growling noises.

Only when the stomach is empty can the noises be heard.

Here it’s also worth mentioning the interaction between physical pain and hunger. When there’s chronic pain that generates stress, the body may develop hunger as a method of counteracting the uncomfortable sensation. Some animal research has demonstrated the anti-inflammatory power of hunger on neural circuits.


The use of certain medications, such as antidepressants and hypoglycemic drugs, can produce hunger pangs. Therefore, patients treated for depression or diabetes are at increased risk of experiencing this symptom.

When using these drugs, in cases of increased appetite, a physician should be consulted to check if this is a possible side effect.


Abdominal pain due to dehydration is difficult to differentiate from a hunger pain, because they’re very similar. Both are accompanied by irritability, tiredness, lightheadedness, and shakiness.

Recommendations to avoid hunger pangs

There are some simple measures you can take to prevent the onset of this discomfort:

  • Eat at regular intervals: The pattern of ghrelin secretion is related to a person’s eating habits. Eating at regular intervals (every 3 to 4 hours) allows food to neutralize stomach acid in time.
  • Prepare high-volume, but low-calorie snacks: Between main meals, it’s suggested to use low-calorie, but high-volume snacks. Take advantage of salads, vegetable chunks or soups, fruits and green juices.
  • Stay hydrated: Water can neutralize gastric acid and alleviate the feeling of hunger.
  • Get enough sleep: It’s recommended to have a routine of going to sleep and waking up at the same time, and try to sleep 7 to 9 hours at night.
  • Avoid consuming foods high in refined sugars: It’s a temptation at times, but the metabolic change they produce will generate hunger again in a short time. Prefer instead lean protein, healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables. Including dietary fibers in your meals allows you to prolong the feeling of satiety.
  • Practice mindful eating: Intentionally focusing on food, as well as chewing calmly, allows you to enjoy eating to reduce the feeling of hunger that is associated with psychological or mental health conditions.

Hunger pangs should be monitored

Hunger pangs usually dissipate after eating. They rarely require medical consultation.

However, if they recur over time or are associated with other symptoms (diarrhea, headache, fever, vomiting), then a professional check up is appropriate.

A medium-term problem is that the pains could be associated with a gastrointestinal condition. It may be the case that not enough nutrients are being consumed. The advice of a nutritionist, depending on the underlying conditions, would be an invaluable help to correct habits and develop a meal plan accordingly.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.