Thursday, October 7, 2004

The physiology of hunger

Hunger is a very powerful and heavily loaded word. What is hunger?

``Hunger stalks 13 percent of Pinoy households,’’ the Inquirer’s banner recently announced. The lead sentence said, ``Hunger rose to record levels in Metro Manila and Mindanao just two months into the second term of Pres. Macapagal-Arroyo.’’

One out of every seven (15.1 percent) household heads polled by Social Weather Stations in August said his or her family had nothing to eat at least once in the last three months, triple the number of the previous year.

I don’t know whether these families missed one meal, or they had nothing to eat for one whole day during that three-month period.

A family missing one meal, even if it was only once in the last three months, because there was no money for food means a whole brood went hungry at some point. The thought of not finding food for the next meal must have added to the anxiety.

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. Physical hunger is the first need that must be sated.

Experts often discuss hunger in so macro and so global a way. On their side of the divide, the non-hungry discuss the politics and economics of hunger. The spiritually inclined speak about prayer as a hunger. The health buff who has a great horror for obesity watches out for that pang, that wicked craving.

What happens inside 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.

Here is some pop physiology I learned from my readings.

Most people think of hunger as something that is felt in the stomach that’s gone empty. We talk about 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 craving for, say, comfort food like dried fish on a rainy day. The psychology of hunger has more to do with incentives and taste preferences. But that is another story.

That feeling of faintness that causes people to drop to the floor during morning Mass is hunger in the truest sense. Hunger does not originate from stomach pangs. 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 goes down and the LH releases orexin, a hunger-triggering hormone. The ventromedial hypothalamus, 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 to-die-for chocolate cake.

The LH and VH have a way of altering the body’s weight thermostat, which predisposes the body to keep a particular weight level called set point. This makes the body adjust to the food intake, the energy output and its own basal metabolic rate (BMR).

BMR is the rate at which the body burns calories for energy depending on the fat cells, hormones and metabolism. Blessed are those who burn faster.

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 they have been deprived of. Think of pregnant mothers who crave for food because their bodies and babies need it.

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.

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. There is so much to learn. And change.

**** Visit this Oxfam website and take your seat at the ``banquet’’ table. Learn about hunger from the point of view of those who experience it every day. Discover the reasons why hunger exists today. It’s very interactive, with real human names and faces from real places.

Another website on hunger has a ``dining philosophers game.’’ In front of each one is a bowl of rice and between each one is one chopstick. Before one can take a bite, he must have two chopsticks—one taken from his left, the other from his right. Picture it? They must find a way to share chopsticks so they all get to eat.

I’m going back to the game after I finish this column.

Hunger is not a game, but sadly, it has been the outcome of power games.