Symptoms of Starvation

Your body can last for about five to 10 minutes without oxygen and from two to eight days with no water. But people can live many days, and even weeks, without food. How is that possible, and how do you recognize the symptoms of starvation, besides the obvious?

Your body has metabolic and physiological defenses that will try to keep your body alive as long as they can if you don’t have any access to food. You’re not helpless just because you’re starving.

The Process of Starvation

Starving is, at its simplest, a process. Your body isn’t like a car that will shut down immediately without gas. If you experience a prolonged period of low food intake, as long as you have water, your body will enter into a series of metabolically-induced modes.

This is the way your body recognizes that there is little or no food to be found. It begins to re-allocate the resources it has, to prepare for a possible extended time period without food. Your body is, in essence, buying you time to give you a better chance to find food of some sort.

Body starvation is caused by the lack of proper nutrients; that much is obvious. It can happen when you don’t eat healthy foods or when you eat only empty calories. The symptoms may be slow to come on, through days, weeks or months. You can even experience starvation without feeling hungry!

Even if you eat at normal times, you can starve if you don’t eat the right foods. Your body needs the proper nutrients for growth and good health. Read on to find out how starvation occurs, and its symptoms and treatments.

Symptoms of Starvation

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Here are some symptoms of starvation:

Changes in Mental Status or Behavior

The initial stage of starvation impacts your behavior and mental status. They show up as an irritable mood, trouble in concentration, fatigue and thinking about food. You may have little or no energy and be easily distracted.

Weakened Immune System

Symptoms of starvation can also show up in your immune system. Any wounds you have will heal more slowly, and your body will respond poorly to infection. You may find rashes on the skin, as well. This occurs because your body is busily directing all the nutrients it has to keep your organs functioning.

Physical Symptoms of Starvation

As the process of starvation progresses, you will see physical signs. The precise timing of the symptoms depends on your initial health, as well as your size and age. It generally takes from days to weeks to experience physical symptoms. They include:

  • Thirst
  • Weakness
  • Constipation
  • Slow, shallow breaths
  • Fast heart rate
  • Occasional diarrhea

In addition, your eyes will begin to glaze over and sink in. Your muscles will appear smaller and the wasting of muscles begins. A prominent sign of starvation in children is the beginning of a swelling belly. Your skin will turn pale and become looser, and you may have ankle and foot swelling.

Other Starvation Symptoms

Other effects may include:

  • Absent or irregular periods for women
  • Gallstones

What Causes Starvation?

Causes of starvation include the following:

  • Lack of nutritious food
  • Fasting
  • Stomach conditions that don’t allow the body to absorb nutrients
  • A stroke that makes you unable to chew or swallow food properly
  • Coma
  • Eating disorders, like restricting calories or forcing yourself to throw up after you eat

You may also starve if you just don’t eat foods that your body needs. Snacking on candy, chips or cookies, eating fast food every meal, eating only processed foods, or not eating enough fresh food can cause symptoms of starvation to appear.

Stages of the Starvation Process

There are three stages of symptoms associated with starvation. Phases one or two can show up if you fast, diet improperly or skip meals. Phase three is much more serious, and results from starvation for a longer term. It may be fatal.

Phase One

If you skip meals, your body will start utilizing the liver to produce glycogen. This only works for several hours. After that, your body will start breaking down protein and fat. Your body will use fatty acids for muscle energy, but this lowers the glucose received by the brain. Fatty acids also yield glycerol. Like glucose, it can be used briefly for energy, but it will eventually run out.

Phase Two

Phase two may last for weeks. In it, your body will use mainly stored fat as energy. The liver breaks down fat and turns it into ketones. If you have fasted for a week, your brain uses those ketones, along with any glucose left over from phase one. When your body uses ketones, this will lower your need for glucose. Your body will slow down its protein breakdown.

Phase Three

By this time, your fat stores are gone. Your body will turn to using stored protein as its energy source. To do so, it must break down muscle tissues full of protein. Muscles break down quite swiftly. Your body needs protein for its cells to properly work. When the protein runs out, your cells cannot function any longer.

The cause of starvation-related death is generally infection, or some result of the breakdown of tissue. Your body cannot find energy to fight viruses or bacteria. Symptoms of starvation near the end of life include:

  • Flaking skin
  • Loss of hair color
  • Belly bloating
  • Swelling in extremities

Even though people who are starving may feel hunger, if they are in the last stage of life, they will probably not be able to eat sufficient food to recover.

Treatment for Starvation

With long term or severe starvation, your body will not be able to tolerate the solid food, as it once did. Your ability to absorb nutrients will be compromised. Nutrients will need to be introduced in careful stages. They include:

Intravenous (IV) feeding

Tube feeding formula – this usually includes 40+% dried skim milk, 30+% fatty acids or oil, 25% sucrose, plus electrolytes and multiple vitamins

Liquid diet given by mouth

Solid, soft foods

Preventing Starvation

Starvation prevention requires ingesting meals that are nutritionally dense, at regular intervals. If you refuse to eat, you may need measures that are more intense, like spoon feeding or therapy.

People need to address the problems of those who cannot obtain foot to eat. Farmers can be given seeds for free, to plant so that there is sufficient food for everyone. Having enough food also lowers the prices, so more people can afford good food.


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