Starvation and the Body

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We have often heard of fasting leading to salvation, and Anna Hazare in true Gandhian style is using it to rid the country of corruption. “Fasting or Starvation” being the tool of achieving goals here, let us try and explain how it affects the body.

Irrespective of the cause behind starvation, the process remains the same and primarily encompasses three stages. The beginning two phases take place even during very brief durations of fasting, but the third and most severe phase occurs only after prolonged starvation and has the potency to cause even death.

Let us begin by telling you how the body sustains itself during the first phase of going into starvation mode. As we all are aware the body uses glucose as its main source of metabolic fuel. The brain takes up about twenty percent of the energy and the remaining goes on to energize the red blood cells and the muscle tissues. Usually carbohydrates and dietary sugars supply the required glucose to the body. During starvation the body starts deriving the needed glucose from the stored glycogen, protein and fats in the liver. The store of glycogen usually last only a few hours, after which the body starts utilizing the protein and fats to synthesize glucose. Fats get processed down into fatty acids and glycerol. The fatty acids thus produced are used as energy by the skeletal muscles thereby limiting the utilization of glucose to the brain. This glycerol is at times also used by the body to produce little amount of glucose but this is produced via the amino acids of proteins. Often the body uses the amino acids directly as a source of energy.

In situations of prolonged fasting the body enters the second stage of fasting. This stage can last for several weeks with the body using fats as the main source of energy. The liver processes fatty acids into ketone bodies. If the body persists in this mode beyond a week, the body begins utilizing ketone bodies in addition to glucose for its energy requirements. This process reduces the amount of glucose needed and lessens the speed of protein breakdown.

On depletion of fat reserves, the body reaches the last and most serious stage of starvation. At this point the body begins using proteins as the main source of energy. First, non essential proteins are used up. Then the muscles, the largest source of protein in the body begin to be used by the body and start depleting. By the end of this phase, proteins vital for cellular functions start breaking down and cell functions degenerates.

Weight loss of-course is the primary side-effect of starvation but other side-effects include listlessness, apathy, withdrawal and an increased tendency to contract infectious diseases. It has often been observed that few people succumb to starvation directly and fall prey to infectious diseases first.  Other possible effects of starvation can be flaky skin, discoloration of hair, edema of the abdomen and lower limbs making the abdomen appear bloated. Starvation also causes the body’s ability to take up normal amounts of food to decrease.

It is difficult to reverse the process of starvation in the body instantaneously. It is required to feed the low-bulk and high protein food fortified with minerals and vitamins. Starvation also causes the body to dehydrate. There have been cases when the body that has stayed in prolonged stage of starvation gets affected by a disease or weakness and is unable to recover completely.

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