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We’ve probably all experienced the feeling of hunger - you feel dizzy, you get stomach
cramps and you have zero energy. But these symptoms are fleeting and usually disappear
once we eat our next meal. But what if you had nothing to eat, what happens to your body
when it’s starving?
Hey there, Lissette here for DNews. Starvation occurs when your body is consuming fewer calories
than those required to sustain life. It is most commonly the result of famine, extreme
dieting, complete fasting for a cause, or disease. Roughly one out of every nine people
do not have enough to eat, but despite this widespread problem, starvation is not well
understood. Not because it is not important, obviously, but because it's difficult to systematically
study inanition or the impact of starvation on the body.
The lack of experimental data on the subject is largely due to the fact that it is unethical
to conduct a study that requires participants to go without food. And that its effects depend
on many factors - such as the weight of the person before they began to starve, their
genetic makeup, their health and whether they are drinking water. But what we do know comes
from controversial studies like Minnesota University’s starvation experiment from
the 1940s.
During World War II, famine became a pressing issue for many countries around the world.
At the time, scientists were eager to understand what happened to the human body in the process
of starvation - partly because they wanted to understand how to help patients recover from it.
It is not as simple as allowing someone to eat unlimited quantities of food - this can
actually make recovering patients sick because it’s difficult for the body’s systems
to rapidly adjust to eating food again and because hungry people tend to overeat to the
point of vomiting.
So the scientists at Minnesota University recruited volunteers by offering military
men who had been drafted, the opportunity to participate in their study in lieu of military service.
The 36 men who were finally selected were all healthy conscientious objectors to the war.
They were required to walk 35 kilometers a week (22miles) throughout the entire study.
But during the first 12 week control period, the men’s diets were regulated so that they
would reach an ideal healthy weight before the semi-starvation phase - the second period in the study.
In this semi-starvation period of 24 weeks, the participants caloric intake
was cut in about half - from 3,000 to about 1500 calories. To get them as close to their
goal of a 25% total weight reduction, the researchers adjusted the participants' food portions.
The researchers found, that in this semi-starvation phase, participants went through
a number of changes. Due to extreme weight loss, the men displayed physical symptoms
like protruding ribs, sullen eyes, and gaunt cheeks,
as well as swollen extremities likely from a lack of blood protein production.
Physiologically, their metabolic rates decreased - meaning that their bodies reduced the number
of calories they expended while resting. Their heart rates dropped, temperature decreased,
libido declined, and breathing quieted. It was like their bodies were slowing down to
conserve as much energy as possible.
Psychologically, the men became preoccupied with food - talking, writing, and even dreaming about it.  
They reported depressive symptoms, irritability, and a lack of interest in everyday activities.
Interestingly, while the men reported cognitive deficits, the tests the researchers
administered did not confirm this. More recent studies on nutrient deficiencies, however, have found
that a lack of adequate nutrition can negatively impact cognitive function.
Although the Minnesota study is over seventy years old, this research is still the most
comprehensive look at how the body tries to cope with starvation. Given that 795 million
people suffer from undernourishment around the world, it’s evident that more research is needed.
But the scientific dilemma is that starving your research volunteers is highly
unethical.
Today, scientists must rely on gathering data from autopsy and case studies -
from sources like victims of war who died of starvation. Through this new data, we have learned that
starvation affects children more intensely. It can permanently affect development - stunting
their growth and they are also more vulnerable to dying - at about 32 days of complete starvation
compared to 70 days for adults. For children and adults alike, autopsy studies have shown
that when death occurs from starvation, the body has completely used up its fat reserves
and about 25-50% of other organs and tissues. This helps explain why the body can suffer
permanent organ damage when undernourished.
But, this isn’t a thing of the past. In fact North Korea, has recently announced to
its citizens that they should prepare for famine. To learn more, check my other episode
on whether North Korea is starving its citizens.
By 2013, the country’s food aid had dropped almost 20-fold.
The United Nations reported in 2015 that 70 percent of North Koreans are food insecure,
and more than a quarter of children under five are chronically malnourished.
As you can see, we cover a wide range of topics, so if you have a science question you’d
like us to answer, let us know in the comments and tag it with #AskDnews.
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What Does Starvation Do To The Body?

4782 Folder Collection
羅紹桀 published on April 8, 2016    李孟錡 translated    Kristi Yang reviewed
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