Starvation, condition brought about by a lack of essential nutrients over a long period of time. When a person does not eat enough nutritious food, body weight begins to decline rapidly. At first the energy stored in fat tissues is used to nourish body cells. If the inadequate intake of food continues, the body begins to break down the protein in its muscles and organs to create needed energy. Vital organs, including the liver and intestines, become smaller; the heart also becomes smaller and less effective, and blood pressure is reduced.
A starving person becomes physically sluggish and lethargic, but the mind may remain sharp for an extended period. The flesh hangs in loose folds, and parts of the body swell because tissues become filled with fluid retained during earlier phases of starvation. The skin thins, becoming cold, pale, dry, and stiff. Sex drive is lost, with men experiencing azoospermia, or loss of sperm production, and women experiencing amenorrhea, or loss of menstrual function. If a woman is already pregnant when starvation conditions set in, the fetus suffers adverse health effects that may lead to miscarriage or birth defects.
As the individual grows weaker, anemia develops, which means that the blood is no longer able to distribute enough oxygen to any of the body’s cells. At this point, both the heart and lungs begin to fail. Hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature, may also develop.
Starvation may be accompanied by an impaired immune system, since malnutrition causes the body’s defenses against disease to deteriorate. Infections caused by viruses, bacteria, and fungi flourish when the immune system is compromised. The illnesses that arise from these infections are most likely to occur after the individual’s normal body weight is reduced by 30 percent. These infections, which may include respiratory infections or gastroenteritis (inflammation of the membranes that line the stomach and intestines) are the world’s leading cause of death in infants and children.
Although poverty and famine account for most of the world’s starvation, there are other causes, including diseases that affect the proper digestion and absorption of food, such as colitis (inflammation of the lining of the large intestine). The symptoms of colitis include severe diarrhea, which ejects food from the digestive system before it has a chance to be absorbed into the bloodstream. There is also a behavioral disorder, known as anorexia nervosa, that is characterized by self-imposed starvation. Most individuals who suffer from this disorder have body image problems that make them feel overweight, even when they have dieted until they are grotesquely thin. They require psychiatric supervision to overcome their aversion to food.
Starving people must be treated cautiously, or shock and death may occur. Patients should be started on small quantities of sugared water for a time, followed by diluted milk, and then whole milk; only when they are able to digest these liquids may simple foods be given.