What Are The Symptoms And Side Effects Of Starvation?

Medically Reviewed by Madhu Sharma, RD
Written by Priyanka Sadhukhan, MSc (Nutrition), Certified Diabetes Educator

There are many ways to lose weight. But starving is not one of them! There are serious health effects of starving yourself.

Reducing calorie intake may work for weight loss. But not eating anything or consuming negligible amounts of food can cause nutritional deficiencies. Self-inflicted starvation can also be attributed to a condition like anorexia.

Not eating can also lead to severe malnutrition and may even permanently damage your organs. Starving, in other words, can cause both physical and mental damage.

Read on to learn about the harmful side effects of starving yourself.

Symptoms Of Starvation

The starvation symptoms vary from person to person. The major symptoms reported are (1):

  • Fatigue
  • Abnormal attitude and behavior towards food and eating
  • Poor emotional and social functioning
  • Poor concentration
  • Dizziness
  • Reduction in the rate of weight loss
  • Impaired cognitive performance, like poor concentration
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort
  • Cold intolerance
  • Drop in blood pressure

Starvation for a long period should not be encouraged as it may lead to several side effects.

What Are The Side Effects Of Starvation?

1. Malnutrition

According to the World Health Organization, malnutrition can be defined as deficiency, excess, or imbalances of specific nutrients (2). This is perhaps the most damaging effect of voluntary or forced starvation. Starvation usually means that you don’t eat much at all. This leads to many essential nutrients and vitamins being excluded from your diet.

2. Dehydration

Lack of food for a long period slows down the body’s energy stores and poor nutrition, which is often related to dehydration.

This dehydration may, in turn, aggravate other problems and lead to cracked and exceedingly dry skin, lethargy, lack of urinary output, low or undetectable blood pressure, along with other conditions like constipation, among others (3).

Thus, it is important to remember to drink enough water, even if you are on a starvation diet. Starvation and dehydration depletes glycogen levels and disturbs electrolyte balance.

3. Decreases Resting Metabolic Rate

Starvation for a long period decreases metabolic rate as you are depriving your body of food and water, which almost exhausts its energy stores.

Chronic starvation decreases the resting metabolic rate, but the exact mechanism is still not understood well (4).

4. Loss Of Monthly Menstrual Period

Starvation leads to many problems. One of these problems is it upsets how your periods are regulated. Those thinking about going on a starvation diet may want to consider this aspect before beginning the diet.

The adipose tissue helps to produce female sex hormones by regulating the receptors (5). Due to prolonged starvation, your fat cells start to shrink. The lack of fat cells causes lack of estrogen, the female hormone (6). As prolonged starvation can lead to organ damage, the body processes tend to slow down, which usually causes menstruation to stop.

5. Constipation

Starvation can also induce constipation in many individuals.

Studies on many individuals with anorexia have shown that they may deal with severe starvation, which can lead to many disorders and requires the use of regular laxatives to be treated wholly.

A case study on three women with severe anorexia found that they needed to use regular laxatives or enemas to help flush their colon. These women also ran a higher risk of rectal prolapse due to the overuse of laxatives (7).

6. Bone Loss

A starved or starving individual may continue to lose weight at an alarming rate. Although the changes in the skin and musculature are quite obvious, the bones also undergo developmental changes.

In both animal models and humans, prolonged starvation caused bone loss by stimulating osteoclast activity (bone cells break down), leading to loss of bone mineral density and decreased overall bone strength (8).

7. Fatigue

One of the most common side effects of starvation is fatigue. Starvation upsets the balance of essential vitamins in your body and slows down physiological processes, which can lead to fatigue and a feeling of light headedness.

8. Effects On Blood Pressure

Chronic starvation may lower blood pressure levels as your body is completely devoid of food and water.

A case study on a 17-year-old girl with anorexia showed very low blood pressure, which was very difficult to measure (9).

9. Electrolyte Imbalance

Starvation leads to electrolyte imbalance, which is mostly due to dehydration after prolonged fasting.

Studies on rats showed that starvation could lead to electrolyte imbalances, especially sodium, potassium, phosphorus, and calcium levels, which increased after refeeding them (10).

10. Affects The Brain

Prolonged starvation impairs brain function and exhausts all the glucose needed for the effective functioning of cognitive abilities.

A study on female mice showed that 48 hours of starvation markedly decreased brain glucose consumption and biochemical reactions associated with it (11).

While various fad diets and types of fasting are common nowadays for weight loss, you should be wary of the effects of starving yourself. Starving not only leads to malnutrition, fatigue, electrolyte imbalance and menstrual irregularities, but may also prove fatal if not checked early on. Underfeeding yourself may lead to irritability, anxiety and mental delusions, sometimes resulting in chronic depression as well. If you are aiming to lose some weight, make sure to consume small frequent meals and follow a healthy balanced diet.

Now that you know how starvation can affect your body adversely, we hope that you will rethink about those starvation diets. They are just a quick fix and offer little long-term benefits. Opt for a balanced regimen to lose weight.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can starvation cause internal bleeding?

Starvation is not related to internal bleeding. Prolonged starvation may cause physical and mental damage.

Does your stomach shrink when you starve?

Starving for long can reduce the amount of food your stomach can accommodate.

Does intermittent fasting put you in the starvation mode?

Intermittent fasting is short-term fasting, which is restricted to a 16:8-hour window, followed by eating healthy food. On the other hand, starving means complete fasting in which no food and water are allowed.

Does starving yourself make you bloat?

Yes, starvation makes you bloat as you are not drinking water to digest the remaining food in your stomach.

11 sources

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Madhu Sharma

(RD)
Madhu Sharma is a member of the National Executive Committee of IDA. She has been associated for almost three decades... more

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