What Are The Symptoms And Side Effects Of Starvation?

Refraining from eating can have serious adverse effects on your health and fitness goals.

Medically reviewed by Madhu Sharma, RD Madhu Sharma Madhu SharmaRD
Written by , MSc (Nutrition), CDE Priyanka Sadhukhan MSc (Nutrition), CDE Experience: 8 years
Edited by , BA (Literature & Psychology), PG Diploma Arshiya Syeda BA (Literature & Psychology), PG Diploma Experience: 7 years
Fact-checked by , BPharm, Certified Health & Wellness Coach Moksha Gandhi BPharm, Certified Health & Wellness Coach Experience: 2 years

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 anorexiai  XAn eating disorder characterized by abnormally low body weight and extreme restriction on calorie intake. and may stem from body dysmorphia.

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

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

Stages Of Starvation

Starvation progresses in different stages as the body faces a prolonged lack of sustenance.

The initial stage occurs when the body exhausts its immediate energy reserves, which include glycogen stored in the liver and muscles. The body then turns to fat stores for energy, which may result in significant weight loss (1).

Next, the body enters a state of ketosis. At this stage, it relies on ketones, produced by the breakdown of fats, as a primary source of energy. This can lead to muscle wasting and a decrease in metabolic rate to conserve energy (1).

In the final stage, the body moves into a catabolic stage. It breaks down its own tissues, including those of vital organs, to sustain crucial functions. This can result in organ failure and be fatal (1).

Each stage is marked by different symptoms. Learn more about them below.

Symptoms Of Starvation

Kristy Smith, Nutritionist and Holistic Health Coach, says, “Starving has drastic effects on your body. It destroys your muscles, bones, skin, and organs. Nutrient deficiencies lead to a weak immune system, and your body becomes susceptible to a number of diseases.”

She adds, “Long-term effects include chronic diseases like diabetes or heart disease. It also causes electrolyte disturbance resulting in weakness, tiredness, or sometimes even depression. In addition, it results in a slow heart rate and abnormally low blood pressure. In fact, starvation acts as an invitation to many diseases.”

The starvation symptoms vary from person to person. The major symptoms reported are (2):

  • Fatigue
  • Abnormal attitude and behavioral changes toward food and eating
  • Poor emotional and social functioning
  • Poor concentration
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • Reduction in the rate of weight loss
  • Poor concentration due to cognitive impairment
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort (digestive problems)
  • Cold intolerance
  • Cardiac stress and 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 (3). 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.

protip_icon Did You Know?
Malnutrition affects people in every country around the globe. According to the World Health Organization, around 1.9 billion adults worldwide are overweight, and 462 million are underweight (3).

2. Dehydration

A woman struggling with a dehydration issue
Image: Shutterstock

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, lethargyi  XA state of lacking energy and being drowsy that can be alleviated by getting enough rest or sleep. , lack of urinary output, low or undetectable blood pressure, along with other conditions like constipation, among others (4).

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 ratei  XThe number of calories you burn or are required to accomplish your body's needs over a specific period of time. 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 (5).

4. Loss Of Monthly Menstrual Period

Loss of menstrual period due to starving
Image: Shutterstock

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 the effects of hormonal imbalances on their health before beginning the diet.

The adipose tissue helps to produce female sex hormones by regulating the receptors (6). Due to prolonged starvation, your fat cells start to shrink. The lack of fat cells causes lack of estrogen, the female hormone (7). As prolonged starvation can lead to organ damage, the body processes tend to slow down, which usually causes menstruation to stop.

5. Constipation

A woman struggling with constipation
Image: Shutterstock

Starvation can also induce constipation in many individuals.

Studies on many individuals with anorexia nervosa have shown that they may deal with severe starvation, which can lead to many disorders and requires the use of regular laxativesi  XA type of over-the-counter medicine that helps improve stool weight and consistency and increases bowel movements. 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 suffering from an eating disorder also ran a higher risk of rectal prolapsei  XA condition that occurs when the rectum becomes stretched out and slips outside the anus, the end of the digestive tract. due to the overuse of laxatives (8).

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.

Christiana, a blogger, journaled how anorexia and starvation affected her bone health in her blog, Chrissy’s Kitchen. She states, “Lack of nutrients caused serious damage to my body. My estrogen level decreased and osteopenia set in. My bones became weakened and compromised. One day, while stretching before a dance class, my bones gave way. With a violent crunch, searing pain careened through my back. I had sustained a double back fracture to my spine (i).”

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 (9) leading to osteoporosis.

7. Fatigue

A woman with a fatigue problem
Image: Shutterstock

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 lightheadedness.

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 (10).

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 (11).

protip_icon Quick Tip
People who experience starvation for a prolonged time can not begin to consume a normal quantity of food immediately, and will require a doctor’s supervision.

10. Affects The Brain

Improper brain functioning due to starving
Image: Shutterstock

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 (12).

Infographic: Most Damaging Effects Of Starving

Voluntary starving is never a healthy solution for losing weight. You may lose weight by not having food but it may cause serious health issues that can last a lifetime. Though we have listed all the damaging effects of starving in this article, you may check out the infographic below to know the most serious effects of starving that may lead to further health concerns.

most damaging effects of starving (infographic)

Illustration: StyleCraze Design Team

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 adversely affect your body, we hope that you will rethink before going on 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

Does your stomach shrink when you starve?

Kristy Smith says, “No, it does not shrink your stomach. As you become an adult, the size of your stomach remains the same unless you go through surgery. Eating less helps you rest your appetite thermostat, so you don’t feel hungry and can follow up on your eating plans.”

What’s the difference between starving and intermittent fasting?

According to Kristy Smith, “Starving is defined as completely retaining yourself from eating food or eating very few calories for a longer period whereas intermittent fasting can be described as eating food within a specific time frame.”
She adds, “Another thing that differentiates between the two is the severity of the symptoms. People who are starving can develop brain dysfunction, heart failure, diabetes, etc. On the other hand, people who are fasting can experience mild symptoms like hunger, headache, dizziness, etc.”

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, complete fasting does not allow any food and water intake and is called metabolic damage or starvation mode.

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.

Can your body reject food after starvation?

Refeeding syndrome can occur when a person resumes eating after starvation. This is due to the reintroduction of glucose or sugar. There may be abrupt changes in the electrolyte and fluid balance as the body processes meals once more. As a result of these changes, the condition can be lethal.

Key Takeaways

  • Starvation deprives you of essential dietary nutrients which may disturb physical and mental health.
  • It may lead to malnutrition, fatigue, and depression.
  • Prolonged starvation or anorexia may hamper your metabolism and lead to diabetes, low blood pressure, bone loss, and menstrual irregularities.
  • Starvation can cause hair loss, skin dryness, and brittle nails.
  • Starvation may also cause dehydration, which may lead to kidney problems and other health complications.
effects of starving yourself

Image: Dall·E/StyleCraze Design Team

Are you trying to starve yourself to lose weight? If yes, then watch this informative video to learn how a starvation diet can actually make you gain weight instead!

Personal Experience: Source


Articles on StyleCraze are backed by verified information from peer-reviewed and academic research papers, reputed organizations, research institutions, and medical associations to ensure accuracy and relevance. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  1. Why does starvation make bones fat?
  2. The Starvation Symptom Inventory: Development and Psychometric Properties, Nutrients, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
  3. What is malnutrition? World Health Organization.
  4. Adult Dehydration
  5. Chronic Starvation Secondary to Anorexia Nervosa Is Associated With an Adaptive Suppression of Resting Energy Expenditure, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
  6. Adipose tissue as an endocrine organ, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
  7. Types of reproductive disorders in underweight and overweight young females and correlations of respective hormonal changes with BMI, Iranian Journal of Reproductive Medicine, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
  8. Rectal prolapse associated with anorexia nervosa: a case report and review of the literature, Journal of eating Disorder, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
  9. Evidence for the Adverse Effect of Starvation on Bone Quality: A Review of the Literature, International Journal of Endocrinology, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
  10. Anorexia Nervosa: The physiological consequences of starvation and the need for primary prevention efforts, McGill Journal of Medicine, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
  11. Starvation and refeeding in rats: effect on some parameters of energy metabolism and electrolytes and changes of hepatic tissue, Pesquisa Veterinária Brasileira, Scientific Electronic Library Online.
  12. Effect of starvation on brain glucose metabolism and F-2-fluoro-2-deoxyglucose uptake: an experimental in-vivo and ex-vivo study, EJNMMI research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
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