You have decided to go on a hunger strike. You
vow not to eat a single thing for days or even weeks if you can last that long. The worst part
is that as each day goes by, things will get worse and worse. By the time you reach the end,
you will be a husk of the person you once were. The day you stop eating. You take your final bite of a delicious meal. This
will be the last food you will eat for weeks. The food is broken down into small pieces in your
mouth by your teeth. Spit and saliva lubricate the chewed-up food so that it’s easier for you
to consume. When you swallow, your throat muscles expand and contract, pushing the food down into
your stomach. This process is called peristalsis and is what allows you to swallow even if you are
Ironically it is also the process that enables you to throw up when it’s done in reverse.
Once the food reaches your stomach, the acids in it break down your food into its basic components,
one of the most important of which is glucose. Glucose is the sugar molecule that your
body uses to produce energy. It’s arguably the most important molecule you ingest while
eating. There are other important nutrients and vitamins your body gets from your food,
but the main goal is to break down anything you put into your mouth into glucose so that
the mitochondria in your cells can use it to make energy. If this does not happen, you
will die. In the days to come, it will be glucose that your body craves. Everything else
is inconsequential, as you will soon find out. The food sitting in your stomach is torn
apart by the acid contained within it. Some of the molecules diffuse through your stomach
lining and into your bloodstream. Others are released into your intestines, where they will
travel through around 20 feet of tubes.
It’s here that the majority of the nutrients from
your food are absorbed into the bloodstream, and the waste is carried to your bowels to be
pooped out. Digestion can take hours to complete, which means once you stop eating, you will not
feel the effects of starvation for some time. 6 hours after you stop eating. Your body has now broken down all of the food
from your last meal. Some of the nutrients are still in your bloodstream but in lower numbers
than they were while your food was still being digested. However, the glucose from that
meal is almost completely used up. This is when your brain starts sending signals
to your body that make you feel hungry. Hunger is your body telling you it needs
more glucose to make energy.
Really it’s just your brain’s way of tricking you into
eating more food so it can make more energy. But since you’ve decided to stop eating
altogether, these signals go unanswered. It is at this point you might start to become
irritable or what has become known as hangry. Many people have a shift in their mood when they get
hungry. Your brain is signaling your stomach to make hormones such as ghrelin which stimulates the
feelings of hunger. Ghrelin can also make you feel anxious, which is one of the reasons you become
irritable and grouchy when you are hungry. After several hours of not eating, people will not want
to be around you.
You might have a short temper, experience mood swings, and heightened emotions,
all because your body is craving more glucose. 1 day after you stop eating. You wake up after a good night's sleep. Biological
changes have started to occur within your body. The surprising thing is you may feel like
you have more energy now than you did the day before. While you slept, your body tried
to conserve energy, and now that you’re awake, it’s pulling whatever glucose is left out
of your bloodstream to keep your body going.
It has been a full 24 hours since your last meal,
which means your body quickly goes from feeling good to sluggish and miserable. The energy you
conserved is slowly being sapped from you. You drink a lot of water to keep yourself hydrated
because although you can survive for weeks without food, you would be dead within days if you become
dehydrated. You have sworn off juices and soda, so you will not be replenishing your glucose
supply that way, and although the water quenches your thirst, it will never provide
you with the energy you need to stay alive.
You carry on and complete your daily activities.
That night as you look at your bed, it manifests into a hot, juicy, cheeseburger right before your
eyes. It’s just your mind playing tricks on you because you are so hungry, but it seems so real
at the time. This will become a common occurrence as you drift in and out of consciousness in the
days to come. Not eating will begin to mess with your mind in ways that you can’t possibly imagine,
and in the end, it might just make you go crazy. Your hunger strike continues, and you
go to bed with a grumbling stomach and a brain that is screaming at you to
eat something. In the coming days, your body will take drastic
measures to keep you alive. 2 days after you stop eating. The glucose in your body is now
completely gone. You enter ketosis, which is when the liver produces ketone
bodies that can be broken down and used for energy. Although glucose is the most
desirable molecule for energy production, it’s not the only one.
The brain will use ketone
bodies as a replacement in dier situations. There is a lag time between the depletion of glucose
in the blood and the breaking down of your body’s energy-storing molecules such as carbohydrates
and fats. During this transition time, the ketone bodies are a vital resource your
brain uses to maintain its basic functions. When the liver is producing ketone bodies, it
signals the beginning of what will become a very destructive process for other parts of your
body. As your internal systems try to keep vital organs functioning, they will break down anything
and everything to keep you alive. Once the ketone bodies are all gone, things start to get even
Your body has to resort to destroying itself to generate more energy. And all of this
destruction will come with some dire consequences. 3 days after you stop eating. Your body is in full-blown starvation mode at this
point and begins feeding on itself. Whenever you eat, some of the nutrients you ingest such as
carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are stored in your tissue. This is the reason why your
weight increases if you eat too much food on a regular basis. However, now that you are
starving, your body takes these energy stores and starts to break them down. Carbohydrates and
fats are the first macronutrients to be used. The most common location where fats and
carbohydrates are stored is in the abdominal region. However, they can be found throughout the
body. As they are broken down, you lose weight, and your BMI decreases. Carbohydrates are made up
of complex sugars. Enzymes in your body break them down into components that are easier to use.
Many carbohydrates contain glucose molecules, which are stripped and quickly
used up by your starving body.
The fatty acids that are broken down contain
acetyl CoA. This molecule can be used by your cells to generate energy. Acetyl CoA does
not contain as much energy as glucose, but in this situation, your
body doesn’t care where the energy is coming from as long as there is
enough to carry out basic life functions. Your metabolism slows immensely, and you
feel tired all of the time. It’s at this point that your organs begin to shrink.
This is another step your body takes to lower the amount of energy required to
keep things running. At the same time, your body temperature drops,
which also helps conserve energy. All of these changes can be dangerous and are
clear signs that your body is starving.
In any other circumstance, you would eat a huge meal to
replenish the nutrients and stored energy that is being lost. But since this is not an option, you
power through the pain and exhaustion. You find it hard to move around even for short periods
of time, and keeping your eyes open is a chore. The most dangerous effect of starvation
is that your brain is not receiving the glucose it needs to run smoothly. If
the brain shuts down, it’s game over; you die.
The brain cannot use fatty acids and
other energy stores as efficiently as glucose, so it monopolizes any remaining glucose in your
system. On average, your brain uses around 120 grams of glucose every day. This is a significant
amount of your daily sugar intake, which is why if you don’t eat enough, your brain will signal
that you are still hungry.
Now that you are not consuming any new sugars, all the energy your
brain requires must come from the body itself. Things go haywire as your body is broken
down to keep you alive. Your blood pressure drops, and your heart rate slows. These
are countermeasures to try and reduce energy needs. From here on out, every
day that passes without food entering your body will cause even more serious
damage to occur. In the coming days, your body will do some pretty miraculous things to
keep you going, but eventually, it will shut down.
5 days after you stop eating. Your body is now in a constant state of feeling
threatened. You haven’t eaten in almost a week, so you begin to act more like a cornered
wild animal than a rational human. Your brain can’t function properly, so animalistic
instincts take over, and you are driven only by the will to survive. This means you might
become aggressive or aggravated more quickly. Around this time, non-essential organs begin
to shut down. Your body is trying to conserve as many resources as possible to keep the
The digestive system is one of the first organ systems to be shut down
as it hasn’t been used in days. However, there are some nasty side effects that
develop as a result of this occurring. Once the digestive and excretory systems start
to lose energy and cells due to starvation, they cause a build-up of excess water in
As a result, you begin to have diarrhea. Even though you may be drinking water
constantly, this can still have life-threatening consequences. As the liquid explodes out
of your bowels, nutrients come out with it. There is no way for your body to separate the
vital nutrients from the waste being excreted. With even less nutrients available now, the
brain becomes more and more strained. Your brain cells begin to die, and brain matter
loss escalates. This is especially dangerous for brains that are still developing. Children
and young adults affected by starvation could end up with permanent neurological impairment
even if they eventually start eating a healthy diet again. It’s true that since the
brain is more plastic during development, it might be able to repair itself,
but the danger of causing irreparable damage to the nervous system due
to starvation is a real concern. 7 days after you stop eating. Your body has used up its energy stores of
carbohydrates and fats. It’s now starting to break down your own proteins in a last-ditch
effort to generate energy.
This is when things get really bad. Once your body starts breaking
down proteins, death is not too far away. You are literally tearing apart your own muscles in
order to keep the brain going. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of other
vital organs, including your heart. You could start to develop convulsions
or disrupted heart rhythms. You are also becoming weaker and more toxins
are building up in your body as your kidneys and liver begin to shut down. The
brain tries to conserve as much energy as possible by reducing the amount of glucose it
requires, but it still needs to send signals to the rest of the body to keep things
Long-term starvation can cause you to experience hallucinations
and fade in and out of consciousness. The process of breaking down proteins into amino
acids and small amounts of glucose helps the body initially, but it will only be a matter of
days until a major system fails and you die. 10 days after you stop eating. You are cold all of the time. You can barely lift
your head off the ground, let alone stand up. Your eyes have become super sensitive to light, so you
have to sit in the shade or in a dark room just to prevent a throbbing headache from developing.
start to cough as you feel yourself getting sick. You have become much more susceptible to
disease without the necessary resources or energy to make antibodies. Your
immune system has become compromised, and even if you are just lying in
isolation as you suffer through starvation, it’s only a matter of time until you
are attacked by a harmful pathogen. When this happens, your body will not have
the energy or nutrients it requires to fight off the infection. Your white blood cell
count is low. The antibody proteins your immune system would normally develop cannot be
made due to a lack of resources.
Much of the protein in your body has already been broken
down and repurposed as an energy source; there just isn’t enough left over to generate
the components needed to defeat the pathogen. If you are lucky, you might receive medical
interventions before the disease kills you. But this will do nothing if you don’t get food
into your system. Chances are that even if you do catch a cold after close to two weeks without
eating, it will be starvation that causes your body to shut down and not the illness.
14 days after you stop eating. Your teeth begin to decay.
Even if you decided
to eat something, you’re not sure you would be able to chew and swallow it. You feel so weak that
you are almost positive that if you fall asleep, you won’t wake up. Your bones have become brittle
and seem as if they will snap if you move. All you can do is lay on your back and stare into the
darkness. Your body has broken down every store of energy it can find. Your muscles have been
torn apart, and your bones have lost density. 21 days after you stop eating. When you shift your head, you find hair all
over your pillow. Your bones are pressed up against your skin as there is practically
no more muscle or fat left on your entire body. You are nothing more than a
skeleton with skin wrapped around it. Breathing becomes a chore. Your
heart begins to shut down. Your brain can no longer generate the energy it needs
to send signals throughout your body.
You take in your final breath before your nervous
system becomes completely inactive and you die. However, you are lucky. Someone is about to rescue
you from dying of starvation. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Your body
is just a shell of what it once was. If you are not reintroduced to food properly, you
will still end up dying. First, doctors must give you a thorough medical exam to figure out
the best course of action to save your life. Day 1 of the recovery process. It’s likely you will be given antibiotics to try
and fight off any infections or harmful bacteria that have found their way into your body. Since
your immune system has been all but destroyed, pathogens are running rampant throughout
your system. You are hooked to an IV to make sure you get the fluids you need to say
hydrated. In the solution are electrolytes, nutrients, and, most importantly, glucose. The
life-saving substance flows into your body, and your brain starts using it to
reactivate long inert muscles and organs. Day 2 of the recovery process. You might be given soft foods full of nutrients,
such as peanut butter paste.
If you are able to drink on your own, skim milk could be one of
the fluids that doctors ask you to consume. Both are high in vitamins and minerals and will
help your body begin the recovery process. You would not be able to eat solid foods as you
would be too weak. If you try to eat too much, too quickly, you will make yourself
sick and throw it all up. This would obviously defeat the purpose of
trying to eat in the first place.
Day 3 of the recovery process. You are monitored for any swelling that
might occur as a result of introducing food back into your system. The doctors
also check your heart as people who are brought back from starvation often develop
cardiovascular problems as the heart muscles have become so weak that they struggle to move
blood around the body. Even if you are pumped full of glucose and nutrients, it won’t
matter if they can’t get to your brain. Your diet will eventually return to
normal. But during the recovery process, you will be eating boiled vegetables along
with other supplements. Your protein intake will remain relatively low until your
body becomes stronger. And even though you would think that you should be dumping
sugar into your system to generate energy, this is not the case. Your cells would
not be able to use up all of the sugar, which could lead to glucose resistance
that could develop into Type-2 diabetes.
Recovery from starvation is possible with the help
of medical professionals, but it’s highly likely your body will sustain long-term damage from
the ordeal. Your heart might not fully recover, and you may need to be put on blood pressure
medication. Your cognitive functions could be impaired for the foreseeable future, and there may
be irreparable damage to organs within your body. The amount of time you would survive without
eating varies depending on your body type, weight, age, how active you are, and your
hydration levels. Some people only survive a week without eating, while others can
survive 21 days. This tends to be the normal time range people can last without food,
but there are some who can survive much longer. How much longer, you ask? We are
talking months without anything to eat. Mahatma Gandhi survived for 21 days while only
sipping water during one of his non-violent protests for India’s independence.
There have also been accounts of people on hunger strikes that have lasted
up to 40 days. This may seem incredible, but it actually has been done a number
of times. Several studies have recorded people on hunger strikes exceeding a
month without food.
That being said, the longest someone has ever gone without solid
food is so astonishing it will blow your mind. According to the Guinness Book of World Records,
Angus Barbieri lasted for over a year without any solid food. In June of 1965, Angus stopped
eating any food and only drank tea, coffee, water, and soda while at Maryfield Hospital in
Dundee, Scotland. He was also given supplemental vitamins to help keep his body going. In July of
1966, 382 days after starting his no-food diet, Angus had his first real food in over a year.
He went from weighing 472 pounds to 178 pounds.
This was a special circumstance as
doctors were present to monitor him, and he was given supplemental vitamins, but
382 days is an extremely long time to go without any solid food. In cases where people
go on hunger strikes for long periods of time, they are likely drinking water and
have access to other supplements. Also, life expectancy due to starvation is
drastically different when it is by choice rather than in a survival situation. If you found
yourself trapped on a deserted island with no food and only water, it’s highly improbable that you
would make it past two weeks before dying. This is because you would already be in survival mode,
which would dump adrenaline into your system and cause you to start using your glucose much
quicker than if you actively chose to stop eating. There is also some evidence to suggest that
females are able to last longer without food than males. This has not been definitively
proven because an experiment to gather these results would be highly unethical.
women tend to have a higher percentage of stored body fat than men. This means
that their body has more resources to pull from before needing to tear apart proteins
to generate energy. The longer a body can go before it runs out of carbohydrates and
fats, the longer the person will survive. That being said, if you ever do find yourself in
a situation where you are in danger of starving, there are a few things you can do to extend your
life expectancy. In the best of circumstances, you will need to drink a lot of water and
make sure you don’t become dehydrated. Dehydration will kill you much quicker than
starvation ever could.
To conserve energy, you should move as little as
possible and try to remain calm. The faster your heart is beating, the more
energy you are using. The quicker you deplete your glucose levels, the sooner your body will
start consuming itself to generate the energy it needs to keep you alive. Your body is using the
least amount of energy while you are sleeping, so resting is your best course of action to
extend the amount of time you can go without food.
The bottom line is that if you have the choice
between eating or going on a hunger strike, it’s best to just keep eating. Starvation can have
long-term effects that you may never recover from. Now watch “What Happens To Your Body If You Never Move.” Or check out “What Does it
Actually Feel Like to be Shot.”.