Lifestyle

How long you can survive without food? Experts explain ‘cannibal’ process of starvation

As Richard Ratcliffe enters into his 20th day of hunger strike, the Mirror spoke to weight and genetic expert Ellie Busby to learn how a body deals with a lack of food, how it uses energy and when it starts to become dangerous

Richard Ratcliffe is on his 20th day of hunger strike
Richard Ratcliffe is on his 20th day of hunger strike

Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who is being held prisoner by the Iranian government, has today entered the 20th day of his hunger strike aiming to force the UK government to pay a £400 thousand debt to Iran.

Starvation is a state of survival the body enters into when it goes for extended periods of time without food, water, or both. Eventually starvation will lead to death.

Dan Hurley, Pharmacist at the Indpendent Pharmacy, said: “Not having an external food source ultimately leads to death”.

“The long-term effects of not having an external food source are dire for your body. It leads your body to source food from itself — your body becomes a self-cannibal”

Here’s everything you need to know about starvation and its effects on the body.

How long can someone survive without food?








Ketosis is when your body begins to ‘eat itself’ when there’s no energy supply available
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Image:

Getty Images)



According to experts and studies, the human body can last between 20 and 40 days but there will be severe side effects. However, this does remain contested, largely due to the unethical nature of studying starvation under scientific conditions and so data is a limited.

Ellie Busby, a weight and genetic expert at Vojo Health, told the Mirror: “The human body has a great survival mechanism for when you don’t have access to food. You’ve probably heard about it in the form of a diet many people try for weight loss.

“It’s called ‘ketosis’ and it’s when your body burns your fat stores for fuel, making something called ‘ketones’, instead of getting glucose from the food you’re eating. You body transitions into ketosis after 12-24 hours of fasting i.e. no food. Basically, once your glycogen stores are used up.”

It is at this point that your body enters into starvation mode.

“Being in ketosis is a state of metabolism, not a diet.,” said Ellie. “A ketogenic diet can trigger ketosis by restricting carbohydrate intake so your body is forced to burn fat to provide ketones for energy instead of burning carbohydrates.

“Short periods of starvation ketosis are usually fine from a health perspective. You can survive for some days, perhaps weeks without food while in ketosis – depending on your fat stores. But when the condition is extreme or unmonitored it can result in ketoacidosis, a disorder in which ketones can reach abnormally high levels that are dangerous or life threatening.

“Ketoacidosis is when your blood starts to become acidic. In starvation ketoacidosis, once the body has run out of fat, it starts to break down muscle, which releases amino acids and lactate into your bloodstream.

Ellie explains that as fasting continues ketoacidosis rises, peaking after around 20 to 30 days.

Can your body recover from starvation?

There is potential for the human body to recover from starvation, but this depends on how long the body has been deprived of food and water for.

Recovering for starvation, along with undergoing the treatment for it, can take weeks or even months.

Dan Hurley explains: “In starvation, ketoacidosis the safest approach to treatment may be to start providing carbohydrate whilst also considering the patient’s risk of other deficiencies and treating accordingly.

“However, there is a risk of ‘refeeding syndrome’, which can cause issues when the person consumes carbohydrates again. Electrolyte levels should be closely monitored and corrected if necessary. In cases of treatment failure or hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar levels), IV insulin can be added.

He adds: “If you’ve starved yourself for longer than 72 hours then you’ll need medical attention.”

“The risk of your body developing refeeding syndrome is another reason the recovery from serious starvation must be managed by a medical professional.

“Refeeding syndrome is when the reintroduction of glucose to your body causes a sharp shift in your body’s balance of fluids and electrolytes. This can result in extreme complications and even death, so controlling the reintroduction of food into your body after a long period of starvation is crucial and should be overseen by a medical professional”.


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