Hunger: Countdown to Death

Hunger: Countdown to Death


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Editorial Note:  Before we start an esoteric debate on the political right and left arguments about entitlement programs such as SNAP and their impact on the upcoming midterm elections, it’s good to take a basic look at what “Hunger” is.   , The Mirror’s science writer, describes below the biological process of hunger and its impact on learning.

From the moment you finish your next meal, you are on a 10 to 18-day countdown to death, depending on how much water you have.

To many, hunger is a worldwide tragedy that affects hundreds of millions of people. But in the eyes of Joachim Gardemann, professor for human biology and humanitarian aid at Münster Polytechnic, hunger is, from a medical point of view, an imperative tactic for human survival. Being able to survive for extended periods of time without food, given the person is healthy and has access to sufficient amounts of water, is the advantageous bi-product of millions of years of evolution.

Hunger affects almost every aspect of an animal from its behavior all the way to bodily functions. When a predator is faced with the obstacle of hunger it is more likely to take risks. This predator will hunt for more dangerous prey to satisfy its hunger.Screen shot 2014-03-23 at 3.05.08 PM

This phenomena can also be applied to humans. In recent years it has been documented that humans who have less than adequate amounts of food are more likely to take financial risks than their colleagues. Hunger can affect the body and its normal functions. After eight to ten days without food, the human body will “flip a switch” that puts it in a state that is equivalent to hibernation. Body temperature falls, the heart rate drops, and blood pressure is lowered as a result of starvation. Hunger even has a smell! Apart from glucose, the only substance that the brain can use for energy is ketone bodies. The ketone bodies are converted from fat when the body is in hunger mode. The ketone bodies are released by the kidneys and the person’s breath contains acetone, making the person smell like nail polish.

Timetable of Hunger:

-Two to three hours after last eating, the body’s reserves of glycogen will be used up. Glycogen is the body’s source of carbohydrates. If food is not consumed in time the body will increase its sodium levels which, leads to excessive blood pressure.

-After one to two days without food you will start to see a change in the person’s physical appearance. His or her skin will go pale and they will smell of nail polish. They will look completely exhausted with an unhealthy sheen about the eyes.

-At two to four days the “supercompensation” phase begins, where the body switches to rely solely on internal resources. Due to the lack of carbohydrates at this point, the proteins and fat entering the blood are not fully oxidized and completely used up. The buildup of toxic components of metabolism in the blood accompanies this phase.

-Seven to ten days without food can be fatal, depending on the amount of fluids consumed. Surprisingly a person at this stage will feel excited and have a strong desire to work and be active. This is because of internal toxicosis and can last for several weeks.

-When you start to near three weeks without food you are really scraping up against death. Weakness, fatigue, and lethargy all begin after decompensation phase initiates, due to loss of muscle mass. Death at this point is almost fairly certain, since toxins from the brain and kidneys build up and cannot be flushed out.

Hunger affects the way your body functions and your behavior.  It also affects your ability to learn and recall information, says the Tufts University Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy. Not getting enough to eat on a regular basis, or “undernutrition”, delays a child’s brain development and ability to learn. Twenty-five percent of children who belong to low-income families have iron-deficiency anemia, low iron in the blood, which is linked to impaired capacity to learn. A child’s brain grows quickly and develops at a much higher rate than any other time in their life, and without enough nutrients, protein, and energy a student’s cognitive evolution is greatly hindered.  Screen shot 2014-03-23 at 3.15.15 PM

Hunger is a terrible misfortune that millions of people endure on a daily basis. It is a plague that many of us are blind to and wish not to see, but the reality of the situation is that hunger will not be eliminated throughout the world until action is taken against it.