Starvation is one of the most deadly conditions on the planet; according to some studies, the effects of starvation play a major role in between one-third and one-half of all worldwide deaths of children under the age of five. By depriving the body of nutrition, starvation slowly allows the body to devour its own reserves, including muscle, fat, and organs, up to the point of complete system shut-down and death. Understanding how starvation affects the body is important to recognizing the signs of malnutrition and preventing a growing nutrition-based problem from worsening beyond repair.
The body is an effective storage device for fats, nutrients, and other important components. These stores are regulated by nutrition in the form of food, beverages, and vitamin and mineral supplements. When lack of nutrition occurs, the body quite quickly turns to stored reserves, beginning with glycogen, in order to keep vital functions up to par. As the body begins to devour more and more stored components to keep running, the physical effects of starvation become apparent.
One of the first effects of starvation to occur is a drop in metabolism. In order to maximize efficiency, the body protects its insulating fat stores by consuming muscle stores instead, using these reserves to make up for the lack of calorie intake. Dropping metabolism can lead to feelings of fatigue, decreased capacity for activity, and mental sluggishness.
Since the body is busy keeping vital systems going, many non-vital functions slow or cease. Hormone production is often disrupted, leading to decreased sex drive and a lower fertility rate. Women who have passed the age of puberty may stop menstruating entirely, or experience irregular periods. Malnutrition and starvation, therefore, can have serious developmental effects on near-pubescent children even after recovery, as normal hormonal functions may be temporarily or permanently thrown off track.
The effects of starvation on the brain cause a lack of concentration, loss of motor skills, and increased likelihood of anxiety and depression. As the condition progresses, brain function decreases, leaving the victim in a state of fatigue or torpor. Apathy continues to increase, until the person may no longer be able to attempt to find food or survive.
Initial weight loss will quickly turn to emaciation because of the effects of starvation. The limbs become extremely thin as muscle and fat stores are depleted, while the eyes and face begin to appear sunken. Lack of vital proteins can lead to the development of edemas, which appear as large swollen areas. The stomach may protrude enormously, as part of a syndrome known as kwashiorkor.
Starvation is frequently a result of famine in rural or developing regions, but may also be a result of eating disorders such as anorexia, or fasting without careful medical supervision. While the effects can often be reversed up to a point, acute starvation can cause serious organ damage and often leads to long-term health conditions including cardiovascular problems. If a person, particularly a child, is exhibiting signs of starvation, it is important to alert proper authorities. Unattended, starvation leads inexorably towards death.