Starvation syndrome can occur in individuals of all weights when the body is denied energy through food restriction for a prolonged period of time. It is common in individuals with eating disorders because they often restrict food, eat irregularly, and try to compensate ingested calories through overexercising or forcing the body to eliminate food quickly. The symptoms that are commonly associated with eating disorders are often symptoms of starvation syndrome. This blog post discusses several of these symptoms as well as common ways to help combat these uncomfortable symptoms. Remember that it is important to seek help from a Registered Dietitian or doctor if you are struggling with an eating disorder.
Starvation impairs physiological, emotional, cognitive, and social functions. The physical changes that may take place can affect several different organs and body systems. Less visible physical changes that can occur are: reduced heart muscle mass, decreased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, slower basal metabolic rate, extreme fatigue, weakness, dizziness, feeling cold all the time, and decreased hormone levels.1More visible physical changes that can occur are: hair loss, blackouts, fluid retention, lack of sexual desire, and dry skin.1Emotional changes often take place as well and can manifest themselves as depression, anxiety, irritability, or loss of interest in life.1Brain function can also be impaired, resulting in impaired concentration, impaired comprehension, impaired judgement and ability to make decisions, obsessional thoughts, and decreased alertness.1Starvation syndrome can also affect friends and family as starving individuals can lose their sense of humour, withdraw from relationships, neglect personal hygiene, and/or isolate themselves.1Additional possible behaviour changes include: frequent thoughts about food, strict meal planning, very fast or slow eating, increased hunger, binge-eating, hoarding, and increasing the use of spices or condiments.1
Although starvation syndrome has a long list of potential side effects, it can be reversed. Treatments to reverse starvation syndrome comprise of physical re-nourishment, weight restoration, and psychological therapy to address negative feelings about food and body-image. Physical re-nourishment, also known as the initial refeeding process,is the foundation for other positive changes. It involves establishing regular eating habits and consuming nourishing meals. The symptoms of starvation may persist in the beginning of re-nourishment, but they will disappear eventually.
Regular eating is important as it brings the body back into balance. Humans function best when they eat about every 3 hours throughout the day.2When recovering from starvation syndrome, it may be helpful to “eat by the clock” at the beginning to get your body use to consuming food regularly. Try to aim for 3 meals and 2-4 snacks each day. Preparing your meals in advance may also be helpful with staying on schedule. At first, it may feel uncomfortable to eat every 3 hours, but your digestive system will adapt overtime. Once you have a regular eating routine in place, you can begin to increase your portion sizes and broaden your food choices. It may also be helpful to drink fluids between meals so that you have more space for actual food.
Recovering from starvation syndrome is a long process. You will probably hit a few bumps along the way, but remember that recovery is possible and you CAN do it. Try to make use of some of the resources that you may available to you such as a trusted Registered Dietitian, doctor, friend, and/or family member. You can fight starvation syndrome and take back your life.
- What is starvation syndrome? (2018). In Centre for clinical interventions. Retrieved from: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/CCI/Mental%20Health%20Professionals/Eating%20Disorders/Eating%20Disorders%20-%20Information%20Sheets/Eating%20Disorders%20Information%20Sheet%20-%2033%20-%20What%20is%20Starvation%20Syndrome.pdf.
- Flemming, K. (2018). Regular Eating for Recovery. In Centre for clinical interventions. Retrieved from: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/~/media/95F9A1FC3F1C4D0A92CD31B09166FDDB.ashx.