When Mahatma Gandhi was 74 years old he went on a hunger strike. Despite his age and physical condition he lasted 21 days without food during this strike. Gandhi is one thousands of people who have gone on hunger strikes to protest different civil rights. Some reports have even reported people going 70 days without food. The amazing part is not only what these people were able to accomplish, but what their body’s did during this time to ensure they would survive.
It is best to look at different intervals in time and how the body typically reacts when a hunger strike is enacted.
6 Hours After Your Last Meal
After you eat, your body goes to work digesting the food and breaking it down into glycogen – molecules whose main function is to store energy. This process produces glucose – the main source of energy, which is quickly absorbed and goes into the bloodstream.
When your body is on a normal diet, glucose is used as the primary source of energy. It makes you feel well-fed, because glucose goes into your muscles and gallbladder. Glucose ‘fuel’ is enough for the next 6 hours. After 6 hours, when the body spends its fuel, it creates a feeling of hunger and you become tired. After 6 hours your primary glucose “tank” is emptied; however, the body does have some glucose on “reserve” for such instances when you are not able to replenish the tank.
Starvation Mode: 3 days Without Food
Our glucose reserves can last up to 24 to 48 hours, although most as mentioned above, most of our glucose will be used up after 6 hours. Then, you will not only feel hungry, but your body will fall into ketosis, which means increased level of ketones in the body.
Ketone bodies are produced from fatty acids when the glycogen in the gallbladder is completely spent. Ketosis can sometimes be useful, as it uses body fat as energy, so ketogenic diet is commonly practiced by people who are trying to lose some weight. However, this is not the best source of energy for your body.
Your brain does not function optimally when using fat as a source of energy. This results in the body trying to use those glucose reserves in the body. The brain uses 120 grams of glucose a day – so when the glucose is spent, your body has to “think” of a back up plan for the brain.
After the third day without food, your brain starts using ketone bodies as an energy source – it gets about 30% energy from this source. On the fourth day, the brain will get up to 70% energy from ketone bodies.
If You Do Not Eat For More Than 72 Hours
The hard part comes after 72 hours without food – this is known as a state of autophagy. When fat splits up, your body turns to the protein found in your muscle. This mean your body is starting to use your muscles as an energy source. At this point, the brain’s need for glucose decreases from 120 to 30 grams.
Now the brain must get energy from the protein. Although the brain can survive on protein, your muscles will slowly disappear. Your metabolism slows down and your body starts using the least amount of energy.
At some point, your immune system will weaken due to the lack of vitamins and minerals. Usually two types of diseases appear in the last stages of starvation: marasmus and kwashiorkor.
Marasmus is characterized by muscle loss and edema. Kwashiorkor is the most common form of malnutrition in developing countries, and it is characterized by fatigue, edema and reduced muscular fat.
It is an amazing feat for such activist to achieve in order to protest what they believe in. However, from a health standpoint it is not a wise decision. The body needs to be replenished with minerals and vitamins to keep it from weakening.