Friday, March 18, 2011

Hunger and thirst

The symptoms of extreme dehydration were cataloged in 1906 by W.J. McGee in a classic published paper entitled "Desert Thirst as Disease," based on the experiences of 40-year-old Pablo Valencia, who survived almost 7 days in the Arizona desert without water:

Saliva becomes thick and foul-tasting. The tongue clings irritatingly to the teeth and the roof of the mouth. Though speech becomes difficult, sufferers are moved to complain ceaselessly about their thirst until their voices become cracked and hoarse. Even when they can no longer speak, they continue to moan and bellow. When the mouth ceases to generate saliva, the tongue hardens into a "senseless weight, swinging on the still-soft root and striking foreignly against the teeth." A lump forms in the throat causing repeated swallowing in a vain attempt to dislodge it. Severe pain is felt in the head and neck. The face feels full because the skin shrinks. Hearing is affected and many people begin to hallucinate. The tongue swells to such proportions that it squeezes past the jaws. The eyelids crack and the eyes begin to weep tears of blood. And the throat swells to such a degree that breathing becomes difficult, causing the incongruous yet terrifying sensation of drowning.

The physiological and psychological effects of severe and prolonged dietary restriction were observed in a classic study by Ancel Keys, conducted in 1944-45 and referred to as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment:

As the subjects began to lose weight, they became lethargic and irritable. Concentration became difficult. They experienced lack of physical strength and balance, and many blacked out when they stood up quickly. Their limbs swelled. Their sexual desire was replaced with an obsession with food, manifesting itself in recounting meals and reading cookbooks.
They lost initiative and creativity. "Many of the so-called American characteristics - abounding energy, generosity, optimism - become intellible as the expected behavior response of a well-fed people."

This post was inspired by the book In the Heart of the Sea, which chronicles a 19th c. account of survival cannibalism.

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