Starvation and Its Effects on the Gut

Adv Nutr. 2020 Dec 3:nmaa135. doi: 10.1093/advances/nmaa135. Online ahead of print.


There is growing awareness that intestinal dysfunction determines the clinical outcomes of situations as diverse as undernourished children in urban tropical slums and undernourished surgical patients in intensive care units. As experimental starvation in humans has only rarely been studied, and largely not using current biomedical research tools, we must draw inference from disparate clinical and experimental observations as to the derangements present in the starved gut. There is good evidence of intestinal atrophy and achlorhydria in starvation and severe undernutrition. Historical reports from concentration camps and conflict settings consistently reported a noncontagious phenomenon called “hunger diarrhea,” but in settings where starved individuals are isolated from others (prisoners on hunger strike, anorexia nervosa) diarrhea is not a feature. Changes in intestinal permeability and absorption have been infrequently studied in experimental starvation; available data suggest that short-term starvation reduces sugar absorption but not permeability. Severe acute malnutrition in children is associated with severe changes in the intestinal mucosa. Experimental animal models may help explain some observations in humans. Starved rats develop a hypersecretory state and intestinal barrier defects. Starved pigs demonstrate prolongation of rotavirus diarrhea and reproduce some of the absorptive and barrier defects observed in malnourished children. However, there remains much to be learned about the effects of starvation on the gut. Given the high prevalence of undernutrition in hospitals and disadvantaged communities, the lack of attention to the interaction between undernutrition and gastrointestinal damage is surprising and needs to be corrected. Current sophisticated cellular and molecular techniques now provide the opportunity to create fresh understanding of gastrointestinal changes in pure undernutrition, using volunteer studies and samples from anorexia nervosa.

PMID:33271592 | DOI:10.1093/advances/nmaa135