Who, What, Why: How Long Can Someone Survive Without Food?

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Who, What, Why: How Long Can Someone Survive Without Food?

The story of Swedish born Peter Skyllberg, a 44 year old man who survived for two months trapped in his car, has been investigated by experts. It is said that the human body can only go without food for 3 weeks, but Skyllberg said he ate snow by the handfuls to stay alive in -22 Fahrenheit temperatures. His car was  found in Northern Sweden buried in snow, about a half mile off the main road on December 19, 2011. Photographs reveal that there were empty food wrappers and drink bottles, so it is unclear if Skyllberg is telling the truth.

Experts claim his story is impossible to believe, not only due to the lack of food for such a long period of time, but for the body to not suffer from hypothermia in below zero temperatures. However, there are other similar stories where a Japanese hiker lived for 24 days without food and water after going missing in 2006. When Mitsutaka Uchikoshi was found his body temperature had plummeted to 71 degrees Fahrenheit. Even a drop  of 3 degrees in body temperature is enough to cause a person to shake uncontrollably. Uchikoshi survived a drop of 29 degrees and lived to tell about it. When he was finally found he was treated for a few health conditions, but mainly for severe hypothermia. His survival left doctors baffled.

Then there is the story of the 56 year old British woman Rita Chretien, who was found alive after almost 50 days in the wilderness of Nevada, living off only sweets, trail mix, and water from nearby streams. Her husband had gone in search of help after they became stranded, and never found his way back to her. She was later found alert and speaking, with her only main problem being that she lost between 20 and 30 pounds.

You never know when you might become stranded somewhere without food or water, but some people do it as a challenge, such as celebrity David Blaine. In 2003, the famous illusionist suspended himself in a glass box near the River Thames, surviving 44 days without food. Then there are those who use food deprivation as a display of disobedience, such as Mahatma Gandhi, who refused food for 21days in the 1940s, taking only sips of water throughout the entire three weeks.

Out of all these scenarios, Skyllberg’s survival of 60 days without food is still confusing experts. Southampton University’s senior Lecturer of Medicine and Nutrition Dr. Mike Stroud, who crossed Antartica with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a British veteran adventurer, claims it is possible to live without food for 60 days. “It is at the bounds of possibility but not completely untenable. That is about the time hunger strikers in prisons tend to die, but they are normally in warmer conditions.”

There also was a prisoner in 1982 who went on a 66 day hunger strike in Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. The Republican inmate Bobby Sands ended up losing his life. According to Stroud, your metabolism and its ability to slow down, conserving energy, can mean life of death, while your body fat levels don’t matter as much as you think.

“The average resting human body, doing absolutely nothing, produces about 100 watts of body heat, which could function a light bulb, but under these circumstances the body will begin to make less and less heat to keep you warm. That’s where a heavier body would have more of an advantage,” said Stroud.

As we are deprived of food, our organs begin to shut down, but it could happen over a span of 60 days for some people. British Dietetics Association spokeswoman Catherine Collins tells us that “the body can remodel during starvation to minimize the amount of calories it needs.”

The body lives off glucose when its food supply is cut off. Glycogen, stored in the muscles and liver, gets converted to glucose for the body to feed off. After glucose is used up, the body turns to fat storage, which is converted to ketones for energy. Next the body looks for protein recycled from muscles. This is when muscle and tissue begin to deteriorate. Loss of muscle slows the metabolism, causing the body to burn calories much more slowly. Once this happens, you can live off far fewer calories.

Since Skyllberg was confined to his car, he was not expending energy, therefore he was conserving calories and the body’s need for more food. Also, being inside the car protected him from deadly infections, and the snow insulated him, the same way an igloo would. Those factors combined may be the reason why he was able to live for so long.

The last part of the equation in survival is the mental state of mind. The University of Nottingham’s professor of psychology, health, and social care Stephen Joseph explains it this way. “People can go into flight or fight mode, and will have adrenalin coursing through them. Those adrenalin surges are important because they will determine how people survive.”

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