As we approach the end of our life, it is natural to eat and drink less. When we begin to actively die, some people may swallow nothing for as long as 14 days before death occurs.
People are concerned that this natural dehydration is painful. But studies of dying patients who remain mentally alert—such as those with Lou Gehrig’s Disease or some cancers—have verified that the only discomfort is a dry mouth.
When we dehydrate, the brain recognizes this and produces an ‘endorphin’, our body’s form of morphine, to help keep us comfortable. If we artificially interfere in this natural process, with IV fluids or a feeding tube, dehydration doesn’t occur and the brain will not produce the endorphin; which means we actually cause more pain when we don’t let nature take its own course.
Eating and drinking is an important indicator of health. So it is difficult for family members to not want to do something. Although a healthy person who drinks only water will certainly starve, someone at the end of their life does not ‘starve to death’; they die of their disease and of dehydration.
The best thing a family can do for comfort is offer good mouth care: moist sponges, drops of water (although sometimes the dying person won’t let you even do that!). Pushing food or fluids into someone at this time may not only cause discomfort and vomiting but may prolong their dying and suffering.