I’ve Heard That Dying People “Starve To Death” And It Is Painful. Is That True?

When we have a terminal illness, it is normal in the final months to eat less and less, until the final one to two weeks when we may swallow nothing at all.

Studies confirm that people actually die from dehydration—which takes from two to 12 days—not from starvation, and that the only discomfort is a dry mouth, which is resolved with moist sponges or sips of fluids.

When we dehydrate, the brain produces an ‘endorphin’, our body’s form of morphine, to keep us comfortable.  Artificially interfering in this natural process with IV fluids or a feeding tube, prevents dehydration and therefore the brain won’t produce the endorphin; which means we actually cause more pain when we don’t let nature take its own course.

If a healthy person completely stopped eating and only drank water, over several weeks he would indeed starve to death and have “hunger pains”.  But in someone with a fatal illness, the disease causes the body to ‘shut down’ and doesn’t need or want the food:  it is a self-protective mechanism.

We are so socially conditioned to offer food to family and visitors, and expect them to eat, it is difficult for us to accept someone not eating.  But if we ‘push’ food on the dying, they may choke and often become nauseated and vomit; and all we’ve done is make them more uncomfortable.

The best thing a family can do for comfort is provide good mouth care:  moist sponges, lip balm, and drops of water (or their favorite drink)—although sometimes the dying person won’t even let you do that!