Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Pushing the Hunger Envelope

April 22nd, 2009 · No Comments

The hunger strike is the most universal form of human protest, employed by kings and commoners alike, for reasons ranging from the noble to the mundane. Today brings news of actress Mia Farrow preparing to try her hand at hunger, in the admirable name of bringing attention to Darfur. According to her Farrow’s publicist, she’ll forego food “for as long as [she] is able to survive.”

But how long might that be? Over the past few years, the aggrieved have perfected the art of the hunger strike, prolonging their agony (and increasing their visibility) to disturbing degrees. Microkhan previously posted about the world’s longest ongoing hunger strike, now nearly nine years running. But Irom Sharmila would have perished long ago were she not regularly force-fed by the Indian military.

Eight years ago, Scott Anderson wrote about a group of Turkish hunger strikers who’ve managed to survive for a year at a time. It is one of the finest magazine stories Microkhan has even read—an expertly reported tale of peer pressure run amok, as well as our species’ knack for redefining the body’s capacity for misery:

There is no medical literature to describe the journey the strikers are making; they are pioneers in the field of human starvation. Before the death fasts in Turkey, the record for surviving on a hunger strike was 72 days. The Armutlu strikers, by preparing their bodies ahead of time through the feast-and-famine regimen, and then by taking carefully calibrated daily doses of sugar and salt, have managed to last up to four times as long.

”They learned a lot by studying the 1996 hunger strike,” explains Ozkalipci, the forensic doctor at the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, who has treated a number of strikers. ”They take a lot of liquids because that slows down the muscular atrophy. They’ve discovered that potassium chloride is better than sodium chloride” — the former a compound salt; the latter table salt — and that crude sugar is better than refined. In 1996, the strikers took only one spoonful of salt and sugar a day, and their daily weight loss was about 400 grams. This group, by taking a lot more salt and sugar, has brought that way down.”

Go read the whole thing. You’ll be glad you did.

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