The term "rabbit starvation" refers to the fact that this condition can be caused by a near-total subsistence on lean, wild game, such as rabbit. Unchecked, the disease can cause severe symptoms of malnutrition, and can lead to a fatal buildup of toxins in the bloodstream.
Discovery of Rabbit Starvation
The discovery of protein poisoning is linked to early health studies and observations of various Native American groups. Tribes in Alaska and the polar region subsisted largely on game with a high amount of fat and carbohydrates, such as seals and whales, and rarely suffered from this form of malnutrition.
By contrast, Native Americans stricken with so-called rabbit starvation tended to come from forested areas where harsh winters resulted in a diet of primarily lean game. Rabbit starvation was first described by Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefanssonn in the late 19th century, but it was also remarked upon by Charles Darwin in his journals.
Causes of Rabbit Starvation
The mechanics behind rabbit starvation are fairly simple:
- Protein in the body is converted into glucose by the liver, and can be burned as energy.
- The liver, however, can only safely process a limited amount of protein at a time.
- If the body takes in more protein than it can safely turn into glucose, the resulting strain on the liver and kidneys can cause a buildup of ammonia and amino acids.
- The liver then flushes these byproducts into the bloodstream, causing dangerous and even fatal consequences.
Symptoms of Rabbit Starvation
In addition to straining the liver, protein overconsumption also causes various symptoms of malnutrition, including:
- constant hunger
These symptoms occur because the body is being deprived of necessary nutrition that can only be provided by fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and other micronutrients.
When an individual is experiencing rabbit starvation, symptoms will occur regardless of how many calories from protein he or she consumes, since the body is limited in its ability to process energy and nutrition from protein. Thus, a person can be eating an enormous amount of food, yet still experiencing weakness, hunger, and other malnourishment symptoms.
The possibility of rabbit starvation leads many health experts to counsel against certain protein-heavy diets. Although the exact upper limit for safe protein consumption is not widely agreed upon, some nutrition professionals suggest that protein poisoning becomes a concern if protein comprises more than 35% of daily calorie intake. Some suggest that high-protein diets should be monitored by a doctor or dietician to prevent rabbit starvation from taking hold.