Fact Check: Do Doctors Really Get "Formaldehyde Hunger" During Dissections?

Am I hungry or is the smell of this brain getting to me? Image credit: Vladimir Mulder / Shutterstock.com

As part of their training, doctors spend a lot of time around dead bodies. In order to be able to learn from the remains of those who donated their bodies to medical science, it’s necessary to preserve them so they don’t decay to mush, and formaldehyde is one way in which to do this. Oddly, a lot of doctors have anecdotes of “formaldehyde hunger”, that is, getting peckish while elbow deep in preserved specimens due to the chemical exposure. But does formaldehyde make you hungry?

Evidence for formaldehyde hunger

Inappropriate hunger is a popular tv trope (think Zombieland when seeing a zombie eating a corpse makes Columbus sick and Tallahassee hungry) and while the concept of a surgical student contemplating what type of steak to get for dinner while leaning over a body is a comical one, the evidence for formaldehyde appears to be largely anecdotal.

This type of “evidence” comes in the form of stories about circumstances that don’t come with supporting data. While not a reliable source on its own, anecdotal evidence carries some value in scientific research in that it adds qualitative information beyond that of a single data point. When considering a body of qualitative data (backed by numbers) stories can present patterns that counter your conclusions or factor in variables you hadn’t considered

One anecdotal report features in an article published by Georgetown Medical Review in which the author said of the smell of formaldehyde “With [it] came a flood of memories – meeting my four lab mates and bonding as we spent hours hunched over our cadaver. Often, we would share our favorite recipes as the lab would wind down, in part because of the aptly named ‘formaldehyde hunger’.”

Another post shared to the Ohio University Faculty and Staff Websites titled "Everything I Need To Know, I Learned In Anatomy" states “Formaldehyde really does make you hungry;  it was once used as an appetite enhancing treatment for anorexia nervosa,” though no reference is listed for the latter statement.

As for research, a study from 1965 concluded that injecting formalin (another name for formaldehyde) into rats could elicit hunger due to swelling which put the animals in a sodium deficit. A curious finding, but arguably not a relevant one unless medical students are shooting up formaldehyde as part of their studies.

formaldehyde hunger
Formaldehyde is a potent chemical but it works wonders on human organs. Image credit: WildMedia / Shutterstock.com

Evidence against formaldehyde hunger

On the counter argument comes a report from the World Health Organization, that references studies stating that loss of appetite was among neurobehavioral disorders alongside mood changes and insomnia reported by people working with formaldehyde. These findings are also mirrored by a paper published in Formaldehyde and Cognition in 2017. However, being based upon self reports the research doesn't offer specific mechanisms as to how or if the formaldehyde is the factor contributing to the loss of appetite.

Does formaldehyde make you hungry?

It seems the mechanisms and legitimacy behind reports of formaldehyde hunger remain murky and further research is needed for firm conclusions, but one concerned person on Twitter shared an alternative explanation for the association back in 2016.

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Formaldehyde hunger or cannibal? We await your journal submissions.

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.

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