To Fast or Not to Fast

Its the most wonderful time of the year…🙂  Alhamdulilah. The beautiful month of Ramadan has arrived. Alhamdulilah that Allah allowed us reach to this beloved month again this year…Ramadan, the blessed month in which Muslims all over the planet fast from sunrise to sunset. A month in which we all will abstain from drinking and eating, as well as many other temptations and desires all day long, all month long. For some parts of the world, this means 8-9 hours, in other parts 16 hours and for places like Iceland, an astounding 21 hours! Hard to imagine not eating and drinking for 21 hours, right? But this very virtuous act of worship is mandatory on all of us Muslims and we enter this month wholeheartedly with great enthusiasm. We fast for Him, and Him only. And while it can be difficult, fasting allows us to empty our stomachs, while we feed and nourish our souls.

“Fasting is the first principle of medicine; fast and see the strength of the spirit reveal itself.” -Rumi

Aside from being a special commandment from Allah, we can reap numerous spiritual benefits of fasting. Discipline, humility, appreciation, gratefulness, compassion to name a few. Most importantly, self-restraint. 

“O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may observe self-restraint (al-Taqwa).” [2:183] 

And while its quite clear and obvious how beneficial fasting is for us spiritually, only recently has modern medicine caught up to realize how beneficial fasting is for us medically.

“Fasting is the greatest remedy, the physician within.”- Philippus Paracelsus,

There are some physicians who name fasting as being; “the medicine for the 21st century.” Dr. Otto Buchinger; Germany’s great fasting therapist after more than 100,000 fasting cures says: “Fasting is, without doubt, the most effective biological method of treatment.. it is the operation without surgery… it is a cure involving exudation, redirection, loosening up and purified relaxation. He goes on to say that: therapeutically; fasting cures many of our modern illnesses, including the following: allergies, cardiovascular disease, chronic diseases of the digestive system, degenerative and painfully inflammatory illnesses of the joints, myriad disturbances in one’s eating behavior, glaucoma, initial malfunction of the kidneys, tension and migraine headaches, as well as skin diseases. Preventively, it’s designed to cleanse, and to regenerate, rejuvenate and restore a person’s sense of well-being, in body, mind and soul. 

Michael Rosenbaum, M.D., Director of the California-based Orthomolecular Health Medicine Medical Society, notes on the significance of fasting as a detoxification program: “The hidden cause of many chronic pains, diseases and illnesses may be invisible toxins, chemicals, heavy metals and parasites that invade our bodies . . .Chances are slim that your doctor will tell you that toxins may be the root cause of your health problems. He or she may not even know about how these toxins are affecting your body . . . As your cells go, so goes your health. If your cells have been invaded by toxins and dangerous chemicals, your resistance to disease is diminished. Clean and nourish your cells, and you’re on the road to better health.”

Studies are ongoing and more and more evidence with benefits of fasting is being established. Here I would like to point out some of these amazing benefits. But first let’s start out by mentioning what exactly is happening when our bodies go into fasting mode. 

What is going on inside?

Physiologically the body enters the fasting state 8 hours after the last meal has been fully digested and absorbed. In normal conditions the body glucose that results from the digestion of the carbohydrates we eat, is stored in mainly the liver and muscles. Glucose, (a.k.a blood sugar) is the body’s main source of energy. When we fast, that source of energy has been taken away, and so our body looks to the liver and muscles for its source of glucose for energy. While the body is converting this stored glucose ( a.k.a glycogen) to use for energy, the body’s metabolic rate (BMR) becomes more efficient to conserve energy. Blood pressure and heart rate decrease as well. When this stored glucose runs out, the body then starts using fats for energy. By using fats the muscle protein is preserved and protected from breaking down. In cases of prolonged fast of many days or weeks, the body starts to breakdown and use protein for energy. This is when the body enters “starvation.” But because we break our fast everyday and have the pre-dawn meal, we are very unlikely to reach a state of starvation in Ramadan. 

So as you can see a lot is going on in the body as we deprive it of food. It’s actually quite amazing if you think about the system that Allah has placed inside of us. It automatically does what it needs to do without us even uttering a word to it. Ok I’m going off on a tangent here. So now we know how the body reacts and compensates for the lack of food. 

Now for the benefits:

  • First off we know that glucose (blood sugar along with Insulin levels) is reduced. If you think about it, fasting is then ideal for mild, moderate stable non-insulin dependent Diabetics (Type 2 Diabetes).
  • Studies have shown that when we fast our body releases a surge of Growth Hormone which then speeds up our metabolism and can burn off fat. Beneficial for both Diabetics and those with heart disease.
  • When the body starts to use fats for energy, this results in weight loss, another benefit for those suffering from being overweight or obesity. This too helps those with heart disease.
  • A lot of the processed food that we normally eat contain a lot of additives which transformed into toxins which are then stored in fat. As the body uses up fat, toxins too are dissolved and removed from the body, therefore leading to a cleansing or “detox” effect.
  • More studies and evidence show that fasting reduces inflammatory diseases and allergies. Illnesses such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, Psoriasis, and even Ulcerative colitis.
  • Fasting can help overcome addictions and promotes a healthier diet. Helps you drop bad habits like: smoking.
  • Research in neuroscience suggest that when fat is being used by the body for energy, it is converted to ketones bodies which are then used by the neurons (brain cells) for energy. Ketones promote positive changes in the structure of synapses important for learning, memory, and overall brain health.
  • According to Neuroscientist Mark Mattson when the brain is challenged by physical exertion, cognitive tasks, or caloric restriction, the body produces a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which not only strengthens neural connections and increases the production of new neurons but can also have an anti-depressive effect. His research suggests that fasting can boost BDNF by anywhere from 50 to 400 percent.
  • Mattson also claims that cutting your energy intake by fasting several days a week might help your brain ward off neurodegenerative diseases. The shock of fasting leads the brain to create new brain cells, neurons are forced to grow and the brain becomes more resistant to protein plaques that are seen in cases of Alzheimer’s, or the damage created by Parkinson’s. While at the same time improving memory and mood.
  • Fasting reduces the amount of the hormone Cortisol (a.k.a. stress hormone), produced by the adrenal gland, which means that stress levels are greatly reduced both during and after Ramadan.
  • A team of cardiologists in the UAE found that people fasting in Ramadan show a positive effect on their lipid profile, which means there is a reduction of Cholesterol in the blood. Low cholesterol increases cardiovascular health, greatly reducing the risk of suffering from heart disease, a heart attack, or a stroke. If you follow a healthy diet after Ramadan, this newly lowered cholesterol level should be easy to maintain.
  • Fasting causes your metabolism to become more efficient, meaning the amount of nutrients you absorb from food improves. Various studies on a hormone called Adiponectin, (a.k.a. fat cell hormone) have been done on people who are fasting in Ramadan. Adiponectin secretion is increased during fasting state. It improves fat oxidation and improves glucose uptake and insulin sensitivity  One study shows that the level of Adiponectin dropped in those who were fasting, which also correlates with drop in weight in those same people. Another study shows that Adiponectin levels were increased along with weight loss. Various factors might contribute to varying levels of Adiponectin in the studies, but the common findings seem to be; better glucose uptake and insulin sensitivity along with weight loss.
  • When you fast, just like when you sleep, the body is focused on the removal of toxins and the regeneration of damaged tissue
  • One study found that fasting can actually cause a reduction in white blood cells. This means that fasting kills off old and damaged immune cells, and when the body rebounds it uses stem cells to create brand new, completely healthy cells. “During each cycle of fasting, this depletion of white blood cells induces changes that trigger stem cell-based regeneration of new immune system cells. When you starve, the system tries to save energy, and one of the things it can do to save energy is to recycle a lot of the immune cells that are not needed, especially those that may be damaged.  What we started noticing in both our human work and animal work is that the white blood cell count goes down with prolonged fasting. Then when you re-feed, the blood cells come back. The research shows that cycles of prolonged fasting protect against immune system damage and induce immune system regeneration. They concluded that fasting shifts stem cells from a dormant state to a state of self-renewal.
  • Prolonged fasting also lowered levels of IGF-1, a growth-factor hormone that has been linked to aging, tumor progression and cancer risk.
  • Another study placed children who suffer from epileptic seizures on calorie restriction or were told to fast. The result was fewer epileptic seizures. It is believed that fasting helps start protective measures that help counteract the overexcited signals that epileptic brains often exhibit. Normal brains, when overfed, can experience another kind of uncontrolled excitation, impairing the brain’s function.
  • Fasting effectively treats cancer in human cells: A study from the scientific Journal of Aging found that cancer patients who included fasting into their therapy perceived fewer side effects from chemotherapy. All tests conducted so far show that fasting improves survival, slow tumor growth and limit the spread of tumors. The National Institute on Aging has also studied one type of breast cancer in detail to further understand the effects of fasting on cancer. As a result of fasting, the cancer cells tried to make new proteins and took other steps to keep growing and dividing. As a result of these steps, which in turn led to a number of other steps, damaging free radical molecules were created which broke down the cancer cells own DNA and caused their destruction! It’s cellular suicide, the cancer cell is trying to replace all of the stuff missing in the bloodstream that it needs to survive after a period of fasting, but can’t. In turn, it tries to create them and this leads to its own destruction!
  • One researcher stated: Fasting marvelously decomposes and burns all the cells and tissue that are aged, damaged, diseased, weakened or dead, a process called in medicine autolyze or self-digest or detoxification. When by fasting you stop the input of nutrition for a while, then a flurry of cleansing starts up, the rugs are lifted and the dirty dishes are brought out of the cabinet where they were stashed.

There you have it! So many benefits and so many studies are still ongoing. The more we research the more we are realizing the amazing benefits fasting has on our bodies. Rightly so, this day in age, when so many foods we eat on a regular basis contain so many questionable ingredients including additives, preservatives, and pesticides. Fasting provides our systems with a much needed rest and cleanse. If you think about it, we are constantly filling our bodies with food. As soon as we feel little pang of hunger, we throw food down our stomachs to relieve that hunger. So then our bodies are constantly trying to breakdown, digest, metabolize and store the food we throw into it. This leaves no time for our systems to focus on other important matters in the body. If we deprive our bodies of food for certain periods at a time, like we do in Ramadan or can do throughout the year, this will give our bodies a chance to go into “spring cleaning” mode, where it can now focus on removing toxins and damaged cells that have been hiding in our bodies.

Take home message here is that even though we know fasting is hard on us physically, it is quite amazing for our bodies medically. Fasting can come with headaches, fatigue and a growling stomach. But it also comes with a growing list of wonderful benefits. Benefits that we are only now discovering. So take fasting as a blessing from Allah (swt), which it truly, truly is!


*By the way I didn’t even touch the studies and research that is being conducted regarding the
5/2 intermittent fasting method. This method means you eat regularly on 5 days and fast on 2 days out of the week. Sound familiar? This is almost exactly the sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (saw) from 1400 years ago and modern medicine is only now realizing that this method is quite beneficial for us. Maybe I’ll save this topic for another day 🙂

Sources:

  1. https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Healthyramadan/Pages/fastingandhealth.aspx
  2. http://knowledge.statpearls.com/chapter/usmle%20step%201/21631/
  3. https://www.al-islam.org/fasting-and-ramadhan-sheikh-mansour-leghaei/fasting-bodymindspirit-healing#f_298a8977_4
  4. https://warwick.ac.uk/services/equalops/resources/a_guide_to_healthy_fasting.pdf
  5. http://www.johnshopkinshealthreview.com/issues/spring-summer-2016/articles/are-there-any-proven-benefits-to-fasting
  6. http://www.islamicity.org/11319/the-scientific-benefits-of-fasting
  7. https://www.soundvision.com/article/the-spiritual-and-health-benefits-of-ramadan-fasting
  8. https://www.realbuzz.com/articles-interests/nutrition/article/7-surprisingly-health-benefits-of-ramadan/ 
  9. http://www.collective-evolution.com/2014/10/22/fascinating-evidence-shows-why-water-fasting-could-be-one-of-the-healthiest-things-you-can-do/ 
  10. http://www.collective-evolution.com/2014/06/22/scientists-discover-that-fasting-triggers-stem-cell-regeneration-fights-cancer/
  11. https://jdmdonline.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40200-015-0183-9

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