Healthier Living through Fasting
By Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph.D.
During the month of Ramadan, a Muslim does not eat or drink from daybreak, when a thread of light may be seen on the horizon, until sun has set. During the fasting period one should abstain from sensual pleasures. The principle of fasting is related to that of limitation or restraint. Without limitation, true knowledge is impossible, because it is when we come to the end or limit of a thing that its true nature becomes evident. Ramadan’s marking the end to indulgence, or imposing a clear limit to it day after day for a month or for approximately 360 hours, offers an unmistakable spiritual lesson. It also constitutes for a purification and a kind of sacrifice, which, like the pruning the trees, leads to renewal and fresh strength. On the moral plane it brings a direct understanding of the suffering of the hungry. This limitation increases and strengthens one’s will power and self-control, so that once can give up bad habits.
Fasting in Other Religions
Fasting is prescribed in almost all religions. The Jews and Christians also fast. Jewish law order a yearly fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Many Orthodox Jews require the bride and groom to fast on the day before their wedding. Many Christians fast during Lent, the period of 40 days that Jesus (Isa – Alayhis Salam) spent fasting in the wilderness.
The Buddhists and Hindus also fast. Some religious thinkers, such as Zoroastrian religious leaders are against fasting from food, claiming that abstaining from food has no moral value, when compared with “fasting from evil” with eyes, hands, tongue, or feet. In some religions, people fast during times of mourning. Sometimes, personal or political goals are sought through fasting. M.K. Gandhi of India used fasting both as a penance and as a means of political protest.
Why Should Muslims Fast?
An ascetic element in human life is necessity. No religion is possible without an element of self-denial and asceticism. In order to be able to enjoy the harvest of sensual Perception, one must retreat once in a whilefrom the abundant life of the senses. Thus a certain degree of restraint from the material makes the life of senses balanced and opens in the human soul for the spiritual life. One such restraint is fasting, obligatory upon Muslims during the month of Ramadan and at other times. During the fast, the abstention is directed toward the carnal soul, what the Quran calls “al-nafs al-ammarah.” In fasting, the unruly trends of the carnal soul are steadily restrained and soothed through a planned compliance of these trends to the Divine Will. During the fast, the cravings of the carnal sould go unanswered, as the Muslim is reminded that his fast if for the pleasure of Allah
(Subhanahu wa Taala). It is, therefore, important for a Muslim to abstain, not only from food and drink, but also from every form of sensual cravings. During the duration of fasting, food and drink that were taken for granted for the rest of the year become ni’mah or gifts from heaven. The fasting becomes a shield of purity against the passions of the world. In fasting a Muslim chooses the side of Allah over this world of materialism. That is why Prophet Muhammad (Salla Allahu Alayhi wa Sallam) loved fasting so frequently and he said al-faqr fakhri (spiritual poverty is my glory).
The Death of Passion Purifies the Human Soul
It is for this reason that the arrival of the blessed month of Ramadan is greeted with happiness. For in this month the doors of heaven are opened to the faithful and Divine Compassion plunges upon those who seek it. Those who complete the fast of Ramadan feel rejuvenated and are prepared to face another year with firmness to live and act according to the Divine Will.
Science Favors Fasting
What are the benefits of fasting? Scientists have studied the effects of fasting on the body and found that the intake of food increases the body’s metabolism. After fasting, metabolism can become as much as 22 percent lower than the normal rate. Research has also shown that after long periods of fasting, the body tends to adjust itself by lowering the rate of metabolism itself. After fasting, a person should gradually resume eating.
In some studies performed on fasting Muslims, it was observed that there was a slight loss of weight both in males and females. Their blood glucose levels increased significantly. Other parameters such as blood levels of cortisol, testosterone, sodium, potassium, urea, total cholesterol, HDL (high density lipoprotein), TG (triglycerides), and serum osmolatity did not show notable variations.
Another study performed about a decade ago in Iran showed that sporadic restraint from food and drink for about 17 hours a day for 30 days does not alter male reproductive hormones, HPTA (hypothalamic-pituitary-thyroid-axis) or peripheral metabolism of thyroid hormones. Any changes noticed return to normal four weeks after fasting.
Dr. Jalila El Ati and her associates (“Increased fat oxidation during Ramadan fasting in healthy women: an adaptive mechanism for body-weight maintanence.” Am. J. Clin. Nutri. August 1995), who investigated the possible effects of Ramadan fasting of anthropometric and metabolic variables in healthy Tunisian Muslim women, found that the total daily energy intake remained unchanged whereas the qualitative components of nutrients were markedly affected. Ramadan fasting influenced neither body weight or body composition. Results also indicate respiratory and energy expenditure during Ramadan. Fat oxidation was increased and carbohydrate oxidation was decreased during the light span of nycthemeron.
In non-Muslim countries such as the U.S. the physicians, particularly the family physicians and internists should be aware of changes of glucose and bilirubin during the month of Ramadan.
Fasting may enhance mucosa derived B lymphocyte cell responsiveness while having no effect on B cell responsiveness in both rheumatoid arthritis patients and healthy volunteers. In a study, after a three-day, water-only fast, 7 rheumatoid arthritis patients and 17 healthy volunteers received influenza virus vaccine either orally or by injection. When the blood samples were analyzed for B lymphocyte response a week later, it was found that Blymphocyte response was enhanced in the group receiving the vaccine orally in both arthritis patients and volunteers. The response to injected vaccine was unchanged in both groups.
Fasting helps Longevity
Studies on laboratory animals have shown that restriction of caloric intake increases longevity, slows the rate of functional decline, and reduces incidence of age-related disease in a variety of species. The mechanism of action of caloric restriction remains unknown; however, data suggest that cellular functions are altered in such a way that destructive by-products of metabolism are reduced, and defense or repair systems are enhanced by this nutritional manipulation. Animal and human studies suggest potential benefits of dietary modification, exercise, antioxidants, hormones, and deprenyl.
Fasting and Lactating Mothers
The effects of fasting and increased blood insulin and glucose on milk volume and composition were studies with glucose clamp methodology in exclusively and partially breast-feeding women (producing no more than 200 ml milk per day). There was no effect of milk volume, milk glucose concentration, and total fat content or lactose secretion rate. It is concluded that human milk production is isolated from the homeostatic mechanisms that regulate glucose metabolism in the rest of the body, in part because the lactose synthetase system has a Km for glucose lower than the concentration available in the Golgi compartment.
In a study which investigated the effects of a short-term fast (72 hours) on female reproductive hormone secretion and menstrual function, it was concluded that in spite of profound metabolic changes, a 72-hour fast during the follicular phase does not affect the menstrual cycle of normal cycling women.
Fasting and Healing
Studies are being conducted to treat serious illnesses like osteo rheumatoid arthritis or asthma utilizing fasting for a short duration of few days to medically supervised water only fasts of 30 days to help the body heal itself. It has been known that both children and animals refuse to eat when sick as a natural response. The severely sick have no appetite, but they take the food only at the urging of the family members. The severely sick feel no
hunger because food in severe sickness intervenes with natural response. The body is always trying to heal itself. When the patient is resting and consuming water only, the body heals itself and fasting acts as a facilitating process. One can get rid of coffee, cigarettes, salty or sugary foods, which are addictive, through fasting, as fasting can help clear the taste buds and healthful foods start to taste better again. However, insulin-dependent diabetics should not fast because of ketosis in patients with insulin-dependent diabetics, who cannot break down the ketones and use them as fuel. Healthy people use the ketones (byproducts of fat metabolism) to maintain energy. (To conserve the glycogen stores, glucose becomes restricted to the central nervous system, mainly the brain. Instead of taking the glucose from the brain, the body begins breaking down the fatty acids in adipose (fatty) tissue). People with non-insulin-dependent diabetes (the majority of people who have diabetes) can improve their health through fasting.
Fasting helps cardiovascular disease, arthritis, asthma, non-insulin-dependent diabetes, ulcers, and digestive disorders, lupus, skin problems (including cysts, tumors, and kidney stones). Even quitting smoking and obesity respond favorably to fasting.
Fasting during the month of Ramadan does not cause any adverse medical effects, on the other hand, it may have some beneficial effects on weight and lipid metabolism.