By Asad Ali
Ramadan, the month of fasting which falls on the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar is the most religiously significant time of year for Muslims throughout the world. It marks the month in which the Quran—the holy book of Islam—was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel in 610 CE.
As quoted in Quran:
“The month of Ramadan (is the month) in which the Qur’an has been sent down as guidance for mankind containing clear signs which lead (to the straight road) and distinguishing (the truth from falsehood)..” (Quran: 2:185)
Laylatul-Qadr, The Night of Power, the holiest night in the Islamic calendar also comes in the month of fasting. Muslims believe that on this night, the Quran was sent down from the heaven to the Earth.
Allah (glorified and exalted be He) says in the Qur’an:
The Night of Decree is better than a thousand months. [Qur’an: 97:3]
This is a month of fasting and reflection for Muslims. During this time, Muslims refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset through fasting and strive to avoid thoughts and behaviour which are considered to be impure under the tenets of Islam.
Abu Huraira related that the Prophet said: “If a person does not avoid false talk and false conduct during Fasting, then Allah does not care if he abstains from food and drink.” (Bukhari, Muslim)
This fast is broken each day with a meal shared amongst family and friends, it is called Iftari.
As third of the Five Pillars of Islam—the fundamental acts of Islamic worship—Ramadan is rife with sacred traditions of fasting.
Fasting is often associated with the season of Ramadan for Muslims; however, many other cultures and religions around the world fast throughout the year. While the duration, practice, and specific reasons differ, all fasts have the similar goals of showing sacrifice and cleansing oneself.
As Quran tells us:
“Oh, You who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may learn piety and righteousness” (Quran 2:183)
Religions and philosophies that practice fasting include: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Jainism, and Hinduism. Fasting can last for just a few hours or even a few weeks, usually with practitioners eating at night. Interestingly, even within a religion, different denominations or sects may fast differently or at different times. For example, within Christianity, there are several different denominations that fast at different times. Catholics do not eat meat on Fridays during Lent, while Coptic Christians, the main form of Christianity in Egypt, fast for different durations for a total of 210 days throughout the year. They have eight main fasts, and each lasts for a different duration and restricts the diet in a unique way.
Devotees of fasting have long claimed it brings physical and spiritual renewal.
It is stated in Quran:
“And it is better for you that you fast if you only knew.” (Quran 2:184)
The ancient Greeks were great believers in fasting. Pythagoras was among many who extolled its virtues. Hippocrates advocated it.
Plato said that “I fast for greater physical and mental efficiency.”
Aristotle and his pupil also fasted.
In primitive cultures, a fast was often demanded before going to war or as part of a coming-of-age ritual. It was used to assuage an angry deity and by native North Americans, as a rite to avoid catastrophes such as famine.
Fasting has played a key role in all the world’s major religions, being associated with penitence and other forms of self-control.
Abu Hurayra, may Allah be pleased with him, narrates that Allah’s Messenger, peace and blessings upon him, said:
“Everything has Zakat. And the Zakat of the body is fasting. (Ibn-i Majah, Siyam: 44)
The literal meaning of Zakat is ‘to cleanse’ or ‘purification’. And indeed modern research has shown that fasting cleanses and purifies your body of various diseases and bad elements.
As Satchidananda Panda, an associate professor of regulatory biology at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, said, “Fasting alone is more powerful in preventing and reversing some diseases than drugs.”
As more human data emerges supporting the positive health benefits of fasting, it will be important to have a clear and public discussion about the potential gains to be accrued with fasting.
The science of fasting has entered the mainstream with a handful of scientific studies demonstrating its efficacy for health and potential for longevity.
Two interesting things happen when we go without food for an extended stretch in fasting: autophagy and apoptosis.
Imagine that you’re in the woods, and it’s cold outside, it is equivalent to your body having no food for a while during fasting. So you gather up all the twigs and sticks lying around, and start a fire.
This is similar to autophagy, the period when our body is going through our cells finding viruses, bacteria and random accumulated junk to “burn” for fuel, in the absence of nutrients coming in through food when we fast.
Eventually, you run out of twigs and sticks or run low on them. You have burned the ones that are readily available. And your body has burned all the easy to find debris and junk in your cells after the passage of some duration in fasting.
But it is still cold outdoors. So you decide to cut down a tree, and use the wood for fuel. You choose an old, half-dead tree to cut down, so as to do minimal damage to the forest.
This is similar to apoptosis when your body kills its own old and weak cells for fuel. It happens two or three days into the fast. The body starts by killing old, broken, malfunctioning senescent cells (Senescent cells are “Living dead” cells and may do more harm than good as we age.)— which is great, because they’re the sorts of cells that tend to trigger autoimmune problems and illness.
Then after your fast, when you start eating again, your body grows new Stem Cells (Stem cells can repair and replace tissue in the human body. In other words, stem cells have the power to heal) to replace the cells that were used as fuel. Think of this as planting a new, young, healthy tree in the forest to replace the old dead tree you burned.
You have cleaned the forest of your body from twigs and sticks, cleared out an old, sickly dying tree and planted some healthy young trees in its place. This is what happens during fasting.
In recent years, studies have also demonstrated that engaging fasting which results in caloric restriction can likely increase a person’s lifespan and general health. One way fasting help is by increasing the amount of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Function) functioning within the brain. BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is a protein produced inside nerve cells in the brain. The reason why it is so important to a healthy brain is that it serves as “Miracle Grow For Your Brain” essentially fertilizing brain cells to keep them functioning and growing, as well as propelling the growth of new neurons and making them more efficient in their functions.
An increase in BDNF signalling has been shown to improve cardiovascular functioning, brain health, as well as regulate glucose levels.
The mechanism by which reducing calories or fasting are able to elevate BDNF is thought to be similar to that of intense aerobic exercise. If you want to raise your BDNF levels without going to the gym or heavy exercise frequently, you may want to consider fasting.
The protein BDNF builds and maintains the brain circuits which allow the signals to travel.
BDNF also protects neurons against premature cell death. It also binds to receptors at the synapses in your brain, to improve signal strength between neurons.
Essentially, the more BDNF in the brain, the better the brain works.
Naturally, we want more of this protein in the brain. But what exactly happens when there is a lack of BDNF or when something prevents it from working properly? Along with impaired learning, decreased levels have been associated with a variety of neurological/mental conditions such as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, anorexia nervosa, depression, schizophrenia and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Through fasting, you can produce more brain cells and therefore improve your brain power. According to Dr. Mark Mattson, a professor of Neurology at John Hopkins University, fasting has been shown to increase rates of Neurogenesis in the brain. Neurogenesis is the growth and development of new brain cells and nerve tissues.
Higher rates of Neurogenesis are linked increase brain performance, memory, mood, and focus. One particular study showed that fasting stimulated the production of new brain cells.
Fasting also makes it difficult for cancer cells to thrive, plus it carries other anti-cancer benefits such as detoxification. Extensive research reveals that cancer cells need food in the form of glucose (blood sugar) energy every single minute of the day; if they do not have access to their food minute by minute they lose their vitality, and many of them will eventually die.
Warburg Effect explains that Cancer cells need sugar in high quantity than normal cells for growth. During fasting blood sugar level is decreased which result in reduce sugar level for growth of cancer cells.
Dr. David Jockers, an accomplished chiropractic physician, notes that one of the benefits of intermittent fasting is to normalize insulin within the body – and insulin is a powerful promoter of cancer cell growth. He also points out that fasting reduces inflammation and oxidative stress – two major contributing factors to cancer growth.
Research also shows that fasting increases tumour killing T-cells and helps strip away the protective covering from cancer cells that enable the immune system to recognize cancer cells and target them for destruction.
Fasting has been shown to boost mitochondrial biogenesis, the creation of new mitochondria. Mitochondria are the powerhouses for your cells. Each one of your cells is filled with hundreds of mitochondria that power your cells to do their work. Their work is to take the food you eat and turn it into energy.
Mitochondria in the brain and body help you have more brain and body power. Think of it like giving your mobile more batteries for more efficient and longer lasting energy.
Fasting also increases Human Growth Hormone (HGH) in the body. Fast days put the body in a hyper state of stress and alert which triggers the release of growth hormone and other brain chemicals that boost cognition.
Growth Hormone is an essential hormone. It may be your body’s most important hormone. When you are young, as your body is growing, HGH is necessary for you to grow from child to adult. But, even as you get older, you still need HGH. HGH is necessary for brain function and for building and maintaining lean muscle.
It also plays an essential role in healing and cellular longevity but the older you get, the less growth hormone your body produces. Many of the conditions we relate to aging, such as tiredness, fatigue, mood swings, depression, weight gain – are really all related to diminishing levels of growth hormone.
That is why fasting does indeed increase the production of HGH and result in radical improvement in overall health
Fasting also helps the body to perform “Ketosis” in which Ketones are released in the body. This is normal during fasting.
Ketosis has many potential benefits – related to rapid weight loss as during ketosis, your body becomes “fat burning machine”, increase health or human performance.
During fasting, ketones are produced in the body. This is an alternative fuel for the body, produced from the fat we eat which are stored in the body and used when blood sugar (glucose) is in short supply due to fast.
Under these conditions, fat is converted in the liver to ketones, that then enter the bloodstream. They are then used as fuel by cells in the body, just like glucose. They can even be used by the brain.
Ketones are a better, cleaner source of energy for the body and actually provide more energy than glucose.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were probably expert fasters, indulging in feasts in times of plenty, and then facing long periods of scarcity in between. This suggests that the ability to function at a high level both physically and mentally during extended periods without food may have been crucial in human evolution and that the human body may have adapted to perform at its best with fasting.
If we recreate the circumstances our ancient human predecessors had to endure in our mind, we realize:
If the food was scarce, they had to fast. This was often the case. Food had to be acquired through the increased physical activity of hunting and gathering. This was often done in a fasted state.
This way of life shaped our genome and body.
Our metabolic, nervous and endocrine systems evolved in ways that enabled high levels of physical and mental performance during the fasted state. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have made it to the dominant species and apex predator.
Importantly, the same applies to today.
Fasting has been around for centuries and will continue to be a regular practice for many cultures in the future. Remember to be culturally sensitive to those that are fasting to prevent your actions from making their practice more difficult. Try and refrain from eating or drinking in front of someone who is partaking in a fast.
Elson M. Haas, MD, is the founder and director of the Preventive Medical Centre of Marin in San Rafael, California, said, “Fasting is the single greatest natural healing therapy. It is nature’s ancient, universal ‘remedy’ for many problems. Animals instinctively fast when ill.”
Therefore, we should all perform fasting. Fasting apart from a religious obligation is also beneficial to the health, boosting brain and body performance and increasing lifespan as revealed in latest research.