Traditionally fasting is associated with religious observance as followers of the world’s major religions practice some form of fasting. Medical research on fasting has shown benefits in areas of obesity, cancer, lupus, skin conditions, allergies, addictions, blood pressure, etc.
There is now also increasing research on psychological benefits of fasting. Let’s first look at how fasting affects human body and brain in general and then we will look at some specific benefits of fasting on the human mind and psyche. As psychology has to do with human brain, I will also discuss very briefly and in layman terms how fasting impacts the brain and behavior.
A fast starts about 8 hours after meal when one has used up all the available glucose in one’s blood and starts converting glycogen in liver and muscles cells into glucose for use as energy. If the fast continues, the liver produces ketone molecules of fatty acids that are used by the brain as fuel. This process is in full swing 3-4 days into a fast.
Fasting boosts the production of protein called nemotrophic-factors from 50% to 400% depending on the region of the brain. This protein generates new brain cells that improve brain functioning.
Mood and Depression:
When food in the body is short, the body releases chemicals to help protect the brain from negative effects. During the first few days, the body responds to starvation by releasing catecholamine and other chemicals in the brain. The body responds to the stress through a boost of these feel-good chemicals. For those who fast regularly, there is evidence of overall increased vigilance, improved mood and feeling of well-being.
For people with depressed moods, doctors prescribe medications that enhance and regulate the feel good chemicals. Therapeutic fasting is also recommended for patients with mood disorders and depression.
In Gestalt Therapy, psychologists asks their patients to become focused on one’s current experience and become mindful of the present moment of the here and now. Fasting can enable a person to achieve these more easily.
Cognitive and Memory Functioning:
As fasting increases production of protein BDNF (brain-derived neuroptrophic factor), one is able to build more neurons in the brain that help in more efficient mental processing. Fasting also helps in an increase in autophagy or disassembling and recycling of cellular components that helps in slowing down the growth of neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Intermittent fasting also delays the onset of decline in motor skills and spatial memory and restores mental capacity by generating neurons and the density of neuronal synapses.
Behavioral psychologists experimenting with rats have shown that fasted ones had better balance and learned skilled behavior faster that those that were free to eat to their fill.
Improves Patience and Gratitude:
For all those who fast know that fasting teaches patience to withstand temptation and allow for delayed gratification of stimuli around us. These practices and qualities lead one to achieve a higher level of personal maturity. It also teaches self-sacrifice and enables one to be humbled from the experience of fasting.
Training in Self-Control, Self-Regulation Self-Realization and Self-Efficacy:
Fasting individuals will attest that they are forced to control themselves from vices and attractions that easily distract us in everyday life. A fasting person learns how to regulate his or her daily routine in a prescribed manner thus teaching discipline. All this is done with an intention to make the person feel humble and realize one’s weaknesses and strengths at the same time.
The strength in fasting successfully teaches us that we can take control of our lives and tame ourselves in the way we want.
This act leads to self-efficacy, a quality and level of confidence one develops and says to oneself that if I can fast and control myself I can do many other things in life — whether one takes that route is another issue that is beyond the scope of this write-up.
Fasting is not only for the body and the mind but also for elevating one’s level of spirituality and closeness to God. In fasting one expels or discharges from within oneself the impurities of thought and character and makes an attempt to reunite with Allah. Fasting permits the individual to release from earthly bonds and join with the sacred.
The time spent otherwise in eating and drinking can now be spent on reflecting about the purpose of our being and in making efforts toward attaining the ultimate goals in life leading to self-actualization for this and the world hereafter.
So why do people don’t fast? One of the reasons is that when we start fasting it leaves one feeling awkward as it takes a while for the body and brain to change its habits. But once we get used to it, the psychological, biological and spiritual benefits will be difficult to count!