By Prof. Amber Haque
The Muslim month of Ramadan is here and over a billion Muslims around the world will fast in this month. Muslims fast because there is an injunction in the Quran telling them to do so.
The Quran reminds Muslims that many prophets and their followers before Muhammad (Peace be upon him) were also ordained fasting. The Jewish Passover and Christian Lent are also examples of fasting, although the nature and duration of their fasting may be different than Muslim fasting.
The verse that ordains Muslims to fast ends with the sentence, “… and fasting is good for you only if you knew” (Q2:184).
In today’s time and age, we normally eat three meals a day but never ask why. There is no biological rule requiring us to eat so frequently except that we have been conditioned to become hungry if we don’t eat for a few hours.
Overeating has led to many biological illnesses and medical research has confirmed clear advantages of fasting for the human body.
Research is now starting to grow on the effects of fasting on human brain and overall mental health. It should be clear that by fasting we mean intermittent fast (IF) from dawn to dusk and a practice that ends after thirty days.
The dietary objective in fasting is calorie restriction, otherwise the physical and psychological benefits will not manifest.
Effects of fasting on the brain
An average human brain has 100 billion cells and consumes 22% or more of our total body’s energy but the unique thing is that the brain becomes more active during food deprivation.
Normally, the brain gets its energy from glucose (blood sugar) between meals by breaking down glycogen that is stored in the liver and muscles.
As glycogen energy depletes from fasting, humans are endowed with a mechanism to create new bits of glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis that adversely affects the muscles.
But when we fast, after about 3-4 days, the liver starts to convert our body fat to create chemicals called ketones. One of these ketones (beta-HBA) is a highly efficient fuel source for the brain, allowing it to function during extended hours of fasting and at the same time, decrease dependence on gluconeogenesis, providing relief to the muscles from which they are derived.
This process of the brain also makes itself more cognitively alert than when it acts from the source of body glucose.
As fasting increases production of the protein called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), the brain also builds more neurons (brain cells) to help itself work efficiently.
Studies show that building neurons delay the onset of decline in both motor skills and spatial memory and restore mental capacity.
During fasting, the number of mitochondria in the nerve cells increase to enhance the ability of neurons to form and maintain connections, which result in improved learning and memory.
An extremely interesting phenomena discovered during fasting is known as autophagy as the brain breaks down old and damaged cells and recycles them into
Through this self-eating process, the toxins are removed from the brain delaying the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.
Effects of fasting on psychological well being
Research in psychology has also demonstrated positive outcomes of fasting on cognition and memory. For all those who fast, patience is learned to withstand the temptation of food and other environmental stimuli and the ability to hold off which in turn, enhances the virtue of self-
sacrifice, enabling a person to be humbled and attain maturity.
Fasting becomes a training in self-control and self-regulation as a fasting person learns to regulate his or her daily routine in a prescribed manner thus teaching discipline.
Another psychological benefit for many people is an increase in a sense of belongingness with a group or community.
Effects of fasting on spirituality
Fasting is prescribed not only for the body and mind but also for elevating one’s level of spirituality as the person fasting is encouraged to expel from within oneself the impurities of thought and character.
In a way, this practice releases oneself from earthly bonds and joins the person with the sacred. The time spent otherwise in eating and drinking can now be spent on
reflecting about the purpose of being and making efforts toward attaining the ultimate goals in life leading to self-actualization in this world and the hereafter.
The metaphysical belief that the ego component of soul drags oneself to earthly desires while fasting restrains the ego and
elevates the status of soul is held by followers of many faiths and consequently fasting is encouraged and practiced by people around the world.
A word of caution is necessary for those
advanced in age or suffering from medical conditions to seek advice from a physician before fasting.