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Ramadaan: fasting has more health benefits than you think

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By Tauhierah Salie
As around 1.5 billion Muslims across the globe prepare to sacrifice food and other pleasures for the Holy month of Ramadaan, several studies have also pointed out that fasting could be the key to a longer life and better overall health.
While abstaining from food and drink during daylight hours, ignoring the hunger pangs and fighting the urge to be your hangry self seems like a daunting task to many, what many people don’t know is that intermittent fasting is becoming one of the world most popular diet trends.
To Muslims, fasting acts to increase piety, patience and self-restraint, and is one of the Five Pillars that form the foundation Islam. It is obligatory for all those who of age and who are not physically/medically restricted to practice abstinence from food and drink. It also includes abstinence from worldly pleasures such as lustful desires, smoking, activities that distract you from being conscious of your Creator and all forms of negativity like arguing or fighting, swearing and gossiping.
In chapter 2 verse 183 the Quran says, “O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those who were before you, in order that you may learn taqwa (piety)”.
Piety is among the most essential values for a believer because it promotes trust in your Creator and His plans and allows for an optimistic mindset of peace and hopefulness.
Fasting is prohibited for those who suffer chronic medical conditions and who could suffer severely from abstaining from food. It is however an Islamic practice which aims to increase the ease of a simple lifestyle. Most people with diabetes cannot participate in the full month of fasting (in terms of eating and drinking, that is) because it causes their sugar levels to spike or drop -which is dangerous.
Studies from around the world have however shown that fasting could assist those suffering with diabetes or who are at risk thereof.
This is because it impacts Insulin levels, which control the blood sugar levels. Insulin is a vital hormone made by the pancreas which works with (or “signals”) the liver and muscle and fat cells respectively, to control the level of sugars that get extracted from what we eat.
The extracted sugars -known as glucose- will then either be used for energy or stored for future use. By not eating, those processes have less to control and have little to work with. This decreases insulin resistance which in turn, makes your body sensitive to the insulin that does get produced. For example, if you’re used to someone else keeping your house clean and they suddenly stop doing it, or start doing it a lot less, you’ll notice!
Studies suggest that in this way, the “signaling” by the insulin to the liver and cells becomes quicker and more efficient. And since your blood sugar is lowered during fasting, the occasional resistance could help your body reboot its natural processes.
Medical News Today reported in June of 2014 that periodic fasting reduces the risk of diabetes among people at high risk for the condition. According to Dr. Michael Mosley, author of The Fast Diet books, studies of intermittent fasting also show improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol levels and in insulin sensitivity.
Studies have however not proven that it affects male and female the same way, A three-week study done in the US in 2005 for example, showed that practicing alternate day fasting impaired blood sugar control in women but had no effect in men.
Although not eating may seem like a sure-fire way to lose weight, it usually has the opposite effect. This is because your “calorie intake” decreases and starving for the entire day results in binge eating. This “overloads” the body’s ability to process the food adequately. It’s so busy trying to get through everything you’ve eaten, it can’t extract, absorb or send what it needs to where it needs to be!
A new diet trend called a ketogenic (low carb) diet is used by thousands across the world to drop those extra kilos. This comes after personal trainers and dietitians latched onto the metabolic process of Ketosis.
Ketosis occurs when the body has too little sugar or glucose and is forced to find another source of primary energy. Since food is our main source of energy, not eating- or eating specific foods- causes this process to target a build-up of acids called Ketones instead of the sugar from glucose. This in turn starts to burn stored fats!
People who suffer from diabetes should however be weary of this as drops that’re too low cause have adverse effects.
Short-term fasting has been proven to boost the metabolism as mentioned before and an increase in the levels of the neurotransmitter Norepinephrine enhances weight loss.
One review by Healthline showed that whole-day fasting could reduce body weight by up to 9% and significantly decrease body fat over 12–24 weeks.
Contrary to popular belief, fasting can actually help boost your energy levels. This is because of the above mention processes and that intermittent fasting has been proven to boost “mitochondrial biogenesis”.
This is the creation of new mitochondria, which is essentially the “battery power” of the millions of cells in your body. Every cell contains thousands of these little guys, that work together and give the cells the energy to do what it need to do. If these are slow or lacking, the cells entire function is slowed down.
One study showed that Mitochondrial biogenesis is increased, among other factors, by endurance exercise and caloric restriction (The latter part of which is assisted by lack of food). Although it is a complex process, the molecular mechanisms which regulate the process provides important therapeutic targets to prevent and treat numerous diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes.
By cutting the food out every now and again, you’re giving the body chance to adjust to a different process than it used to. Eating regularly- even if its smaller meals- activates the body so that it can digest what goes into it. The constant up and down cycle maintaining blood sugar or energy levels throughout the day stresses our metabolism and by defaulting to Ketosis and the overall health of our metabolism increases.
Fasting can also naturally increase the Human Growth Hormone or HGH levels. This is a type of protein hormone that is central to growth, metabolism, weight loss and muscle strength.
While most diets focus extensively on calorie intake and strict exercise plans, your bodies instinctual processes can be activated and help you live longer! Many dietary plans and health experts have highlighted that fasting-intermittently- creates an automatic “detox” and promotes longevity.
The concept stems from “rebooting” the immune system, through a process called Autophagy. This is when the cells recycle damaged and or useless parts (defects) into basic elements and remodel themselves to improved versions. The cells basically destroy the damaged cells and cleans itself.
Not feeding the body gives it less “time” to focus on breaking down and using food and more time to focus on itself. Autophagy protects against cell damage caused by factors such as aging and chemotherapy.
Inflammation is a normal immune process which is crucial to help fight off infections. But research collected by health website “Healthline” (and many others) shows that regular inflammation may be involved in the development of chronic conditions, such as heart disease, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis.
Autophagy as mentioned above also influences inflammation.
A study conducted by the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles’s Dr. Valter Longo and colleagues, found that fasting a period between 2-4 days, clears out old immune cells and regenerates new ones.
Healthline stated that heart disease accounts for an estimated 31.5% of deaths globally. According to several studies, incorporating fasting into your routine- as recommended in Islam- has found that it may be especially beneficial when it comes to heart health.
This accomplished by decreasing blood pressure, as well as levels of blood triglycerides, total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol. The decrease in blood pressure and levels of negative fats help restore heart health, or at least doesn’t add to the stress its constantly under!
Fasting is also very healthy for the brain and although majority of studies have been tested on animals- there are dozens that have proven that fasting promotes brain health in humans. According to professor of Neurology at John Hopkins University Dr Mark Mattson 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 which enhance cognitive function. The process is linked to increased brain performance, memory, mood, and focus. A study by a US national Institute of Health proved how intermittent fasting stimulated the production of new brain cells.
The same institution also did a study which proved that fasting boosts the production of an important protein called Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) by 50–400%. It’s significant because this has been dubbed as “Miracle Grow for Your Brain”. It is the nerve growth agent which plays a role to support, grow, and differentiate existing neurons of the central and peripheral nervous system (your peripheral nervous system also gets impacted by stress).
It plays a role in neuroplasticity, which is what allows our brains to continue to learn and adapt to our surrounding and emotional state. It helps produce new brain cells, protect your existing brain cells, stimulate new connections and synapses (synapses are how the brain produce links that influence memory, mood and learning). Fasting also possesses the potential to prevent neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s.
Stress is caused by your body’s response to stimulus, internally and externally. It has both a chemical and physical reaction.  Too much stress causes and contributes to several health problems and too little causes the body and mind to become obsolete. The right amount is what helps us discern between changes in our environment and keeps us safe and proactive. In today’s life stress comes with -every- territory! So, finding ways to manage it is vital.
Physically, stress in the body is caused by “free radicals” which are unstable and reactive molecules. Essentially, these react with other molecules and change the dynamics in the body. This creates a chemical reaction which we have little control over.  We can, however, maintain healthy habits to make sure these processes run smoothly.
Regularly eating feeds these cells and processes and keeps them moving. By limiting intake of food, you force them into “survival mode” and they have to function by getting energy from other sources. Similarly, to how a resistance to insulin in created, a resistance to stress works the same way.
Getting rid of the “bad”, less useful cells replaces them with stronger ones, which in turn strengthens the chemical balance in your cells and how they assist your physical body. The above-mentioned brain boost also gives us the ability to become resilient to stress and more adaptable to change.
Astonishingly, yet unsurprising, more and more studies are revealing that fasting can be used to bounce back from bad health and it’s NOT just recommended for Muslims!  It is however inspiring that it forms part of the ‘ideal lifestyle’ revealed in the Holy Quran and was a practice by the prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
Verse 2:184 in the Quran ends with the statement that “for to fast is to do good unto yourselves – if you but knew it.”
Hundreds of years later- scientists, doctors and academics are uncovering benefits we were given freely. The extent to which this verse reaches, is unparalleled.  In this blessed month in which the holy Quran was revealed, let us go beyond just reciting and take the time to ponder over its words and meanings, In Shaa Allah.
So next time you think a strict diet and strenuous exercise is the way to go, go back to the basics instead. Marry all the natural processes of the body mentioned above, with a positive mindset and some extra good habits… and your mind, body and soul will surely be refreshed and revitalized.

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