MARY OOMMEN –
People the world over choose to incorporate fasting into their everyday lives as a means to improve their health and lose weight. For those observing Ramadan, the benefits are dual; fasting and praying not only leads to a spiritual cleansing but a physical one too. Studies done by independent researchers have proved that fasting is good for our bodies. One such study, done by Ayurvedic practitioners, revealed that the digestive tract gets much-needed rest when it fasts. During Ramadan, abstinence from food helps the body to detoxify itself. By not eating or drinking throughout the day the body gets a chance to rejuvenate and renew itself and helps reset metabolism.
Several things happen in the body on a cellular and molecular level when we fast. When the body is denied food and water, it naturally turns to fat reserves within itself and begins using those as a source of energy. Stored body fat begins to start burning and cells initiate repair processes. When this happens, harmful toxins and free radicals which are typically present in fat deposits also get destroyed. This helps the body cleanse itself and initiates a process of cell renewal.
Consequently, this leads to a reverse in age-related decline of stem cell functioning. This happens because when your body receives less food, it tries to conserve energy and the best way to do so is to destroy cells that are not useful or are damaged. Excess fat stored around organs like the liver and kidneys interfere with organ functions. According to nutrition specialists, fasting, particularly the kind done during Ramadan or intermittent fasting, helps the body reach ketosis, or the fat-burning state, even faster than traditional caloric restriction. The body responds by initiating a process of cell recycling at the cellular level called autophagy. Old and damaged cells give way to healthy new cells.
By not consuming any food for specific periods of time, it is not only our digestive system that benefits but also controlled fasting also improves the health of our skin. High blood sugar affects and changes the structure of collagen, a kind of protein which is responsible for keeping our skin wrinkle free and smooth. Since fasting substantially lowers blood sugar, it lends the skin a healthy glow and keeps wrinkles at bay for longer.
Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging and a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University states in his TEDx talk that restricted diets and intermittent fasting have a positive impact on our brains too. It improves cognitive function, helps combat stress more efficiently and reduces inflammation. Research conducted at the University of Texas on fasting found that intermittent fasting, or going through periods with no food, helped improve blood lipids and led to healthy weight loss. Research also revealed that fasting occasionally may be especially beneficial when it comes to heart health. Participants were seen to have reduced levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and blood triglycerides by 25% and 32% respectively after eight weeks of alternate-day fasting.
Because fasting has shown to aid the reduction of inflammation, it meant that it also helps prevent neurodegenerative disorders. It has been seen to have a powerful effect on brain health as it thrusts our brains into a state of stress, leading it to release a protein known as the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which sparks the rejuvenation of brain stem cells and promotes their growth. A study conducted by the National Institute of Ageing found that fasting could fight the onset of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. In fact, fasting has also been seen to result in an improvement in mood, a reduction in the severity of symptoms of depression and improved cognitive ability.
This was substantiated by other studies that found that short-term fasting may boost brain functioning and metabolism by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which in addition to improving general well-being, also aids in weight loss. Another study showed that fasting for three weeks under medical supervision significantly decreased blood pressure, improved heart muscle performance, reduced free radical damage, and increased the growth of blood vessels within the heart.
However, in order to reap the benefits of fasting, the kind of foods we should be eating during non-fasting hours should ideally include fibre-rich fruits, veggies, and whole grains, in addition to, lean and plant proteins. Most importantly, keep hydrated with water and avoiding caffeine and fizzy drinks. Be sure to eat nutritious foods that are high in natural sugars and minerals like dates. This will help spark metabolism functions and ensure that you get the most nutrients from food consumed resulting in a boost of energy after a day of fasting.
After the period of fasting, being mindful of what we eat, and the quantities consumed clearly has health proven benefits. When we avoid eating high-fat meals in the evening and pick healthier lean proteins and non-fried dishes we ensure that our bodies are able to reap the benefits of fasting during the day.