Fasting is a deeply spiritual experience sanctioned by the Islamic faith, but medical experts also point out neurological and nutritional benefits for the human body and brain.
For centuries, Ramadan, the Islamic holy month in which the faithful fasts from sunrise to sunset, brings a lot of joy to Muslims worldwide.
Dating back to the 7th Century, scientific evidence suggests that the month of fasting has health benefits, which is much needed at this time amid the deadly pandemic.
“If an individual cares about having a regular sleep, a regular nutrition and other regular movements of life, he/she will capitalise on the benefits of fasting in Ramadan more than others,” said Murat Alemdar, an associate professor of neurology at the Medical School of the Sakarya University.
But for people with erratic lifestyles and sleep and nutritional disorders, they will have a limited benefit package from Ramadan’s fasting, Alemdar says.
Alemdar has conducted extensive research on how fasting affects the activities of the human brain, concluding that it offers major benefits for people to conduct a healthier life.
Ramadan: A helping hand to the brain
Since ancient times, scientists from different faiths and backgrounds have long argued that fasting could help metabolism renew itself, triggering a detoxification process in the human body.
This reform process could be even more true for the functions of the human brain as fasting could lead to the release of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is crucial to produce stem cells.
These cells are the essential units of human metabolism working pretty much as the body’s repair department with their potential to regenerate and repair damaged tissue. They also produce new white blood cells, empowering the immune system against the body’s external enemies.
“There are links between fasting and increasing levels of secretion in the BDNF activity, augmenting the production of brain stem cells,” Alemdar told TRT World, saying that more brain cells will also help the centre of the nervous system function better.
Fasting also helps the brain rest in a period when other organs of the human body such as the stomach are less in use because eating, drinking, smoking and other related activities come to a halt in Ramadan, according to Alemdar.
“In a period, when less nutrition enters the human body, leading to other organs to send much less signals to the brain [where more than 100 billion nerves communicate with each other constantly to ensure the body to function in a proper sense] and help it rest a little more than other times,” Alemdar said.
In a spiritual sense, the brain also rejoices when the nervous system believes that something important for life has been fulfilled by fasting, Alemdar says.
“It’s known that feeling peace due to a fulfilled mission in a field of worshipping brings tranquility, creating positive effects in the human brain,” Alemdar underlined.
Increasing mental focus
Ramadan’s mental focus also helps the brain function better because fasting is not just about making a halt on nutrition habits and sexual activities but also about staying away from negative thinking and reimagining our life, relations and family matters in a spiritual way, according to experts.
“Fasting liberates the brain from many other daily activities, increasing the prospects of its concentration on essential functions in the nervous system,” Alemdar observed, citing reduced anxiety in Ramadan.
But he also advises that fasting by itself is not a free-ride for mental health and its stabilisation, urging people to plan their time carefully between iftar, when fasting ends with an evening meal, and sahur, a pre-dawn meal, after which fasting begins.
“We need to standardise both our sleeping and nutrition patterns between iftar and sahur. If our body is accustomed to a good Ramadan routine, it could help our brain function better,” Alemdar suggests.
In Ramadan, Muslims wake up at midnight for sahur to eat and as a result, their sleep is divided. But it shouldn’t mean sleep deprivation, Alemdar says, strongly advising people to stick with their regular sleeping hours even in Ramadan.
“People might take Qailulah as Muslims call it, or siesta sleep as others call it, which is a short midday nap, relieving the brain for the implementation of its functions,” Alemdar suggests, reminding that sleep is essential as much as food.
Beyond the brain, fasting also helps other organs of the human body.
Fasting and its benefits for good nutrition
Fasting also improves the digestive system because the body will have a rare opportunity year-around to detoxify internal organs as the spiritually-alleviating dieting forces the body to use fat reserves to keep operating in the absence of nutrition, killing harmful toxins stored in fat deposits in the process.
“In our daily lives, because we consume so much food, our body spends a lot of time digesting them. During fasting, the digestive system works less, allowing the body to focus on other areas like strengthening the immune system and diminishing the levels of infections,” says Ceren Kucukvardar, a Turkish nutritionist.
“Fasting can also help the body fight conditions like oxidative stress, which can increase the possibility of cancer, slowing the speed of the spread of cancer cells,” Kucukvardar observes.
But for many nutritionists, the most important gain of fasting could be weight loss, according to Kucukvardar.
“When you take less food, it means you also decrease the levels of insulin, [a hormone, which controls the amount of sugar in the blood], reducing fat,” Kucukvardar told TRT World.
For people who observe Ramadan, the conditions of their liver also improve significantly as fasting decreases its fat, Kucukvardar says.
According to various studies, fasting helps people lower their LDL cholesterol and reduce their excessive fatty tissue, decreasing the possibility of heart-related diseases and strokes.
“We have a hormone in our body called adiponectin, which is important both protecting our heart health and keeping our glucose levels low. According to some studies, fasting increases this hormone,” says Kucukvardar.
“As a result, we can say that fasting protects the health of our heart,” Kucukvardar says.
But she also warns that fasting people need to be careful about their eating habits during Ramadan.
“If we have too much food intake during iftar, it could lead to stomach and intestine diseases,” she cautions, suggesting that iftar should be divided into two different periods.
“First, eat low-calorie foods like soup and cheese and then have a break like 15 minutes. After that, move to the main course,” she advises.