Mirza Usama Ahmad Bashir, Student Jamia Ahmadiyya UK
Within a matter of days, Muslims across the globe will be embarking on the month-long journey of fasting known as Ramadan. They will be abstaining from food and drink for a month, dawn till dusk, as ordained by Allah the Almighty:
“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may guard against evil.” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.184)
The central purpose of Ramadan is to excel in spirituality and gain nearness with God. However, there are untold physical benefits of this religious tradition as well which scientists have recently discovered. Whilst we know that fasting in Ramadan helps us increase our taqwa (God-consciousness), this month presents a healthy dose of physical benefits too.
There has been recent debate over the possible health dangers of fasting in Ramadan amid the Covid-19 crisis, however the World Health Organisation (WHO) and many other medical experts have confirmed that fasting will not put one at higher risk of Covid-19. Yes, anyone with symptoms, or for that matter, any illness, should not be fasting; an injunction of the Holy Quran itself.
Over the years, modern science and medicine has continuously reported on the benefits of intermittent fasting; its been a popular subject for health professions, celebrities and even discussed on the most well-known podcasts.
In 2018, scientists made a remarkable discovery where they learnt that fasting for as little as three days can regenerate an entire immune system, even in the elderly. Scientists at the University of Southern Californialearnt during a 6-month study that essentially starving the body for even a brief period can kick start stem cells into producing new white blood cells, which are critical in fighting off infections. They argue that this is vital in those who suffer from damaged immune systems such as cancer patients and in the elderly, whose immune systems become weaker with age. The scientists say that in essence, fasting flips a regenerative switch which prompts stem cells into producing new white blood cells, which in turn essentially regenerates the entire immune system.
“It gives the ‘OK’ for stem cells to go ahead and begin proliferating and rebuild the entire system,” said Professor Valter Longo, Professor of Gerontology and the Biological Sciences at the University of California.
Further Professor Longo said, “And the good news is that the body got rid of the parts of the system that might be damaged or old, the inefficient parts, during the fasting.”
The science behind this is that prolonged fasting breaks down stores of glucose and fats. Along with this, it also breaks down a substantial portion of white blood cells. During each cycle of 3 days, this rapid depletion of white blood cells prompts the regeneration of new immune system cells. During the study, researchers also found that prolonged fasting resulted in the reduction of the enzyme PKA, which is linked to ageing and a hormone which increases the risk of cancer and tumour growth. (Study by Valter Longo of the University of Southern California, Leonard Davis School).
Another study, this time in 2012, found that fasting might improve the outcome for those cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Chemotherapy, a brutal treatment for those suffering cancer, targets and kills cancerous tissue. Unfortunately, in this process healthy tissues are also eliminated. As a result of this researchers in recent years have been on the hunt for a finer, more targeted treatment. In search of this, researchers in an animal study found that short term starvation – or fasting – can aid in the treatment of cancer. The study found that in mice with cancer, fasting prior to chemotherapy, led to more tumour shrinkage than chemo would on its own. In some cases, they found that such a combination apparently even eliminated some forms of cancer. Researchers suggested that fasting combined with chemotherapy could extend the survival of those cancer patients in an advanced stage by limiting growth of the tumour and supressing the side effects of the treatment. In the study, the fasting mice were allowed to drink water but were not given food for a minimum of two days. When mice with various forms of cancer were subjected to two rounds of 48-hour fasts prior to their chemotherapy, their tumours shrunk more than in those mice who were not subjected to a round of fasting. Those mice that were put on a fasting-chemo plan showed a 40% greater reduction in their metastases. Fasting also protected the healthy cells from the toxicity of the chemotherapy and by doing so it could, in the future, enable doctors to enhance the power of chemotherapies without having to resort to increasing the toxicity of drugs which have a brutal effect on patients. Some professors, such as Mary Helen Barcellos-Hoff of the New York University Langone Medical Centre, are even of the opinion that fasting is a potential tool in preventing cancers as it makes the human body less hospitable to the disease. (Fasting cycles retard growth of tumours and sensitize a range of cancer cell types to chemotherapy, Science Transitional Medicine, Vol. 4, Issue 124, March 2012)
Many studies over the years have also indicated that fasting improves blood lipid levels. One such study from 1997 showed that fasting lowered bad “LDL” cholesterol levels by 8% and increased good “HDL” cholesterol levels by 14.3%, thereby increasing cardiovascular health and protecting your heart by reducing the risk of heart disease or a heart attack. One reason that could explain such a change is our eating habits during Ramadan, which differ quite substantially to normal days.
During this holy month, people tend to prefer healthier foods such as dates, nuts and home cooked meals. As a result, our saturated fat intake usually declines. In addition to this, it has been suggested that the Tarawih prayers actually may even provide an adequate amount of physical activity which for some people may be more than they usually exercise. Another reason behind this is that researchers from the Intermountain Heart Institute noticed that after roughly 10-12 hours of fasting the body’s usual energy sources begin to deplete, thus it begins to forage for other energy sources and in doing so pulls the bad LDL cholesterol from the fat cells and uses it as a new source of energy. The researchers concluded that fasting has the potential to become a vital aid in helping those suffering with diabetes. (Intermountain Medical Centre, ‘Fasting reduces cholesterol levels in prediabetic people over an extended period of time’, Science Daily, 14 June 2014)
Besides the health benefits that have been mentioned in the various studies above, there are many more general physical benefits that science has proven:
- Within days of beginning your fasts, there are increased levels of endorphins in your blood resulting in a higher level of alertness and better mental wellbeing.
- During this month of fasting, toxins stored in your body’s fat are dissolved and removed, resulting in a natural process of detoxification.
- The use of fat as a source of energy during fasting results in weight loss. https://www.ikca.org.uk/news/physical-health-benefits-fasting/
- Fasting has shown to improve brain function so make good use of this time. You could memorise some of the Quran, read the books of the Promised Messiahas and even learn the Qaseedah. https://shinedrink.com/blogs/brainbites/the-effects-of-intermittent-fasting-on-brain-function
- Fasting can even help clear the skin and prevent acne. As a result of reduced digestion, the body can focus its regenerative energies on other systems.
For these benefits to manifest, its vital Muslims eat a well balanced and healthy diet throughout Ramadan. If we plough through fried and high sugar foods, we defeat the purpose.
Let it be clear that Muslims do not fast solely for these medical benefits which are of a secondary nature. They are just something we gain while trying to attain the true goal of Ramadan – fasting for the sake of Allah, establishing a greater relationship with Him, and increasing in our taqwa. These are just some of the abundant blessings we attain along the way whilst striving for Allah’s cause.