Science Behind Ramadan Fasting

by Dr Zeenat Farooq

Apart from the spiritual experience that a person undergoes during Ramadan fasting, there are tremendous scientific benefits of the month-long fasting. Though the purpose of fasting should purely be faith, obedience and seeking the mercy of Allah, the huge array of scientific and health benefits that this month brings along should again aid in strengthening the faith of a believer. A large number of studies conducted over the years by Muslim and non-Muslim researchers alike talk about the scientific benefits of Ramadan fasting. Some of the benefits include:

Detoxification: Detoxification is the process of removal of unwanted substances from the body. Many organs of the body are involved in the process of detoxification like liver (primary organ), kidneys, skin, gut, lymph nodes, and tear gland secretions. All these systems work in concomitance to rid the body of the harmful effects of toxins, and failure of one of the systems can lead to toxin over-burden and chronic health issues due to the accumulation of these toxins within the body. Although our systems act on a continuous basis to detoxify our bodies, it has been observed that prolonged hours of Ramadan fasting are very beneficial to speed up the body’s detoxification process. A number of studies report that Ramadan fasting provides the body extended periods of time to “focus on the detoxification” since most of the primary metabolic activities are at a low.

Restoration of healthy gut microbiota: It has also been observed that Ramadan fasting promotes the growth of gut microbes which have a good effect on gut health, digestion and overall gut metabolism. According to a study conducted by Dr Meltam Yalinay on gut microbiota, stool samples from Muslim subjects were collected to look into the diversity (types) and abundance (number) of different gut microbes before and after the month of Ramadan. The results of the study confirmed that fasting in the month of Ramadan somehow stimulates the growth of so-called “Good Bacteria” in our gut. The reasons have not been investigated so far but the study is statistically significant to claim that the population of gut-friendly microbes does increase.

Delay in vascular ageing: Upon prolonged fasting, the glucose (which is the primary carbohydrate fuel used by the body) gets exhausted and our body rather utilizes, what are called “Ketone Bodies” produced from fat metabolism, to meet our energy needs. One of the types of ketone bodies, acetone, is a volatile substance, which can be detected in our breath especially after Asar prayer. Scientifically speaking, this is “the smell of the Muslim who is observing fast which has been liked by Almighty” according to Sahih Hadith. Another ketone body known as β-hydroxybutyrate has been shown to play a role in delaying vascular ageing in endothelial cells by promoting cell division and preventing senescence caused by the accumulation of damaged DNA. This study has been published in the Journal of Molecular Cell in 2018 by Han et al.

Removal of worn-out cell parts and tissue mass: During the process of cell growth, cell division, cell regeneration, tissue renewal and regeneration, our body forms new, healthy cells to replace the damaged, worn-out old cells. Sub-cellular organelles and whole parts of the tissue are also replaced during regeneration. The old cells, cell parts and tissue fractions are naturally eaten up by an organelle known as “autophagosome” through the process called autophagy. Autophagy is a natural, physiological mechanism occurring within the body, which rids the body of unwanted mass. The same process occurs during menstruation also wherein the endometrial lining is shed off and eaten up. If autophagy is defective, the unwanted mass gets accumulated in the body which can even lead to a life-threatening situation like tissue necrosis. Fasting gives an additional window of opportunity to the body to focus more on the process of autophagy. This is because the worn-out parts can be broken down and utilized for energy production. A groundbreaking study in molecular biology has concluded that during Ramazan, a whole month is presented to our body in which it can lead to autophagy of all the unwanted materials accumulated over the year. This rejuvenates the body, boosts metabolism, and promotes good health and overall well being. It also substantially reduces the chances of cardiac problems, metabolic syndrome, necrosis and endometrial clumping.

Positive effects on mental and spiritual well being: Ramadan is a great time of the year and provides us with a befitting opportunity for spiritual renewal. If we make proper use of our time during Ramadan, we can benefit immensely from all the acts of worship that we can perform which are the recitation of the Quran, the charity for the poor, Qiyam al layl and biggest of all, the act of fasting itself. By means of these acts of worship, we shall be forgiven of our previous sins InshaAllah by the Almighty. The act of fasting in Ramadan is a constant reminder of prohibition from wrongdoings like addiction, alcoholism, smoking, immorality and other things. This month can teach us a lot about self-control and can help us in the long run against all kinds of social and moral evils by giving us the “preparatory month”. It also brings immense spiritual satisfaction which is very helpful against feelings of negative thoughts, anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. This month has been observed to bring a positive change to many people struggling with neurological and psychiatric conditions.

Positive effect on emotional and psychological responses: Emotional reactions to outside stimuli can affect us in a number of ways by triggering various complex pathways within many systems inside the body. The hormones secreted by our bodies in response to emotional stress culminate in a buildup of metabolic wastes. Therefore higher the levels of emotional stress, greater would be the accumulation of metabolic wastes. Over time, this can affect detoxification and natural healing processes. During Ramadan, our emotional stress levels are kept in check which can positively affect the detoxification and the healing processes. Positive emotional responses also have positive effects on memory and aid in delaying conditions like ageing, obesity, and heart failure.

In light of all of these facts, we should observe the month of Ramadan with utmost zeal and enthusiasm. However, we should be very careful in terms of Sehri and Iftari meals which should be light but nutritious. Over-eating can jeopardize overall metabolism and can also substantially wean off the positive health benefits of fasting.

It should also be noted that while fasting, our body is mostly focused on “energy supply to the vital organs”. Therefore all the secondary processes are marginally compromised like the immune system. That is why we can catch opportunistic infections and allergies more often while fasting. Hence extra care should be taken about the choice and preparation of meals to avoid allergies and infections. We should also keep ourselves enough hydrated by drinking water and mildly alkaline beverages which also help reversal of the metabolic acidity due to prolonged fasting.

(Author is a post-doctoral researcher at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore)

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