Ramadan has always been a special month for me. It is not just about fasting from dawn to dusk daily, it is a month of togetherness, deep reflection, and gratitude. Fixed as the ninth month of the Hijri calendar, Ramadan is about 10 days earlier than the previous year’s Ramadan in the solar calendar (a.k.a the calendar that we usually use).
My favorite Ramadan moment is having iftar dinners with my family. It is just like our usual family dinner but feels extra special because it is Ramadan and dates are the appetizer. As much as I love and appreciate the month of Ramadan, I am excited for the arrival of the first day of Eid al-Fitr or popularly known as Raya Puasa in Malaysia. This day marks the end of Ramadan where we no longer have to fast. We usually have family gatherings and seek for forgiveness from one another during the salam raya session.
Beyond the no food and no drink rule, it’s about instilling patience and improving ourselves to be a better person spiritually and physically. A great deal of research has been done about intermittent fasting and scientists uncovered several fasting benefits. Here are eight big ones:
1) Improves Digestion & Metabolism
By not consuming any food or drink during the fasting hours, we are giving our digestive system a break and also an opportunity to properly digest food that we have eaten earlier. Your metabolism is driven by fatty acid oxidation that provides sufficient energy for the body to carry out day-to-day activities. Different types hormones such as glucagon, glucocorticoids, and epinephrine work together to maintain blood sugar levels and ensure efficient metabolism.
2) Stronger Immunity
Fasting triggers stem cells to undergo self-renewal processes by killing old cells via autophagy and generating new ones, as shown by USC’s research. There is a correlation between prolonged fasting and decrease in levels of white blood cells, which later triggers immune cells to regenerate.
3) Cancer Prevention
IGF-1 growth factors that support the growth of cancer and tumor cells are shown to decrease during prolonged fasting. Research on mice shows that they were 45% less likely to develop cancer after undergoing calorie restriction. A study published in 2013 also shows that intermittent fasting improves insulin sensitivity and weight control in women who were at risk of developing breast cancer.
4) Detoxify & Rejuvenate
The presence of oxidative stress disrupts the body’s ability to detoxify and get rid of free radicals that damage our cells. Studies show that oxidative stress and inflammation in our body decreases during fasting periods, leading to increased cellular resistance. Increased cellular resistance is an effective mechanism to protect against age-related diseases and ensure better health long-term.
5) Protects & Preserves Healthy Skin
Instead of spending a lot of energy to digest food, the body can focus on other processes such as getting rid of damaged tissues like scars and wounds to ensure healthy skin. Fasting also enhances rates of healing and detoxification due to significant changes in glucose levels and growth factors concentrations.
6) Lowers Risk of Developing Diabetes
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago found out that fasting reduces blood sugar levels and improves insulin sensitivity among prediabetic patients. Increased insulin sensitivity ensures better absorption of glucose into blood. Type I diabetic nephropathy (a type of kidney disease) and other diabetic-related diseases can also be prevented because fasting maintains suitable levels of blood urea nitrogen, albumin, creatinine, and good cholesterol.
7) Good for Cardiovascular Health
According to research on rats and human subjects, the cardiovascular system improved in the fasting group compared to the control group. How? Intermittent fasting causes a significant decrease in blood pressure (BP) and heart rate (HR), and improves recovery of these two following rigorous physical activity. Additionally, it modifies cardiovascular disease risk factors such as cholesterol levels and hypertension to maintain a stable cardiovascular system.
8) Boosts Brain Power
Fasting boosts neurogenesis and lowers the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases that are associated with aging. All these are thanks to the enhanced production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is mainly responsible for improving neuronal plasticity and keeping our mood in check. There is ongoing research on whether intermittent fasting is an effective way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
Fasting may sound like a difficult practice to some. Based on my experience, I make sure that my suhoor (pre-dawn) and iftar (breaking the fast) meals contain enough carbs, proteins and nutrients so I don’t get too tired or hungry during the day. I also drink a lot of water to keep hydrated. Combining these with a good rest and a dose of optimism, I feel energetic throughout the day just like any other non-fasting day.
Regardless of whether you’re fasting for religious or health reasons, make sure you are fasting according to your ability so that you can fully reap its benefits without jeopardizing your health. If you are planning to fast for the first time and have any doubts, it’s always a great idea to consult a doctor first.
Ramadan Mubarak to all my Muslim friends!