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The Physical Health Benefits of Fasting

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“There are two blessings which many people do not appreciate; health and leisure.” Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)

What is Fasting?

Fasting is the refrainment from sustenance such as eating or drinking, usually done for a short or prolonged period of time.

There are different types of fasts, and done for various purposes. Let’s take a look at these.

Water Fast: A water fast involves abstaining from food for a set amount of time while drinking water as much as desired. This type of fasting proves to aid in normalizing blood pressure. Some people partake in water fasts a few days, while some may even go on for over a month. During these fasts, some choose to consume supplements or green tea to minimize damage to the body. However, fasts exceeding 24 hours should always be conducted under medical supervision as the side effects can worsen as the period of fasting increases. Fasting for extended periods leaves you prone to dehydration, irritability, mood swings, brain fog, and lack of energy. (Finnell et al. 2018)

Intermittent Fasting: Intermittent Fasting (IF) is the most common type of fasting, which is usually done for weight loss. Intermittent fasting works on the principle that when given a short interval to eat, a person would not overindulge in food than when they are allowed to eat the whole day. Intermittent fasting consists of going without food for a specific interval. The most common gaps are:

  • 5:2 – 5:2 fasting consists of an individual eating normally for five days of the week while eating 500-600 calories on the rest of the two days. This approach is suitable for people who want to lose weight but do not mind losing it gradually.
  • 16:8 – With this type of IF, an individual fasts for 16 hours and then normally eats during the 8-hour window. Some people also go for more extended periods like 18:6 or 22:2. This type of fasting is catching on fast in fitness circles, and health professionals recommend this for people who have difficulty losing weight.

Religious Fasting: Fasting is an institution for soul purification shared by all Divine faiths. “It will be impossible to name any religious system of any kind under which it is entirely unrecognized“, writes the author of the Encyclopaedia Britannica essay on “Fasting.”

Fasting was a well-known institution for many religions, Islam, Christianity, and Jewish to name a few.

The world record for the most prolonged water fast is 382 days. Records tell us that Angus Barbieri has achieved losing a total of 276 pounds (125 kg) with a starting weight of 456 pounds (207 kg) and an end weight of 180 pounds (82 kg). During this fast, frequent medical evaluations were done. Angus consumed mainly tea, coffee, soda, water, and vitamins during the fast. (Stewart & Fleming 1973)

Why do Muslims fast?

Fasting is a religious act put into practice by Muslims in the holy month of Ramadan. The Arabic word for fasting is “Sawm,” which is one of Islam’s five pillars, given the same importance as prayer (Salah). In this holy month, Muslims must refrain from eating, drinking and sexual intercourse with one’s spouse from the time of Fajr (dawn prayer) to Maghrib (sunset prayer).

Through fasting, a Muslim can better relate with the poor as they battle their carnal desires and are much more likely to be grateful to God for the blessings that He has bestowed upon them. Fasting is a moral obligation for Muslims to subdue their desire and keep their appetites under acceptable limits so that man does not become their slave and lose control of himself.

Benefits of Intermittent Fasting

The health benefits of fasting are numerous. Fasting can aid immensely during weight loss. Reports tell us that hormonal changes occur in the body. During fasting, an excess of insulin in the body stops fat as an energy source. Therefore, a reduction would help you lose fat by using it as fuel for your body (Meijssen et al. 2001). Fat loss facilitates the release of the hormone norepinephrine, which causes the body fat to break into free fatty acids, which the body can then use as fuel.

Aside from weight loss, fasting can help lower insulin resistance. For those at risk of developing Type-2 diabetes, reducing insulin resistance can help prevent diabetes by lowering blood sugar. Oxidative stress in the body is the gateway to many chronic diseases. It causes unstable molecules known as free radicals to react with protein and DNA, resulting in severe damage. Fasting increases the body’s resistance to oxidative stress. (Mattson & Wan 2005)

Another report tells us that there is an increase in brain function during fasting. This benefit can reduce oxidative stress; reduce inflammation, and insulin resistance, which is achievable by intermittent fasting.

In Conclusion

There are different types of fasts conducted worldwide, each achieving some purpose, with the common goal to aid an individual’s weight loss journey.

Another reason why people partake in fasting is due to religious reasons. Fasting shows several benefits to the body, such as protection from diabetes, reduction in oxidative stress, and increased brain health. Although it’s very beneficial, fasting should not exceed for more than 24 hours without medical supervision.

References

  1. Finnell, JS, Saul, Goldhamer, AC & Myers, TR 2018, ‘Is fasting safe? A chart review of adverse events during medically supervised, water-only fasting’, BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 18, no. 1, BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, pp. 1-9, viewed 5 April 2021, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5819235>.
  2. Mattson, MP & Wan, R 2005, ‘Beneficial effects of intermittent fasting and caloric restriction on the cardiovascular and cerebrovascular systems’, Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 129-137, viewed 5 April 2021, <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15741046>.
  3. Meijssen, S, Castro Cabezas, M, Ballieux, CGM, Derksen, RJ, Bilecen, S & Erkelens, DW 2001, ‘Insulin medicated inhibition of hormone-sensitive lipase activity in vivo in relation to endogenous catecholamines in healthy subjects’, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, vol. 86, no. 9, pp. 4193-4197, viewed 5 April 2021, <https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article/86/9/4193/2848721>.
  4. 4.     Stewart, WK & Fleming, LW 1973, ‘Features of a successful therapeutic fast of 382 days’ duration’, Postgraduate Medical Journal, vol. 49, no. 569, pp. 203-209, viewed 5 April 2021, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2495396>.  

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