Thursday, 25 July 2013

Ramadan: health benefits of fasting

US scientists believe intermittent fasting could help prevent Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's and stroke. 

Dates: the traditional fruit with which to end a fast

The Islamic month of Ramadan began earlier in July and will run into mid-August. Each morning during Ramadan, Muslims wake before dawn for breakfast and then do not eat or drink until sunset. Although the primary purpose of fasting is of course spiritual, does the practice offer benefits or dangers to health?

Potential risks of fasting
Various studies on fasting have produced conflicting results as to its phyiscal effect. For example, in many studies, Muslims fasting in Ramadan have been found to lose weight while in others they have gained weight. These conflicting results can be explained by cultural differences in the foods used to begin and end the fast as well as environmental differences around the world in the length of the day etc.
"Whoso does good of his own accord it is better for him and fasting is good for you, if you only knew."
However, the general consensus is that fasting is perfectly safe for healthy individuals but may pose risks to those with preexisting medical conditions. Yet, these risks are avoided by Muslims as Islam's holiest scripture, the Quran, does not require fasting from those who are ill: "The prescribed fasting is for a fixed number of days, but whoso among you is sick or on a journey shall fast the same number of other days and for those who are able to fast only with great difficulty is an expiation - the feeding of a poor man - and whoso does good of his own accord it is better for him and fasting is good for you, if you only knew." (Quran 2:184) According to Islamic tradition, this expiation from fasting also includes the elderly and mothers who are pregnant or nursing (Abu Dawood).

Other studies also found the physical effects of fasting were temporary; weight changes were usually reversed within a few weeks of Ramadan.

Potential benefits of fasting
For some time, sections of the scientific community have suggested there could be several health benefits to fasting. Dr Mark P. Mattson, Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute of Aging, is one of the scientists who has spent years testing the effects of intermittent fasting on mice. Mattson and his colleagues have found that fasting could help prevent Alzheimer's, Pakinson's, Huntington's and stroke. 
"Dietary restriction can extend lifespan and can increase disease resistance."
In one paper published in the Journal of Neurochemistry in January 2003 Mattson writes: "Dietary restriction (DR; either caloric restriction or intermittent fasting, with maintained vitamin and mineral intake) can extend lifespan and can increase disease resistance. Recent studies have shown that DR can have profound effects on brain function and vulnerability to injury and disease. DR can protect neurons against degeneration in animal models of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases and stroke. Moreover, DR...may increase the ability of the brain to resist aging and restore function following injury. Interestingly, increasing the time interval between meals can have beneficial effects on the brain and overall health of mice."

In 2012, Mattson elaborated: "Reducing your calorie intake could help your brain, but doing so by cutting your intake of food is not likely to be the best method of triggering this protection. It is likely to be better to go on intermittent bouts of fasting, in which you eat hardly anything at all, and then have periods when you eat as much as you want." In fact, Mattson's research found that fasting just once or twice a week could help protect the brain against degenerative diseases.

Interestingly, while Islam dictates that healthy Muslims must fast during Ramadan, it also encourages intermittent fasting throughout the year. Traditions record that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, would fast intermittently on Mondays and Thursdays (Abu Dawood). @Taalay

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