DUBAI: In the Muslim world, Ramadan marks the holiest month of the Islamic calendar and is a time where millions of people practice fasting from food and drink, shifting their focus to self-reflection and spiritual growth.
But more recently, the trend of “intermittent fasting” has been heavily promoted by health gurus, celebrities and influencers as an effective weight-loss tool and way to detox the body.
These benefits, however, among many others, have long been studied as Muslims have been fasting from dawn to dusk during Ramadan for centuries.
So what happens to the human body after 30 days of time-restricted feeding?
Dr. Lina Shibib, a nutritionist at Medcare Hospital, Dubai, says the practice of periodically abstaining from food and drink for a month has proven to promote various healing processes in the body and improve functionality.
According to a new study from King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, fasting has been shown to boost brain function, improve long-term memory and generate new “hippocampal” neurons, which prevent neurodegenerative disorders.
“Fasting and exercise both boost the creation of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, in nerve cells,” said Shibib, pointing out that this protein is involved in learning, memory and the formation of new cells and has the ability to make neurons more stress-resistant.
“During fasting, neurons go into a ‘resource conservation and stress resistance’ state,” she said.
“When a person feeds after fasting, their neurons go into ‘growth’ mode, producing more proteins, growing, and forming new connections,” Shibib told Arab News.
As a result, these cycles of metabolic challenge followed by a recovery period, according to researchers, may improve neuroplasticity, learning, memory, concentration, sharpness and stress resistance in the brain.
“Researchers also found (that these hippocampal neurons) will slow the progression of cognitive decline, therefore (potentially) delaying or preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s,” Shibib said.
In other parts of the body, health experts have also seen subtle changes in organ function.
For instance, one study reported a decrease in blood sugar levels and an increase in insulin sensitivity in people who fasted during the month of Ramadan.
“When we fast, our bodies don’t have access to glucose as they normally do, requiring our cells to find other ways to generate energy,” Shibib said.
Fasting, in essence, rids our bodies of toxins, she explained, adding that when practiced regularly, it can encourage cells to engage in processes that are not normally triggered when a regular supply of food is available.
In fact, organs such as the liver and kidneys, both of which are responsible for detoxification, are then fully able to regenerate without the constant influx of additional toxins.
Such important cell-cleaning processes known as “autophagy” take place when the body is not required to digest any food, promoting its own immune defense.
On the other hand, fat is one of the body’s most stubborn toxins to get rid of, and therefore weight loss is a difficult process for millions of people worldwide.
According to Dr. Pankaj Shah, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, fat is only a toxin when the body’s capacity to store it in fat cells is overwhelmed and therefore stores it in places where it is toxic.
For example, fat stored in the liver can lead to a fatty liver, increasing the risk of diabetes, just as fat stored in muscle fiber or the pancreas can lead to the same prognosis.
“If by fasting the total body fat decreases, it is because the dietary fat is replaced by healthier fat,” said Shah, who referred to a necessary reduction in calorie intake.
If weight loss is achieved during Ramadan, improvements are then evident in the liver, muscles, insulin secretion and insulin action, and a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease is likely.
In fact, a review from the University of Sydney, Charles Perkins Center, Australia, found 70 studies and showed that over the Ramadan period, there is a reduction in body fat content (as a percent of body weight) in those who are overweight or obese.
Since it stimulates metabolism and balances hunger and satiety hormones, fasting is considered especially useful for those wishing to lose weight and who are usually unsuccessful.
However, over and beyond the physical changes and benefits of fasting, the ancient practice is considered one that brings about mindfulness and helps with mental and spiritual fulfillment.
“A lot of the benefits felt in Ramadan may be related to physical changes in fasting, but also, more family time, meditation, prayers and extra gratitude often seen during the religious period,” Shah said.