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Ramadan: The Physical and Mental Science Behind Fasting

“I fast for greater physical and mental efficiency.”

Plato

The science behind fasting

As the Muslim community approaches Ramadan 2024 on Sunday 10 March, non-Muslims will be reminded of this worldwide month of fasting through a friend, partner, colleague, or in the media. Conversations on fasting tend to proliferate during Ramadan, especially in an era where people of all faiths or none are more health conscious than ever before. Medical doctors and health professionals have argued for years that fasting is good for both the mind and body, which begs the question: what’s the science behind fasting? And is there a credible, scientific explanation for the health benefits of fasting or are such claims exaggerated? Some health experts worry that the practice of fasting might lead to binge eating. To binge on food at the end of a fasting period is to negate the purpose of it which is to significantly boost mental wellbeing and physical vitality.

Medical experts have aired their concerns that a vulnerable adult with a history of an acute eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder, could re-activate destructive patterns and rekindle strong associations linked to the eating disorder, if they take up fasting. At Addcounsel, we are well known for our holistic approach to treatment, discarding the traditional “one size fits all” approach to a sustained recovery from a mental illness and/or eating disorders. And so, we know from our vast experience of treatment and formulating the very best bespoke recovery plans on an individual basis that for some, fasting might not be the best trajectory, whereas for others it could work very well. It really depends on the individual in question. For example, someone who is recovering from an invasive surgery, is pregnant or breastfeeding, is considerably underweight or has diabetes, will more than likely be advised against fasting.

In an article published by Muslim Aid titled The History of Ramadan it states: “Whilst Ramadan is a key part of Islam, staying healthy is of utmost importance, and for that reason, not everyone will be able to abstain from eating and drinking during the day. Those who are pre-pubescent and growing, old and frail, sick and on medication, pregnant, breastfeeding, menstruating, or travelling are not required to fast (they must pay Fidyah instead), but there are other Ramadan requirements they must abide by.” Our medical director, and experienced consultant psychiatrist, Dr Farrukh Alam, and team of mental health clinicians take all factors into consideration before providing a tailor-made treatment programme for an individual who enters one of our private clinics.

According to Health Harvard, research from the University of Alabama suggests that timing plays a crucial role in weight loss and reducing the risk of diabetes while fasting. Those conducting the study of a group of obese men with prediabetes found that: “They compared a form of intermittent fasting called ‘early time-restricted feeding,’ where all meals would either fit into an early eight-hour period of the day (7am to 3pm), or be spread out over 12 hours (between 7am and 7pm). Both groups maintained their weight (did not gain or lose) but after five weeks, the eight-hours group had dramatically lower insulin levels and significantly improved insulin sensitivity, as well as significantly lower blood pressure. The best part? The eight-hours group also had significantly decreased appetite. They weren’t starving.”

The visionary leader in aging research, Dr David Sinclair explores the increasingly recognised benefits of periodic fasting in his ground-breaking book, Lifespan: “The important thing is not just what we eat, but the way we eat. As it turns out, there is a strong correlation between fasting behaviour and longevity in blue zones such as Ikaria, Greece, the island where people forget to die,where one-third of the population lives past the age of ninety and almost every older resident adheres to a religious calendar that calls for some manner of fasting more than half the year.”

Let’s explore how the body breaks down food and how fasting can reduce the risk of weight gain and diabetes:

  1. When we eat, our food is broken down into molecules that enter our bloodstream as energy. Carbohydrates, especially sugars and refined grains, quickly convert into sugar, which our cells use for energy or store as fat.
  2. This process requires insulin, produced by the pancreas, to transport sugar into cells and store it as fat.
  3. Between meals, if an individual avoids snacking, insulin levels drop, allowing fat cells to release stored sugar for energy.
  4. By allowing insulin levels to decrease sufficiently and for an extended period, intermittent fasting promotes fat burning and weight loss.

How one fasts is subjective. For instance, a person may reduce meat intake and focus on eating plant-based foods, or drink only water for a month, or seek a customised eating plan to follow for a set period with the guidance of a good nutritionist. Again, the practice of periodic fasting is personal and will vary according to individual need and preference. One could argue that minimising or eliminating alcohol intake, as thousands of Brits do in January every year, is a type of fasting.

Physical and mental benefits of fasting

The mental health benefits of fasting are brought up a lot by those practising Ramadan and/or have applied intermittent fasting into their lifestyle. Although uncomfortable sensations and irritability might occur in the first two to three days of fasting, a sharper focus, reduced anxiety and stress and clearer thinking (overall stronger mental health) are described by those fasting. Annemarie Colbin writes in her book, Food and Healing: “The practice of fasting tacitly acknowledges the fact that ours is a self-healing organism. Healing occurs naturally if it is allowed; improper or excessive food simply thwarts the natural ongoing healing processes.”

Let’s look at the mental health benefits of fasting after the first three days:

  • Heightened mental acuity
  • Clarity of thought
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Enhanced mental resilience
  • A feeling of stronger willpower/self-discipline
  • Overall improvement in mood (especially after a week of steady fasting)

Let’s look at the physical health benefits of fasting after the first three days:

  • The body is cleansed of harmful toxins present in fat deposits
  • More energy is available for the brain to use which can improve mental and cognitive function
  • A reduction of old tissues and a cleaner bloodstream
  • Potential weight loss 
  • Better gut health
  • Improved insulin sensitivity and blood sugar levels
  • Lowered blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • More physical energy

A brief history behind fasting during Ramadan

Every ninth month of the lunar year, practising Muslims will fast and refrain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset, and use as much of their time as possible to read and recite the Holy Quran thereby strengthening and deepening their relationship and connection to Allah. Ramadan is the most important holy time in the Islamic Calander and is practised worldwide and was included in ancient Arabic calendars. Muslims believe that in A.D. 610, the angel Gabriel appeared to Prophet Muhammad revealing to him the Holy Quran. The revelation “Night of Power” or Laylat al-Qadr, occurred during Ramadan, inspiring the Muslim community to fast during that month to show reverence and honour the revelation of the Quran. 

In an article published by the aforementioned Muslim Aid it states: “Ramadan is observed to honour the fourth pillar of Islam, known as Sawm. As per the history of Ramadan fasting, there are several reasons why Muslims are required to observe Sawm, including:

  • To demonstrate self-control and restraint
  • To cleanse their bodies
  • To be reminded that some people do not have access to food and go hungry every day
  • To be more compassionate and grateful for what they do have
  • To strengthen their bond with Allah”

Muslim Aid continues: “In addition to not eating between sunrise and sunset, Muslims must also refrain from all impure thoughts and activities, including swearing, gossiping, arguing, fighting and sexual contact.” Although the requirements might appear to be very hard to achieve, many Muslims believe that it’s the intention and practise of such high ideals that counts.

Contact us to learn more about Addcounsel

Addcounsel offers expert private and luxury rehab in London. We provide specialist treatment for drug addiction, alcohol addiction, mental health, and behavioural conditions. Our bespoke treatments are delivered with compassion and care by highly skilled mental wellbeing specialists, following our ‘one client at a time’ methodology. This involves dedicated, one-to-one therapy in an individual setting—no groups or other clients, ensuring an unrivalled level of care, and complete anonymity.

When you check in to our discreet central London rehabilitation facility, you’ll be embarking upon a personalised treatment programme tailored to your individual needs. We offer luxury private accommodation for the duration of your stay, with 24/7 access to a team of world-class experts headed by one of the UK’s leading psychiatrists.

Our multidisciplinary team boasts a wealth of mental wellbeing knowledge and expertise in every aspect of your recovery. Dedicated psychiatrists, nutritionists, therapists, and addiction specialists will create a comprehensive process designed specifically for you. Our focus isn’t just on your mind; we understand the important roles that genetics, nutrition and lifestyle can play in the development of a mental health condition and/or addiction, and in the process of recovery. 

Experts will assess the factors that led to your addiction or mental health condition, leverage the world’s most extensive menu of therapy services to help you recover, and create a robust aftercare programme to support re-integration into your family and lifestyle. Contact us today to start your recovery journey.

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