At the end of May, the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims started the month-long fast of Ramadan. Apart from its being a religious obligation (2:183), its health benefits are also worth considering. Fasting is an excellent weight control strategy. The key point is not weight loss but rather weight control. While those who fast admit they lose some weight during Ramadan, few have actually considered its real medical merits, its significance as a weight control mechanism, its value as a behavior modifier, or even its virtues to fine tune and tone the human body and its various systems. All prophets of God understood these benefits, as well as its spiritual, psychological, and social advantages.
The Muslim fast, as prescribed for those past the age of puberty, is simple. It requires one to completely abstain from taking any food or liquids, and from participating in any sexual intimacy from dawn until dusk. The fasting month is based on the lunar calendar, which is 10 or 11 days shorter than the solar calendar. Thus, in 36 years every Muslim in both hemispheres (north and south) will have had the opportunity to fast during all four seasons. This ensures equity in terms of both ease and hardships endured for people living in both hemispheres.
For most Muslims fasting is one of the major obligations. While they may speak about its health merits, there has not been much scientific examination of its many medical benefits. In recent years studies undertaken by scientists at the University of Southern California (USC) have discovered that it has some very important medical advantages in terms of regenerating the body’s immune system.
Valter Longo, professor of gerontology and the biological sciences at USC found that fasting was able to regenerate one’s entire immune system. Fasting, he pointed out, is, therefore, beneficial for everyone but especially the elderly whose immune system degenerates with age.
Longo said, “When you starve (fast), the system tries to save energy, and one of the things it can do to save energy is to recycle a lot of the immune cells that are not needed, especially those that are old or damaged.” He pointed out that prolonged fasting forced the body to use stored glucose, fat, and ketones, but it also broke down a significant portion of white blood cells. Longo likened this to discarding a plane of excess cargo.
White blood cells are the workhorse cells of the immune system that defend the body against foreign invaders. In the bloodstream, there are about 600 red blood cells for every one white blood cell. Any reduction in white blood cells can, therefore, have a detrimental effect on the body because they are very important to fight infection.
Longo and his research team made an interesting discovery. They found that as the prolonged fasting brought down the white blood cell count, the re-feeding “flipped a regenerative switch,” triggering a stem cell based regeneration of new white blood cells. This comes about as prolonged fasting reduces the enzyme PKA. Longo explains that, “PKA is the key gene that needs to shut down in order for these stem cells to switch into regenerative mode to produce more white blood cells. It gives the OK for stem cells to go ahead and begin proliferating and rebuild the entire system.”
Longo adds that, “the good news is that the body is able to get rid of the parts of the system that might be damaged or old, the inefficient parts, during fasting. He further points out that, “if you start with a system heavily damaged by chemotherapy or aging, fasting cycles can generate, literally, a new immune system.”
Longo candidly admits that he and his team could not predict that prolonged fasting would have such a remarkable effect in promoting stem cell-based regeneration that would virtually renew the immune system.
While Longo’s research focused on prolonged fasting, one may well hypothesize that if there is no overeating at the beginning and the end of the daily fast, it may also contribute to the “starving” required to stimulate regeneration of the immune system. However, since Allah (swt) is the designer of the human body, He knows that the best means of regenerating it is through fasting as He has prescribed it for one month a year. How sad that we have not examined these wonderful medical benefits focusing primarily on its devotional aspects.
Armed with this new research’s outcomes, one may well ask if overeating at dawn before the Muslim daily fast begins would not reduce, limit, or possibly even negate the “starving” required to stimulate the regeneration of the immune system. I do not suppose a response to this question is necessary as the answer is embedded in the question.
Around the world, diet books fly off store shelves in record numbers, as diet gurus offer their latest fads for losing weight to a population that is grossly overweight because of overindulgence. Many of those who have gone on such diets appear on radio and TV talk shows to narrate their personal experiences. The overwhelming opinion seems to be that most diets work for a short time, but as soon as the person stops dieting the lost weight reappears. Some people even exceed their previous weight. In all the shared experiences about dieting, one centuries-old formula is seldom if ever mentioned. It is the simple fast that the prophets of all the major faiths engaged in regularly and enjoined their followers to do the same. Fasting is not new, yet it seems that, as a possible diet option, it is one of the best-kept secrets.
At the end of the fasting day Muslims are enjoined to eat in moderation and engage in ‘ibadah (conformity to Allah’s counsel), dhikr (conscientizing Allah) and tafakkur (contemplation). The emphasis is on small simple meals, yet many ignore this injunction and consume large amounts of food. However, Allah’s (swt) divine scheme is unbeatable: humans are created in a way that the body itself adjusts to eating smaller meals. Those who eat heavy meals at the end of the day often suffer from constipation and other discomforts. It is interesting to note that at the end of the fasting day, because of the pangs of hunger one thinks that one will be able to eat much more than one normally does. However, one discovers that this is not the case.
This discovery usually comes about after a few days of fasting when one begins to find one is unable to finish the food in one’s plate. Often the amount one is able to eat is less than the normal meal one would have consumed in the regular three-meals-a-day routine. This is because as the fasting days increase, the body undergoes a physiological change as the stomach begins to shrink and, however much one may desire to have more at the end of the day, the shrunken stomach limits the amount of food that can be consumed. It is critical that one takes heed of these body signals and not disregard them by gorging extra food or be seduced by the many varieties of food some families spend hours preparing. This kind of extensive tablespread of food is totally contrary to the purpose of fasting and it also hampers the stomach from achieving its full shrinking potential.
Those who do not gorge and restrict themselves to one simple meal at the end of the day are the ones most likely to experience the full benefit of the stomach shrinking, which ensures the fasting person will lose some weight by the end of the month. While weight loss is obvious, the inevitable follow-up question is how fasting is a weight control tool, a behavior modifier or a means of fine-tuning and toning one’s body?
Most diets fail because they do not bring about a change in the dieting person’s physiological condition, as the month-long fast does. Fasting helps one to alter one’s unhealthy over-eating habits and establish a moderate intake of food. If one looks at the example of the Prophet (pbuh), we find even when the month of Ramadan ended, he celebrated ‘Id with rejoicing and feasting — sharing a simple meal with neighbours, relatives and, most importantly, the needy. He also emphasized the need on this festive day to visit the sick and give charity (sadaqah). It is important to clarify that feasting according to the Prophet’s practice was not self-indulgent. For the Prophet (pbuh), feasting was an occasion for sharing Allah’s bounties with others, especially the poor and the needy. For the wealthy who may have food in abundance, it is the sharing of Allah’s (swt) bounties with the poor that is intended by “feasting.”
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) deplored overeating by saying, “Kill not your hearts with excess of eating and drinking.” Overeating, especially on the day of ‘Id (when people are seduced by the many favourite dishes families prepare for this day), is the quickest way to undo the benefits achieved during Ramadan. The physiological change that facilitates moderate eating is the secret of fasting as a weight control mechanism. Although over a period of time the moderate eating habits developed during Ramadan usually get somewhat eroded, the fasting month returns after 11 months to re-establish the good habits. However, it is possible to sustain the physiological change that ensures weight control by reinforcing the habit of moderation by also fasting at other times during the year, which the Prophet (pbuh) did regularly.
We often overlook the fact that fasting is Allah’s (swt) prescription for humans to fine-tune their bodies, especially the digestive system. All body systems or parts need rest. Sleep is one way for some organs to achieve this; the eyes, mind, and muscles are other obvious examples. The heart and the digestive system achieve their rest by actively slowing the system or reversing the system operation, somewhat similar to a reverse flush that is done to clean radiator pipes in a vehicle. Standing on one’s head provides a good means of rest for the heart because it reverses the pull of gravity against the normal flow of blood, just as putting down one’s arms does when one is painting a ceiling. For the digestive system, fasting offers the best rest. It is a welcome respite from frequent meals, snacks, and drinks such as tea or coffee. This rest gives the digestive system the opportunity to clean and rejuvenate itself thereby making it more efficient, just as a farmer leaves a field fallow or uncultivated for a year so that it provides better and more abundant crop the following year.
Fasting, as prescribed in Islam, also requires spiritual cleansing, which at the practical level is reflected in modifying behavior to meet higher ideals. Fasting without ‘ibadah and contemplation achieves little merit in Islam. In ‘ibadah a Muslim can seek Allah’s (swt) help to become righteous to stand up against injustice and oppression. In contemplation a Muslim can examine the behaviours that undermine efforts to come closer to fellow human beings, namely, family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, acquaintances, and others. Modifying behaviour is integral to fasting. A Muslim’s behaviour or attitude to others must reflect respect, kindness, and justice. The Prophet (pbuh) himself reminds us, “A keeper of the fast who does not abandon lying and evil ways, Allah cares not about his [or her] leaving off eating and drinking.”
Fasting is probably the best way for one to feel the pangs of hunger, misery of the homeless, and suffering of the downtrodden. Creating empathy for the destitute is Islam’s way of stirring our conscience to become actively involved in addressing the needs of the most unfortunate and marginalized in society. It is related that someone asked Imam Husayn (ra), “What is the lesson of fasting?” He replied, “The rich should feel the pangs of hunger and appreciate what the poor have to endure, and therefore share Allah’s bounty with them.”
At a higher spiritual level, fasting in Islam is seen as armor against evil. Those who are able to renounce lawful satisfaction of desires in obedience to Allah’s command are more able to renounce unlawful gratifications. Just as physical exercise strengthens the body, so mental, spiritual, ethical, and moral exercise through fasting builds willpower to conquer physical appetites and abstain from what is wicked and wrong. The strength built during Ramadan is only the beginning of the journey toward getting closer to God by becoming a better human being through empathy with and concern for one’s fellow human beings. We are reminded of this when our Prophet (pbuh) said, “If you love your Creator, then love your fellow-beings first.” May Allah (swt) help us all to progress along this journey not only in the month of Ramadan but throughout our life.
Ahmed Motiar is the author of What makes Islam the fastest growing religion in the world — a book every Muslim should own for its unique collection of sayings of both the Prophet (pbuh) and Imam ‘Ali (ra) on over 100 categories listed in alphabetical order. He is the inventor of the Award-winning 3E Reading System, and recipient of the prestigious (Canadian) Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in Science, Technology and Mathematics for the Math Games he created. His most recent book is The Reserve Bank: A License to steal money from Citizens? http://www.MathAndLiteracyAfrica.co.za.