DUBAI: In the Muslim world, Ramadan marks the holiest month in the Islamic calendar and is a time when millions of people practice fasting from food and drink, focusing on self-reflection and spiritual growth.
But more recently, the “intermittent fasting” trend has been heavily promoted by health gurus, celebrities, and influencers as an effective weight loss tool and a 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 eating?
Dr Lina Shibib, a nutritionist at Medcare Hospital Dubai, says the practice of periodically abstaining from food and drink for a month has been shown to promote various healing processes in the body and improve functionality.
According to a new study from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, fasting has been shown to boost brain function, improve long-term memory and generate new “hippocampal” neurons, which prevent neurodegenerative disorders.
“Both fasting and exercise stimulate the creation of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, in nerve cells,” Shibib said, noting that this protein is involved in learning, memory and the formation of new cells and has the ability to make neurons more resistant to stress.
“During fasting, neurons enter a state of ‘resource conservation and stress resistance,'” she said.
“When a person feeds after fasting, their neurons go into ‘growth’ mode, producing more protein, growing and forming new connections,” Shibib told Arab News.
As a result, these cycles of metabolic challenge followed by a period of recovery, researchers say, can improve neuroplasticity, learning, memory, concentration, acuity, and resistance to stress in the brain.
“The researchers also found (that these neurons in the hippocampus) will slow the progression of cognitive decline, thus (potentially) delaying or preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” Shibib said.
In other parts of the body, health experts have also observed subtle changes in organ function.
For example, one study reported decreased blood sugar and increased insulin sensitivity in people who fasted during the month of Ramadan.
“When we fast, our body doesn’t have access to glucose like it normally does, which forces 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 supply regular food is available.
In fact, organs such as the liver and kidneys, both responsible for detoxification, are then fully able to regenerate without the constant influx of additional toxins.
These important cellular cleansing processes called “autophagy” take place when the body is not forced to digest food, thus supporting its own immune defense.
On the other hand, fat is one of the most stubborn toxins in the body to eliminate, and therefore weight loss is a difficult process for millions of people around the world.
According to Dr. Pankaj Shah, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, fat is only a toxin when the body’s ability to store it in fat cells is exceeded and therefore stores it in places where it is toxic.
For example, fat stored in the liver can lead to fatty liver disease, increasing the risk of diabetes, just as fat stored in muscle fibers or the pancreas can lead to the same prognosis.
“If while fasting, total body fat goes down, it’s because dietary fat is being replaced with healthier fat,” Shah said, referring to a necessary reduction in calorie intake.
If weight loss is achieved during Ramadan, then improvements are evident in liver, muscle, insulin secretion and insulin action, and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease is likely .
In fact, a review from the University of Sydney, Charles Perkins Centre, Australia, found 70 studies and showed that during the period of Ramadan there is a reduction in body fat content (as a percentage of body weight) in overweight or obese people.
Because it boosts metabolism and balances hunger and satiety hormones, fasting is considered especially helpful for those who want to lose weight and usually don’t succeed.
However, beyond the physical changes and benefits of fasting, the ancient practice is believed to bring mindfulness and aid in mental and spiritual growth.
“Many of the benefits experienced during Ramadan can be linked to the physical changes of fasting, but also more family time, meditation, prayers and the added gratitude often seen during the religious period,” Shah said.