DUBAI: In the Muslim world, Ramadan marks the holiest month in the Islamic calendar and is a time when millions of people fast without 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 aid and way to detoxify the body.
However, these benefits, among many others, have long been studied, as Muslims have fasted from dawn to dusk during Ramadan for centuries.
So what happens to the human body after 30 days of time-restricted nutrition?
dr. Lina Shibib, a nutritionist at Medcare Hospital, Dubai, says the habit of not eating and drinking for a month has been 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 stimulate the production 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 new cell formation and has the ability neurons more resistant to stress.
“During fasting, neurons go into a state of ‘resource conservation and stress resilience,'” 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, may improve neuroplasticity, learning, memory, concentration, acuity and stress resistance in the brain, according to researchers.
“Researchers also found[that these hippocampal neurons]will slow the progression of cognitive decline, thereby (potentially) delaying or preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” Shibib said.
In other parts of the body, health experts have also seen subtle changes in organ function.
For example, one study reported a reduction in blood sugar 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 normal, forcing our cells to find other ways to generate energy,” Shibib said.
Fasting essentially rids our bodies of toxins, she explained, adding that when practiced regularly, it can encourage cells to participate in processes that are not normally activated when food is regularly available.
In fact, organs such as the liver and kidneys, which are both 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 doesn’t need to digest food, boosting its own immune defenses.
On the other hand, fat is one of the body’s most stubborn toxins to get rid of, which is why 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 a toxin only when the body’s ability to store it in fat cells is overloaded and therefore stores it in places where it’s toxic.
For example, fat stored in the liver can lead to fatty liver, increasing the risk of diabetes, just as fat stored in muscle fibers or the pancreas can lead to the same prognosis.
“If fasting decreases total body fat, it’s because the dietary fat is replaced by healthier fat,” said Shah, pointing to a necessary reduction in calorie intake.
If weight loss is achieved during Ramadan, there will be improvements in liver, muscles, insulin secretion and insulin action and a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease is likely.
A review from the University of Sydney, Charles Perkins Center, Australia, found 70 studies and showed that during the Ramadan period 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 particularly helpful for those who want to lose weight and are usually unsuccessful.
But in addition to the physical changes and benefits of fasting, the ancient practice is considered one that induces mindfulness and aids in mental and spiritual fulfillment.
“Many of the benefits felt during Ramadan could be related to physical changes during the fast, as well as increased family time, meditation, prayers and extra gratitude often seen during the religious period,” Shah said. .