From Ramadan to the 5:2, the surprising science of fasting

Abstaining from food sounds intimidating and debilitating. In fact, intermittent fasting can help you feel healthier and live longer. 

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Ramadan started this week. It’s a month in which Muslims all over the world undergo a daily fast – one in which food, drink, sex and smoking are all forbidden between sunrise and sunset.

The month serves a number of purposes for Muslims. It offers the chance to escape hedonistic and materialistic pursuits and gain spiritual proximity with God through the attainment of taqwa, an Arabic term for “God-consciousness”. Muslims curb their desires to gain self-discipline which can protect them from over-indulgence, becoming acutely aware of those less fortunate in the process. There are many Muslims globally in poverty who struggle to put even a morsel of food on their plates to break their fast, and so there’s a chance to act upon that awareness and help those most deprived.

“But surely it’s impossible to go without food and drink during the day!” This is a very common response to non-Muslims when they hear what Ramadan entails, particularly when it falls in the summer months. However, as journalist Mehdi Hasan put it in his explainer: “I haven’t noticed my fellow Muslims dropping like flies around me, as we fast together each year.” (Children, elderly folk and those suffering from illnesses are exempt from fasting.)

Perhaps more surprisingly, scientists are now discovering that there are physical benefits to be attained through the struggles of hunger and thirst. Reduced meal frequency primes the body to lose fat, while studies have shown a reduction in fluid intake for 30 days has no negative effect on people’s health. Further studies have found that subjects undergoing Ramadan-specific fasting demonstrate lowered levels of LDL cholesterol and anxiety – two risk factors in the development of cardiovascular diseases.

A widely-circulated research finding pointed out that fasting for as little as three days could have wondrous affects on the immune system. The researchers who undertook the study found that the fasting allowed stem cells to start pumping out brand new white blood cells, to reinforce and strengthen the immune system. 

The perception of fasting as debilitating also leaves people surprised that Muslim athletes are able to compete at top levels during Ramadan. With the start of Euro 2016 in France this weekend, there will be some Muslim footballers going through the competition while fasting. For the ones who choose to fast, feelings of increased strength and centeredness are credited as reasons as to why they commit to Ramadan despite the physically arduous nature of international level football. Similar reasons are cited in other sports, too; NBA basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon feels “more focused” while playing during Ramadan. It should however be noted that for most, physical activity can become dangerously strenuous in a state of dehydration. Fasting shouldn’t be a restrictive practice when its aim is to be a liberating one.

For those who aren’t Muslim, fasting shouldn’t be avoided under the assumption that it’s a solely religious practice – or that it has to involve not drinking as well as not eating; many different fasting protocols have been developed in recent years to offer health benefits.

The recent phenomenon of the 5:2 diet, also known as the fast diet, proposed a way of incorporating fasting into people’s lives year-round. The premise of the diet goes something like this: five days of the week you eat as you normally would – no restrictions on food, drink, anything. But then on two days of your choice in the week, you consume just 500-600 calories in 24 hours. And that’s all you need to gain the benefits of fasting.

It’s a form of intermittent fasting, in which fluids aren’t restricted. The associated book written by Dr Michael Mosley instantly became a bestseller, and in researching the effects of fasting, Mosley spoke to a medical expert who said “there is nothing else you can do to your body that is as powerful as fasting”.

And it’s that power of fasting which could also offer help to people suffering with illnesses. For those suffering from cancer, hope may be at hand in the form of fasting. A study in mice with cancer cells found that tumours would fade away at a greater rate when coupled with chemotherapy, than when treated with chemotherapy alone.

The fasting seemed to offer this protection from chemotherapy by safe-guarding the normal cells; whereas cancer cells will continue directing energy towards growth and proliferation, fasted normal cells use their energy for self-maintenance, which ensures their protection from chemotherapy’s side effects while the cancer cells remain exposed.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, journalist Decca Aitkenhead found that one of the greatest tools helping her get through the chemotherapy treatments was fasting. Aitkenhead was drawn towards fasting when a friend of hers had picked up on the work of Dr Valter Longo, a professor of gerontology who has started human trials looking at the effect of combining fasting and chemotherapy. Though much more work needs to be done, his findings so far have shown that fasting can significantly reduce the negative consequences of chemotherapy. She did not eat for 72 hours before each round of chemotherapy, and reported greatly reduced side-effects. 

Merely a week into Ramadan, Muslims over the world will have started to benefit from fasting. For the curious and health-conscious alike, perhaps now is the perfect time to have a go too.