DEVOTION: Fasting at Ramadan is a tradition with a spiritual connection

By ANDY MARINO RESTRICTED EATING CAN HAVE BOTH SPIRITUAL AND MEDICAL BENEFITS EACH year, in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims worldwide undertake fast­ing each day between the pre-dawn suhur meal and the sunset iftar repast that ends it. The purpose of Ramadan is to focus one’s spirit­uality, to renew and purify acquaintance with god. As the Surah Al-Baqarah has it: “Allah desires for you ease; he desires not hardship for you; and that you should complete the period, and that you should magnify Allah for having guided you, and that perhaps you may be thankful.” This concentration and devotion is made pos­sible partly by not eating. Why is this? Clearly a connection between fasting and the spirit exists, a sense of sacrifice or atonement. This is found not only in Islam, but in almost all religions, and from the most ancient times. Hinduism has many different days and periods of fasting, reflecting the many different deities honoured by the observance; Buddhism likewise. In the Jain faith there is the eight-day festival of Paryushan when fasting once again commends introspection and purification. In Judaism six days in the year (including Yom Kippur) must be allowed for fasting, and in Christianity there are many traditions of fasting, the best-known being Lent; many more occasions ex­ist in the Christian Orthodox Churches, reflecting very old practices in the eastern Mediterranean.Shamen all over the world go off into the forest or wilderness without food to enter a spiritual trance and meet their gods. If a practice such as fasting is at once so uni­versal and venerable, one can bet there is some­thing important behind it. Only recently, howev­er, has science begun catching up with religious wisdom to reveal the practical benefits hidden within the spiritual philosophy of the fast. Fasting can in fact have very positive and last­ing health effects and it is useful, even encourag­ing, to view the Ramadan experience through a medical and scientific lens as well. “Fasting is the first principle of medicine; fast and see the strength of the spirit reveal itself” –Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi Scientists are discovering that fasting is balance, not only spiritual balance but also organic balance. Fasting can restore the human body to a more optimal functioning than regular eating permits. Humans are not evolved to expect a regular three meals a day; no animal is. For most of our pre-history we could not depend either on regu­lar food or types of nourishment, and our bodies evolved to survive and thrive on periods of absti­nence and high alertness (while searching for nourishment) and then periods of relaxation and satiety after feeding ourselves. The weather and the seasons, travels and sheer luck all affected what people consumed. Expe­riences of physical stress such as hunger promoted well-being. Of course, it is pleasant nowadays always to have food to hand, but plenty brings its own problems, as the great religions seem to know very well. Fasting for longer than two or three days is great for weight loss, and because it is not a diet, you do not have to stick to it all the time, only for the length of the fast. Intermittent fasting is easier to do – we do it every night when we sleep, after all – and three of the most popular methods are the 20:4, the 5:2 and the 16:8. The 20:4 is when you eat one meal a day and stick to liquids the rest of the time (water, tea and coffee, perhaps with a splash of milk). “A strategy where the person confines eating to a specific window of time each day yielded robust im­provements in insulin sensitivity,” explains Dr Ben­jamin Bikman, an expert in metabolic disorders. The 5:2 is quite a new method and consists of eat­ing normally for five days a week and fasting for the other two, although 500 calories on each of those days is allowed. The 5:2 method is designed to imi­tate the irregularity of natural eating, and keeps the body tricked into not knowing what to expect in terms of nourishment. This eating pattern encourag­es a more efficient use of stored energy. The 16:8 typically involves skipping breakfast and eating between the hours of 1pm and 9pm (or 12 noon and 8pm). Ramadan can be imagined as a version of the 16:8 fast with the hours flipped, so eating takes place be­tween approximately 9pm and 5am, with the iftar at sunset and the suhur before sunrise. THE BENEFITS OF FASTING: “A genuine fast cleanses the body, mind and soul.” –MK Gandhi Science is now discovering that a religious fast de­livers real benefits and that the wisdom behind Ramadan is divine indeed. First, it reduces insulin levels and even insulin re­sistance. Cutting down on sugars and increasing fi­bre, fats and protein can help to keep insulin depre-ssed, but combining a healthier diet with fasting is massively effective in guarding against Type-2 dia­betes, and even in reversing it. As neurologist Dr Stephanie Estima points out, using up glycogen (a type of glucose that serves as an energy source) in the liver when fasting also means that water-retention and bloat will disappear. The reason is that each molecule of glycogen is bound to several molecules of water. As the sugar is used up, the body no longer needs the water “enve­lope”, and will get rid of it, leaving you feeling lighter and slimmer very quickly. High blood pressure and cholesterol levels can al­so be brought down by fasting because it reduces the level of so-called bad cholesterol in our bodies without changing the levels of good cholesterol. Just the effect of cutting out sugar helps to keep the ar­teries more supple and unclogged. In fact, sugar and carbohydrates have the effect of prematurely “ageing” the body in many different ways. Clear it out with fasting, even intermittent fa-sting, and effectively the organs regain some of the-ir youthfulness. That goes for the brain as well. Some doctors are now calling Alzheimer’s disease “Type-3 diabetes”. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s have recently even been found in patients in their twenties who have mostly lived on fizzy drinks and pizzas. Fasting helps to eliminate the damaged brain cells. Another thing that happens – mostly in ketosis (when the body draws energy from fat cells rather than glucose, which happens with a low-carb, high protein diet) – is “autophagy” begins to take place, where old dam­aged white blood cells are replaced by new ones. These young, healthy new cells guard against can­cers forming and the discovery of autophagy led to a Nobel Prize in Medicine for Yoshinori Ohsumi in 2016. As Dr Estima also points out, there is a theory that cancers feed off excess sugar: “What we do know is with routine fasting, we turn on specific repair genes that will comb through cells and separate the good from the bad. “We also give the body a break from insulin spikes, and excess sugar in the blood stream. This can poten­tially cut off the food supply to a growing cancerous cell. Without a constant food source, it cannot thrive.” Above all, though, it is Ramadan. Its spiritual ben­efits can only be amplified by knowing the deep and abiding wisdom behind the practice of fasting daily for this month-long period. Enjoy, while you fast, the other advantages it will bring: the increased mental alertness and feelings of optimism and contentment; the sharpened sense – even eyesight improves thanks to our hungry ancestors scanning the horizon for food; and feel the aches and pains ease as the inflammations in the body caused by high levels of sugar in the bloodstream melt away. As Dr Gary Fettke, a surgeon, says: “Inflammation is at the heart of all disease and our modern diet is to blame.” And then in the evening, enjoy the wonderful food, knowing it will taste twice as good for having abstained. Happy Ramadan.