What does a month of Ramadan fasting do, spiritually and physically?

Strapped for time at the end of the day, the author, Reem Akkad, dishes takeout for iftar on the sixth night of Ramadan. (Photo: Akkad family photo. Copyright: Handout. The Washington Post)

Ramadan disrupts my life in the best way possible. It’s the only time of year my family sits together every single day for a month to eat dinner, called iftar. It’s the only time of year that my husband and I also have breakfast (suhoor) together, every day for a month. We wake up at the same time. And under dimmed lights, he eats his naan bread and kefir cheese, I eat my overnight oats. When the baby manages to stay asleep, we actually have uninterrupted conversations. It’s a beautiful thing.

Growing up, often as the only Muslim in my class, people would ask me why I was fasting. My answer was simple: We fast because we want to feel for those who are less fortunate; we fast so that we remember how blessed we are.

It’s a simple and understandable answer, but there’s also something deeper. The core reason I fast is that I believe that is what God has asked of me, as a means to increase my faith and draw nearer to my soul. Ramadan takes attention away from the physical and focuses it on the spiritual, which is often ignored the rest of the year. The pangs of hunger are a reminder that I am much more than my physical self. Over the past week of fasting, several of my colleagues pointed out that I seemed much more calm. I’m still racing to cross off lines from my to-do list. Yet somehow I also manage to pray and meditate every day – early in the morning before the sun rises, twice when I come home from work and twice before I go to bed. It’s something I rarely manage to do any other time of year. This is why I need Ramadan.

Thank you to all who read my first journal entry, especially those who took the time to comment and give me advice on how to get through the challenges of this month. Many people suggested that I simply leave my religion: No religion, no fasting, no problem. Honestly, that’s a good point. Why was I complaining about something I choose to do? No one is forcing me to fast, or to be Muslim. These are conscious decisions, and I think I am better for having made them.

Fasting, as it happens, is also good for the body. To find out more about that, I spoke with Mark Mattson, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging. According to his research, he says fasting can be beneficial mentally as well as physically when it’s done the right way.

Q: Can you tell me what happens to the human body when it’s deprived of food for 16 consecutive hours?

A: Mark Mattson: We’ll start with a typical Western eating pattern, which is three meals a day plus snacks. Every time you eat a meal, the energy – mainly glucose – goes into your liver and is stored in the form of glycogen. And that liver energy is always tapped into first. It is essentially never depleted in people who eat three meals a day unless they do extended, vigorous exercise. So when you fast for 10 to 12 hours, at that point ketones are produced from fats. Ketones serve as a very good energy source for cells throughout your body and brain. In fact, many labs are finding, have a number of beneficial effects on the brain, including enhancing learning and memory and a kind of an anti-anxiety effect or antidepressant effect.

So now it’s 16 hours a day of fasting during Ramadan – that’s enough to flip a metabolic switch and elevate the ketones, at least for approximately four hours. But if you exercise toward the end of the day’s fast, that gives a further boost to the ketones. We’ve done studies with animals where we look at their brain function, learning and memory and if we combine fasting with exercises there’s kind of an additive boost in terms of optimizing or enhancing brain function.

Q: So fasting in Ramadan is a good thing, then?

A: I’ve had a few Muslims in my lab, and one in particular didn’t exercise much. He gained weight during Ramadan because of overeating in the evening. So, from a scientific standpoint, during Ramadan it would be better not to overeat during the evening. And if you’re already exercising – keep exercising.

What we are finding in our human studies is that it actually takes several weeks at least for your whole system to adapt to this new eating pattern. The first week or two, probably a lot of people will be irritable and ornery. Some people have headaches, particularly women for some reason. We don’t know why.

Coming back to a scientific perspective, it’s important to keep hydrated. I know that during Ramadan this year, Muslims don’t eat or drink for 16 hours. I would suggest it’s better when you drink.

Q: Drinking liquids in the daytime is not really an option. Is there a way to ensure Ramadan observers can keep hydrated?

A: I think for the eight hours you’re not fasting, if you can get in eight cups of liquid, that would be good.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post



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