There are infinite rewards and better health
Islam is built upon five pillars embracing faith, prayer, alms, fasting and pilgrimage. Muslims practice fasting during the blessed month of Ramadan as mandatory worship (ibadah) and on other specific days during the year as complementary worship (sunnah).
Fasting is a unique act of obedience to God. Among others shows one’s devotion and sincerity to God with profound god consciousness (taqwa) being the outcome of this act of worship, besides the health benefits of fasting described in this article.
“God the Exalted and Majestic said: ‘Every act of the son of Adam is for him, except the fasting which is (exclusively) for Me, and I will reward him for it. Fasting is a shield…….”
[Al-Bukhari and Muslim]
Fasting during Ramadan is a type of “time-restricted eating”. It entails refraining from food and drink intake from dawn to dusk for the entire month. Fasting causes considerable changes in both energy balance and diet composition, in addition to alterations in meal and drink intake time.
Additionally, it is associated with countless health benefits that have encouraged researchers to develop the concept of intermittent fasting since the early 20th century as a therapeutic approach to resolving some medical conditions such as diabetes that results from insulin resistance. Muslims have had this golden remedy in their hands for over 1,400 years!
Halalan toyyiban diet is an essential advantage from fasting
Headaches, heartburn, constipation, dehydration, anaemia, and poor sleep quality are examples of health discomfort associated with fasting, mainly if an individual is not accustomed to fasting other than during Ramadan.
Those health discomforts may be precluded by consuming a toyyiban diet. Halalan toyyiban diet means permissible foods that are not harmful and safe to consume, as underlined by the shari’ah.
“They ask you (O Muhammad) what is lawful for them (as food). Say, “Lawful unto you are At- Tayyibaat (all kinds of halal foods)…………”
[Al-Ma’idah (The Table Spread) 5:4]
It symbolises a concept of whole-someness, which comprises quality, cleanliness, safety for all and sustainability. The factor of food intake and nutrition is interrelated with good human practices. It indicates that a halalan toyyiban diet ensures performing pious practices and taqwa (piety or god consciousness) to attain acceptance by God.
It is also vital during fasting as it certifies human quality as it initiates humankind’s physical and spiritual development and calms the mind and soul.
Practices in determining healthy food are essential; even when Muslims are fasting, this effort is needed to determine which foods are good (toyyib) for them. The knowledge of how to preserve human health is rooted in the words of the Qur’an:
“Children of Adam, dress well whenever you are at worship, and eat and drink [as We have permitted] but do not be extravagant: God does not like extravagant people.”
[Al-A’raf (The Heights) 7: 31]
The Qur’an advises humanity to balance their food and drink intake, consume only what is useful, restrain the desire for excess, and balance the diet in kind, amount, and preparation. Nutrient deficit or saturation can both impair absorption and induce illness.
Fasting, health and wellbeing: medication or natural remedy?
After eight to 12 hours of fasting, the body attempts to save the little blood sugar remaining and relies on fat. Because a low insulin level causes blood vessels to dilate, more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to the working muscle and other organs.
As the body begins to use fat as fuel, the levels of biochemicals that govern sugar and fat, such as growth hormone, cortisol, glucagon, and adrenaline, rise dramatically. During fasting, glucose homeostasis is maintained by meals taken at night before dawn and glycogen storage, which means the body is not starving.
\We know that insulin has a central role in the metabolism of sugar. It controls the rate of glucose utilisation so that the amount of blood glucose is kept within strict limits (the average fasting blood glucose concentration is 80 to 90 mg/dL).
The drop in insulin secretion and rise in glucagon (liver storage) levels during Ramadan fasting are the significant components that stimulate fat-burning. However, to benefit from this scenario, foods with a low and medium glycemic index (GI) should be taken at sunset to avoid spikes in insulin and glucose.
GI is a value used to measure how much specific food affects blood sugar levels. For example, when breaking fast, you can combine oat soup with dates, an adequate portion of non-starchy vegetables (up to 300g), and grilled or baked protein of choice.
In principle, a diet that mixes low GI (below 55), medium (55-70), and high GI (over 70) foods contributes to controlling the blood glucose level and would grant you the fasting benefits. Examples of low GI foods include green vegetables, low sugar fruits, full-fat milk (yes, that is right, not the low-fat option).
Medium GI foods include high-sugar fruits, boiled potatoes and pastries. While waffles, fried noodles, and rice fall in the high GI category. One might argue that rice is not recommended even though it is halal and toyyib.
One could combine rice (high GI) with green vegetables and grilled or boiled protein like eggs, chicken, or fish and replace juice with fresh fruits to avoid hidden sugar content.
The type of food eaten at sunset (iftar) will directly impact the insulin level, increasing or decreasing insulin resistance, now interconnected with Type 2 diabetes. A healthy lifestyle rather than medication can control this type of diabetes.
Interestingly, glucose is regulated amongst fasting obese individuals with Type 2 diabetes, reducing body fat percentage and HbA1c (haemoglobin A1c test tells the average blood sugar level over two to three months). A significantly improved survival rate and recovery of heart function and cardiovascular risks are also seen.
Fasting reduces insulin resistance vs continuous energy restriction amongst the overweight and, in obese, non-diabetic individuals, it may have an essential role in protecting against cancers related to obesity. Fasting also reduces body fat, total cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol.
LDL is low-density cholesterol, often called “bad” cholesterol, that accumulates in the walls of blood vessels, raising the chances of health problems like a heart attack or stroke. Therefore, there is a reduction in blood pressure among fasting individuals.
Circulating ketone levels are also elevated on fasting days (like those induced by the keto diet). This state is called “ketosis”, which means the body is fat-burning, and that is why dieticians think fasting could be the key to a longer, healthier life.
This is also why fasting causes weight loss and maintenance among overweight and obese people and healthy individuals. Fasting is a complete package of natural remedies to prevent or aid in fighting many health conditions.
Fasting and inflammation
Inflammation is a process when your body’s white blood cells protect you from infection due to outside invaders. Of course, what we are looking at is not a superficial infection like bacteria or virus (short-term). Chronic inflammation (long-term) is of concern as it damages healthy cells and tissues.
Intermittent Ramadan fasting enhances the inflammatory state by reducing inflammatory and oxidative stress markers. How and why fasting reduces inflammation is probably explained because it produces fewer monocytes (type of white blood cells).
Fasting during activity hours (daylight) appears to be of paramount importance in cancer prevention and treatment as it significantly lowers tumour progression.
A remarkable study published in Nature showed that four-week intermittent fasting from dawn to sunset in Ramadan for more than 14 hours a day contributed to DNA repair, insulin regulation, humoral immunity (antibodies production), and increased durability in subjects with metabolic disorders. It may protect neurons against ageing disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.
Hence, to maximise the profits from the fasting interval, avoiding high-sugar drinks and foods by sunset is one of the approaches to maintaining health parameters. The Toyyib concept includes consuming good and healthy foods, protein sources, fibres (vegetables and fruits) and complex carbohydrates in a balanced meal.
This is in line with maqasid al-shari’ah (higher objectives of the shari’ah) in protecting life because a high sugar intake, fatty foods and excessive calories are classified as harmful to health and therefore are not toyyib.
Our responsibility is to create awareness towards fixing eating habits, especially in the fasting month. There are practically no health benefits of fasting if fast foods such as ready-made juice and high-fat meals are regular. Moderation is hence a key for all.
Fasting and immunity during Covid-19
Improving immune function and increasing individual resistance is essential in helping fight Covid-19. Many studies showed that fasting could restore the immune system. Fasting for at least three days allows the body to produce new white blood cells, reviving the immune system to fight infection.
Don’t you want to fight Covid-19?
Having said that, beyond the enormous reward of this unique worship, wouldn’t those healthy benefits entice you to perform fasting more often? — The Health
Amal A.M. Elgharbawy is with the International Institute for Halal Research and Training (INHART), International Islamic University Malaysia