Ramadan is a month of fasting, prayer, and charity observed by two billion Muslims all around the world. This year it began at sundown on Wednesday, March 22, and it will end on Friday, April 21 which is Eid al Fitr, also known as the festival of breaking the fast.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and it is the month during which Prophet Muhammad received the revelation that became the beginning of Islam’s holy text, the Quran. Fasting from sunrise to sundown during this month is one of the five pillars of Islam — the other four are professions of faith, prayer, charity, and the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
Muslims fast during Ramadan for religious and spiritual reasons, but there are also health benefits to this practice, ranging from increased cognition to improved sleep.
Enhanced metabolism and decreased cholesterol
During Ramadan, Muslims eat a meal before sunrise and do not eat or drink from dawn to sunset. Fasting with this schedule increases the release of a hormone called adiponectin, which causes skeletal muscles to absorb more nutrients like glucose from food. Once the fast is broken after sundown, people’s bodies will absorb more nutrients from the foods they consume. Adiponectin also increases fat oxidation: the breaking down of fatty acids, which is how we get rid of fat molecules and use them for energy.
Fasting also improves overall cholesterol levels. In the UAE, cardiologists reported that individuals who were fasting demonstrated a decrease in low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol in blood. These impacts in cholesterol levels lead to even more positive cardiovascular health effects such as decreased risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Regulates circadian rhythm
There are conflicting sides to the argument regarding Ramadan’s effects on circadian rhythm, with some claiming that fasting can help regulate sleep while others argue that fasting negatively impacts your quality of sleep. Fasting alters the levels of sleep hormones in your body. Through increasing melatonin, which is produced in response to darkness and helps promote sleep, and decreasing insulin, fasting regulates sleeping patterns. However, it also has the potential of increasing cortisol, which could disrupt sleep patterns.
During Ramadan, when people are fasting, potentially malignant cells are starved and unable to process ketones, which makes them unable to readily proliferate and develop into tumours. Fasting can also reduce glucose levels, which impedes the growth of cancer cells.
A 2009 report described the decrease in certain inflammatory markers during Ramadan in both males and females who fasted during the period. In particular, the researchers noted decreases in interleukin-6, a pro-inflammatory protein; c-reactive protein, a protein in the blood whose concentrations rise in response to inflammation; and homocysteine, an amino acid present after cellular inflammation.
Fasting modifies the gut microbiota, the collection of microorganisms living in your gut and growing from your body, which is enhanced with bacteria that have anti-inflammatory characteristics following fasting. Many argue that the composition of the gut microbiome has strong impacts on our moods and cognition, linking back to enhanced brain processing.
Enhanced brain function
Surprisingly, fasting can have positive benefits on the brain and nerve tissue. Fasting increases the level of nerve growth factor protein in the body, which regulates the growth, maintenance, proliferation, and survival of neurons in both the central and peripheral nervous systems. Moreover, fasting increases the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a modulator in the brain that is involved in promoting the survival and growth of brain cells. Furthermore, a sufficient amount of brain-derived neurotrophic factor is preventative for risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Ramadan — and fasting overall — has incredible health benefits, and anyone participating in the month of fasting can benefit from these.