How the human body benefits from fasting

The cracking of soda cans, mouth-watering combo-burgers and a gazillion delicacies of every hue and sound bombard our screens and radios all the time. They must be doing something right because every few hours, on-cue, we munch away in our homes, in food-joints and as we work, play and travel. And most of us simply eat much too often- the very thought of skipping a meal is much too hard to contemplate. However, every year, millions of Muslims worldwide observe the month of Ramadan, in which they abstain from food and water from dawn until dusk, which can be very long in some parts of the world. In fact, people in Finland fast for a period of 23 hours when Ramadan falls in the summer months. For many millennia, the faithful have observed this 30-day stint with regularity, patience, compassion and meditation, heeding the call of God. Of course there is a physical aspect to fasting; many would attest that the shock treatment to their digestive system does in fact tone and strengthen it.

Like cars, our bodies need fuel to survive so that we can continue the combustion reaction of cellular respiration that is continually occurring in each and everyone of our cells. When the human body is deprived of food, there is a lack of added energy to the body. Therefore, the body must use its own resources in order to compensate for this energy. One of the functions of the liver is to store and supply a quick energy source for the rest of the body, when the energy supply from food is running low. It does this by converting its fat reserves into fatty acids for use in the entire body. Thus, fasting is a time when glucose running in the blood stream becomes low and fat starts to get burnt. Current studies show that a 12-hour window of fasting is imperative in order to switch from burning blood glucose to burning fat. Coincidentally, the shortest fast in the world in Argentina currently sits at just under 12 hours. In one study in mice, those that were deprived of food for 12 hours lost 5% of their body weight, while being fed the same diet as a non-fasting control group that did not encounter such consequences.

Want to stay healthy? Fasting may be the answer. Fasting detoxifies the body as all of the toxins in the fats that have accumulated in the body through excess glucose and carbohydrate consumption can be removed by fasting. In one study a fasting scientist even reported traces of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) in his urine while fasting, which indicated the removal of toxins. DDT is a cancer-causing agent (carcinogen) that tends to accumulate with fat. Thus, burning of the fat allows a medium to remove the fat-soluble toxins.

Fasting also diverts energy away from the digestive system and towards the immune system. This may be the reason why the first few days of being hit with the flu result in a smaller appetite. In one study it was found that fasting for as little as 3 days can “flip a regenerative switch” and allow the entire immune system to regenerate itself, by prompting stem cells to become activated. In fact, patients who were undergoing chemotherapy suffered fewer side effects while fasting.

Aside from detoxification and a revamping of your immune system, fasting plays a role in brain functioning. Putting your mind to work after a heavy meal is always a challenge but fasting can sharpen your wit in more ways than one. Neuroscientist Mark Mattson claims that fasting can prevent neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. This is because fasting improves neural connections in the hippocampus while protecting neurons against the accumulation of amyloid plaques, a protein present in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, fasting appears to have many benefits in the long run and can arguably increase a person’s lifespan. However, it is important to note that there is a fine line between fasting and starving. Fasting only metabolizes fats and carbohydrate stores, whereas starving mobilizes protein stores which can be quite detrimental.

In addition to brain benefits, fasting has proven to aid athletes. So, if you thought fasting was bad for your exercise routine, think again! Many athletes actually benefit from intermittent fasting as part of their regular workout routine. Interestingly, it has been shown that the human growth hormone (HGH) is released at a higher rate during fasting . This has great implications for athletes as elevated HGH increases muscle mass and makes recovery from a workout easier and faster. At the same time, increased nor-adrenalin from fasting will pump you up to train harder. For the fasting folk, strength training is a better option than cardio as it preserves muscle and the best time to workout is about an hour or later after you have consumed your meal.

Taking into account all of these health benefits, it should be noted that how one breaks the fast is crucial in determining the health outcome of the fast. If one indulges in a massive serving of sugar rich, oil laden food, then the whole day will be in vain. This is because the body will suffer a tremendous increase in blood sugar all at once and the digestive system needs some time to rev its engines and be in full force again. It is better to cut out carbohydrates and increase the uptake of protein and good fats such as eggs or olive oil. If one eats a balanced helping of food in controlled portions, then they will undoubtedly be in an optimal position to reap all the health benefits of fasting.

By Shameelah Patel

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.