New research shows Ramadan regenerates the body’s immune system
It also offers an Excellent Health and Weight Control Strategy
By Ahmed Motiar
On June 18, more than 1.5 billion Muslims around the world will begin to observe Ramadhan. For Muslims fasting is a religious obligation (al-Qur’an 2:183), it being the fourth pillar of Islam. Yet fasting is also an excellent “weight control” strategy. The key point is not “weight loss” but rather “weight control”. While those who fast admit they lose some weight during Ramadhan, few have actually considered its real medical merits, nor its significance as a “weight control” mechanism, nor its value as a “behavior modifier”, nor even its virtues to “fine tune and tone” the human body and its various systems. All these benefits, as well its spiritual advantages, were understood by the bygone Prophets.
1. The best-kept “medical” secret
Most Muslims see fasting as one of the duties made obligatory by Allah. While Muslims may speak about its health merits, there has not been much scientific examination of its many medical benefits. In recent years studies undertaken by scientists at the University of Southern California have discovered that it has some very important medical advantages in terms of regenerating the body’s immune system.
Valter Longo, professor of gerontology and the biological sciences at the University of Southern California found that fasting was able to regenerate one’s entire immune system. Fasting, he pointed out, is therefore beneficial for everyone but especially the elderly whose immune system degenerates with age.
Longo said, “When you starve (fast), the system tries to save energy, and one of the things it can do to save energy is to recycle a lot of the immune cells that are not needed, especially those that are old or damaged.” He pointed out that prolonged fasting forced the body to use stores of glucose, fat and ketones, but it also broke down a significant portion of white blood cells. Longo likened this effect to lightening a plane of excess cargo.
White blood cells are the workhorse cells of the immune system which defend the body against foreign invaders. In the bloodstream, there are about 600 red blood cells for every one white blood cell. Any reduction in white blood cells can therefore have a very detrimental impact on the body because they are very important to fight infection.
Longo and his research team made an interesting discovery. They found that as the prolonged fasting brought down the white blood cell count, the re-feeding “flipped a regenerative switch,” triggering a stem-cell based regeneration of new white blood cells. This comes about as prolonged fasting reduces the enzyme PKA. Longo explains that, “PKA is the key gene that needs to shut down in order for these stem cells to switch into regenerative mode to produce more white blood cells. It gives the OK for stem cells to go ahead and begin proliferating and rebuild the entire system.”
Longo adds that, “the good news is that the body is able to get rid of the parts of the system that might be damaged or old, the inefficient parts, during the fasting. He further points out that, “if you start with a system heavily damaged by chemotherapy or aging, fasting cycles can generate, literally, a new immune system.”
Longo candidly admits that he and his team could not predict that prolonged fasting would have such a remarkable effect in promoting stem cell-based regeneration which would virtually renew the immune system.
Armed with this new research outcomes, one may well ask if over-eating in the morning before the Muslim daily fast begins would not reduce, limit or possibly even negate the “starving” required to stimulate the regeneration of the immune system. I do not suppose a response to this question is necessary as the answer is imbedded in the question.
Since Allah is the designer of the human body, He knew that the best means of regenerating the human body was through fasting. How sad that we have not examined these wonderful medical benefits focusing primarily on its devotional merits.
2. The best-kept “diet” secret
The overwhelming opinion of those who go on diets is that they only work for a short time, but as soon as the dieter stops dieting the lost weight reappears; some dieters even exceed their previous weight. Fasting, enjoined by all the Prophets is not new, yet it seems that as a possible diet option, it is one of the best-kept secrets and no one seems to have explored its potential.
Most diets fail because they do not bring about a change in the dieter’s “physiological” condition, as the month-long fast does. Fasting helps one to alter one’s unhealthy over-eating habits and establish a moderate intake of food. The physiological change that facilitates moderate eating is the secret of fasting as a “weight control” mechanism. Although over a period of time the moderate eating habits developed during Ramadhan usually get somewhat eroded, the fasting month returns after 11 months to re-establish the good habits. However, it is possible to sustain the physiological change which ensures “weight control” by reinforcing the habit of moderation by also fasting at other times during the year, which the Prophet did regularly.
3. Fasting as a means to fine-tune our bodies
We often overlook the fact that fasting is Allah’s prescription for humans to fine-tune their bodies, especially the digestive system. All body systems or parts need rest. Sleep is one way for some organs to achieve this. The heart and the digestive system achieve their rest by either “slowing the system” or “reversing” the operation somewhat similar to a “reverse flush” that is done to clean radiator pipes in a vehicle. Standing on one’s head provides a good means of rest for the heart because it reverses the pull of gravity against the normal flow of blood, just as putting down one’s arms does when one is painting a ceiling. For the digestive system, “fasting” offers the best rest. It is a welcome respite from frequent meals, snacks and drinks. This “rest” gives the digestive system the opportunity to clean and rejuvenate itself and thereby make it more efficient, just as a farmer leaves a field fallow or uncultivated for a year so that they provide better and more abundant crops the following year.
4. Fasting as a means of Spiritual cleansing
Fasting, as prescribed in Islam, also requires spiritual cleansing, which at the practical level is reflected in modifying behavior to meet higher ideals. Fasting without worship and contemplation achieves little merit in Islam. The Prophet himself reminded that, “A keeper of the fast who does not abandon lying and evil ways, Allah cares not about his [or her] leaving off eating and drinking.”
Fasting is probably the best way for one to get to feel the pangs of the hungry family. Creating empathy for the destitute is Islam’s way of stirring our conscience to become actively involved in addressing the needs of the most unfortunate and most marginalised in society.
At a higher spiritual level, fasting in Islam is seen as an armour against evil. Those who are able to renounce lawful satisfaction of desires in obedience to Allah’s command are more able to renounce unlawful gratifications. Just as physical exercise strengthens the body, so mental, spiritual, ethical and moral exercise through fasting builds willpower to conquer physical appetites and abstain from what is wicked and wrong. The strength built during Ramadhan is only the beginning of the journey towards getting closer to God by becoming a better human being through empathy with and concern for one’s fellow human beings. We are reminded of this when our Prophet said: “If you love your Creator, then love your fellow-beings first.” May Allah help us all to progress along this journey not only in the month of Ramadhan but throughout our lives.