Monday, July 8, 2013
There has been much contention in the scientific field about whether or not fasting is beneficial to one's health. Fasting is an integral part of many of the major religions including Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Many are dubious as to whether the physiological effects are as beneficial as the spiritual promoted by these religions. There is a significant community of alternative healers who believe that fasting can do wonders for the human body. This paper will look at the arguments presented by these healers in an attempt to raise awareness of the possible physiological benefits that may result from fasting.
Fasting technically commences within the first twelve to twenty-four hours of the fast. A fast does not chemically begin until the carbohydrate stores in the body begin to be used as an energy source. The fast will continue as long as fat and carbohydrate stores are used for energy, as opposed to protein stores. Once protein stores begin to be depleted for energy (resulting in loss of muscle mass) a person is technically starving. (1)
The benefits of fasting must be preceded by a look at the body's progression when deprived of food. Due to the lack of incoming energy, the body must turn to its own resources, a function called autolysis. (2) Autolysis is the breaking down of fat stores in the body in order to produce energy. The liver is in charge of converting the fats into a chemical called a ketone body, "the metabolic substances acetoacetic acid and beta-hydroxybutyric acid" (3), and then distributing these bodies throughout the body via the blood stream. "When this fat utilization occurs, free fatty acids are released into the blood stream and are used by the liver for energy." (3) The less one eats, the more the body turns to these stored fats and creates these ketone bodies, the accumulation of which is referred to as ketosis. (4)
Detoxification is the foremost argument presented by advocates of fasting. "Detoxification is a normal body process of eliminating or neutralizing toxins through the colon, liver, kidneys, lungs, lymph glands, and skin." (5). This process is precipitated by fasting because when food is no longer entering the body, the body turns to fat reserves for energy. "Human fat is valued at 3,500 calories per pound," a number that would lead one to believe that surviving on one pound of fat every day would provide a body with enough energy to function normally. (2) These fat reserves were created when excess glucose and carbohydrates were not used for energy or growth, not excreted, and therefore converted into fat. When the fat reserves are used for energy during a fast, it releases the chemicals from the fatty acids into the system which are then eliminated through the aforementioned organs. Chemicals not found in food but absorbed from one's environment, such as DDT, are also stored in fat reserves that may be released during a fast. One fasting advocate tested his own urine, feces and sweat during an extended fast and found traces of DDT in each. (5)
A second prescribed benefit of fasting is the healing process that begins in the body during a fast. During a fast energy is diverted away from the digestive system due to its lack of use and towards the metabolism and immune system. (6) The healing process during a fast is precipitated by the body's search for energy sources. Abnormal growths within the body, tumors and the like, do not have the full support of the body's supplies and therefore are more susceptible to autolysis. Furthermore, "production of protein for replacement of damaged cells (protein synthesis) occurs more efficiently because fewer 'mistakes' are made by the DNA/RNA genetic controls which govern this process." A higher efficiency in protein synthesis results in healthier cells, tissues and organs. (7) This is one reason that animals stop eating when they are wounded, and why humans lose hunger during influenza. Hunger has been proven absent in illnesses such as gastritis, tonsillitis and colds. (2) Therefore, when one is fasting, the person is consciously diverting energy from the digestive system to the immune system.
In addition, there is a reduction in core body temperature. This is a direct result of the slower metabolic rate and general bodily functions. Following a drop in blood sugar level and using the reserves of glucose found in liver glycogen, the basal metabolic rate (BMR) is reduced in order to conserve as much energy within the body as can be provided. (2) Growth hormones are also released during a fast, due to the greater efficiency in hormone production. (7)
Finally, the most scientifically proven advantage to fasting is the feeling of rejuvenation and extended life expectancy. Part of this phenomenon is caused by a number of the benefits mentioned above. A slower metabolic rate, more efficient protein production, an improved immune system, and the increased production of hormones contributes to this long-term benefit of fasting. In addition to the Human Growth Hormone that is released more frequently during a fast, an anti-aging hormone is also produced more efficiently. (7) "The only reliable way to extend the lifespan of a mammal is under-nutrition without malnutrition."(5) A study was performed on earthworms that demonstrated the extension of life due to fasting. The experiment was performed in the 1930s by isolating one worm and putting it on a cycle of fasting and feeding. The isolated worm outlasted its relatives by 19 generations, while still maintaining its youthful physiological traits. The worm was able to survive on its own tissue for months. Once the size of the worm began to decrease, the scientists would resume feeding it at which point it showed great vigor and energy. "The life-span extension of these worms was the equivalent of keeping a man alive for 600 to 700 years." (8)
In conclusion, it seems that there are many reasons to consider fasting as a benefit to one's health. The body rids itself of the toxins that have built up in our fat stores throughout the years. The body heals itself, repairs all the damaged organs during a fast. And finally there is good evidence to show that regulated fasting contributes to longer life. However, many doctors warn against fasting for extended periods of time without supervision. There are still many doctors today who deny all of these points and claim that fasting is detrimental to one's health and have evidence to back their statements. The idea of depriving a body of what society has come to view as so essential to our survival in order to heal continues to be a topic of controversy.
As it turns out, Ramadan is not simply an exercise in fasting during the day, binge-eating during the night and setting the clock to the morning's wee hours for those inclined to rise for the predawn meal. Neither is it about irate drivers who feel entitled to exhibit road rage, lacklustre employees who see the month as an excuse to slack off and overworked women slaving over a stove every day in preparation for the sunset meal. Ramadan is none of those things, if done right, and instead, is the chance for a spiritual boost, with lessons to be applied long after the month is out.
Ramadan is a period of fasting, reflection, devotion, generosity and sacrifice observed by Muslims around the world. While major holidays of other faiths have largely become commercialized events, Ramadan retains its intense spiritual meaning.
The word "Ramadan" comes from the Arabic root word for "parched thirst" and "sun-baked ground." It is expressive of the hunger and thirst felt by those who spend the month in fasting. As opposed to other holidays, when people often indulge, Ramadan is by nature a time of sacrifice.
- Through fasting, a Muslim experiences hunger and thirst, and sympathizes with those in the world who have little to eat every day.
- Through increased devotion, Muslims feel closer to their Creator, and recognize that everything we have in this life is a blessing from Him.
- Through increased charity, Muslims develop feelings of generosity and good-will toward others. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once said, "A man's wealth is never diminished by charity."
- Through self-control, a Muslim practices good manners, good speech, and good habits.
- Through changing routines, Muslims have a chance to establish more healthy lifestyle habits -- particularly with regards to diet and smoking.
- Through family and community gatherings, Muslims strengthen the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood, in their own communities and throughout the world.
Ramadan is a very special time for Muslims, but the feelings and lessons we experience should stay with us throughout the year. In the Qur'an, Muslims are commanded to fast so that they may "learn self-restraint" (Qur'an 2:183). This restraint and devotion is especially felt during Ramadan, but we all must strive to make the feelings and attitudes stay with us during our "normal" lives. That is the true goal and test of Ramadan.
May Allah accept our fasting, forgive our sins, and guide us all to the Straight Path. May Allah bless us all during Ramadan, and throughout the year, with His forgiveness, mercy, and peace, and bring us all closer to Him and to each other.
When Islam introduced this matchless institution, it planted an ever-growing tree of infinite virtue and invaluable products. Here is an explanation of the spiritual meaning of the Islamic Fasting:
- It teaches man the principle of sincere Love: because when he observes Fasting he does it out of deep love for God. And the man who loves God truly is a man who really knows what love is.
- It equips man with a creative sense of hope and an optimistic outlook on life; because when he fasts he is hoping to please God and is seeking His Grace.
- It imbues in man the genuine virtue of effective devotion, honest dedication and closeness to God; because when he fasts he does so for God and for His sake alone.
- It cultivates in man a vigilant and sound conscience; because the fasting person keeps his fast in secret as well as in public. In fasting, especially, there is no mundane authority to check man's behavior or compel him to observe fasting. He keeps it to please God and satisfy his own conscience by being faithful in secret and in public. There is no better way to cultivate a sound conscience in man.
- It indoctrinates man in patience and selflessness, as through fasting, he feels the pains of deprivation but he endures them patiently.
- It is an effective lesson in applied moderation and willpower.
- Fasting also provides man with a transparent soul, a clear mind and a light body.
- It shows man a new way of wise savings and sound budgeting.
- It enables man to master the art of Mature Adaptability. We can easily understand the point once we realize that fasting makes man change the entire course of his daily life.
- It grounds man in discipline and healthy survival.
- It originates in man the real spirit of social belonging, unity and brotherhood, of equality before God as well as before the law.
- It is a Godly prescription for self-reassurance and self-control.
Now, someone may be tempted to raise the objection: If this is the case with the Islamic institution of fasting, and if this is the picture of Islam in this aspect, why are the Muslims not living in a utopia? To such an objection we can only say that Muslims have lived in and enjoyed a utopia in a certain epoch of their history. The realization of that utopia was a phenomenon of a unique achievement in the history of man. We say unique, because no religion or social system other than Islam has ever been able to realize its ideals in reality.
The reason why the Islamic utopia is not being established nowadays is manifold and easily explicable. But to restrict our discussion to the institution of fasting we may say that some Muslims, unfortunately for them, do not observe the fast or, at best, adopt the attitude of indifference. On the other hand, some of those who observe it do not realize its true meaning and, as a result, derive very little benefit out of it or, in fact, no benefit at all. That is why some Muslims today, do not enjoy the real privileges of fasting.
It has already been indicated that the period of obligatory fasting is the month of Ramadan. The daily period of observance starts before the break of the dawn and ends immediately after sunset. Normally there are accurate calendars to toll the exact time, but in the absence of such facilities one should consult one's watch and the sun's positions, together with the local newspapers, weather bureau, etc.
Fasting Ramadan is obligatory on every responsible and fit Muslim. But there are other times when it is recommended to make voluntary fasting, after the Traditions of Prophet Muhammad. Among these times are Mondays and Thursdays of every week, a few days of each month in the two months heralding the coming of Ramadan, i.e., Rajab and Sha'ban, six days after Ramadan following the 'Eid-ul-Fitr Day. Besides, it is always compensating to fast any day of any month of the year, except the 'Eid Days and Fridays when no Muslim should fast.
However, we may repeat that the only obligatory fasting is that of Ramadan - which may be 29 or 30 days, depending on the moon's positions. This is a pillar of Islam, and any failure to observe it without reasonable excuses is a grave sin in the sight of God.
Who Must Fast?
Fasting Ramadan is compulsory upon every Muslim, male or female, who has these qualifications:
- To be mentally and physically fit, which means to be sane and able.
- To be of full age, the age of puberty and discretion, which is normally about fourteen. Children under this age should be encouraged to start this good practice on easy levels, so when they reach the age of puberty they will be mentally and physically prepared to observe fasting.
- To be present at one's permanent settlement, your home town, one's farm, and one's business premises, etc. This means not to be on a journey of about fifty miles or more.
- To be fairly certain that fasting is unlikely to cause you any harm, physical or mental, other than the normal reactions to hunger, thirst, etc.
Exemption From Fasting:
These said qualifications exclude the following categories:
- Children under the age of puberty and discretion.
- Insane people who are unaccountable for their deeds. People of these two categories are exempted from the duty of fist, and no compensation or any other substitute is enjoined on them.
- Men and women who are too old and feeble to undertake the obligation of fast and bear its hardships. Such people are exempted from this duty, but they must offer, at least, one needy poor Muslim an average full meal or its value per person per day.
- Sick people whose health is likely to be severely affected by the observance of fast. They may postpone the fast, as long as they are sick, to a later date and make up for it, a day for a day.
- Travelers may break the fast temporarily during their travel only and make up for it in later days, a day for a day
- Pregnant women and women breast-feeding their children may also break the fast, if its observance is likely to endanger their own health or that of their infants. But they must make up for the fast at a delayed time, a day for a day.
- Women in the -period of menstruation (of a maximum of ten days or of confinement (of a maximum of forty days).; They must postpone the fast till recovery and then make up for it, a day for a day.
It should be understood that here, like in all other Islamic undertakings, the intention must be made clear that this action is undertaken in obedience to God, in response to His command and out of love of Him.
The fast of any day of Ramadan becomes void by intentional eating or drinking or smoking or indulgence in any intimate intercourse, and by allowing anything to enter through the mouth into the interior parts of the body. And if this is done deliberately without any lawful reason, this is a major sin which only renewed repentance can expiate.
If anyone, through forgetfulness, does something that would ordinarily break the fast, 0a observance is not nullified, and his fast stands valid, provided he stops doing that thing the moment he realizes what he is doing.
On completion of the fast of Ramadan, the special charity known as Sadagat-ul-Fitr (charity of ' Fast-breaking) must be distributed before 'Eid-ul-Fitr (approximately), seven dollars per head.
It is strongly recommended by Prophet Muhammad to observe these practices especially during Ramadan:
- To have a light meal before the break of the dawn, known as Suhoor.
- To eat a few dates or start breaking the fast by plain water right after sunset, saying this prayer Allah humma laka sumna, wa 'ala rizqika aftarna. (O God! for Your sake have we fasted and now we break the fast with the food You have given us).
- To make your meals as light as possible because, as the Prophet put it, the worst thing man can fill is his stomach.
- To observe the supererogatory prayer known as Taraweeh.
- To exchange social visits and intensify humanitarian services.
- To increase the study and recitation of the Qur'an.
- To exert the utmost in patience and humbleness.
- To be extraordinarily cautious in using one's senses, one's mind and, especially, the tongue; to abstain from careless gossip and avoid all suspicious motions.
Dr. Arafat El-Ashi (Director)
Muslim World League Canada Office
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