Fasting has been known to man and beast since the beginning of time. The best single human known for fasting in our times is Mahatma Gandhi, who attests: “Fasting is an institution as old as Adam.”
Long before established religion, pre-historic man as well as animals instinctively refrained from eating when sick, thereby cleansing the system from poisonous toxins. It was their first method of cure. Early man also fasted to appease the gods, to seek penance or to mourn the dead.
During the fasting period, cells are under a mild stress. Although stress has a negative nuance — taxing the body and mind has benefits. Consider vigorous exercise, which stresses particular muscles and the cardiovascular system. As long as you give your body time to recover, it will grow stronger.
The health benefits of fasting, despite the large body of evidence through the centuries, was lost to science, but not to religion.
Almost all religions were quick to adapt fasting of one kind or another, as a form of penance, and a spiritual healing power or purification.
Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during the holy month of Ramadan. Abstaining from food and drink and all worldly pleasures is not enough. Abstaining from all evils, falsehoods and indecency is essential, thus inspiring patience, tolerance, and brotherhood. Islam also adds that “fasting was prescribed for those who came before them,” meaning Jews and Christians.
Philosophers resorted to fasting as a healing process. Even to this day, physicians require fasting before surgery and for good reason. Surgery uses anesthesia; fasting avoids the possibility of regurgitating food products and aspirating, which would be fatal.
Science, of late, has come to recognise the health benefits of fasting, already known to mankind for millennia. It is almost the fad among scientific researchers to incorporate fasting in your lifestyle, particularly intermittent fasting, which is becoming extremely popular in academic circles.
Intermittent fasting is simply to refrain from eating from 16 to 24 hours, a process which provides psychological as well as physiological benefits. The hypothesis being that during the fasting period cells “improve bio-markers of disease, reduce oxidative stress and preserve learning and memory functioning” says Mark Mattison, senior investigator for the National Institute on Aging. Mattison also found that intermittent was as effective as continuous restrictions for improving weight loss, insulin sensitivity, and other health bio-markers.
Suddenly all this knowledge, focus, research, when it is right there, staring at them.
Ramadan fasting is exactly what intermittent fasting is all about. Where has Mattison and Co been all these years?
The study of fasting seriously began in the 1930s when Clive McCay, chemist and gerontologist at Cornell University, published a paper showing that “restricting calories fed to rats in a laboratory, without producing malnutrition, led to a longer life span.” Hallelujah. Is that not all we crave?
We spend fortunes on make-up, surgeries, gyms, machines, and race-tracks when a good part of it could be saved by restricting our calorie intake and fasting intermittently.
That was known scientifically, at least for rats, more than half a century ago, while science was pre-occupied with diabetes, cancer, cardio-vascular diseases, and the result they offer us? Nil. Most deaths are caused by those same diseases, so earnestly researched, while McCay’s study languished in some academic institution.
It was picked up for a spell then abandoned again until Japanese cell biologist Yoshimori Oksuni took up the subject seriously and came up with a groundbreaking discovery that earned him a Nobel Prize in medicine in 2016.
Oksuni supported McCay’s theory but enhanced it for humans. His studies in yeast cells illuminated how cells break down and re-cycle damaged material, a process that is critical to the survival of both normal cells and even some cancer cells. He created autophagy.
Auto is self, phagy is eat. The literal meaning of autophagy is self-eating, also self-devouring.
How many scientists and researchers have picked up the study since? Many, to say the least. They all define, explain, describe, and analyse what Nobel Laureate Ohshuni already explained.
The purpose of autophagy is to remove debris and self-regulate cells back to optimal smooth function. Each researcher in their words explains the process, and we say too late. This should have been done eons ago by our predecessors, at least out of curiosity to observe the pros and cons of fasting.
Fasting is neither malnutrition nor starvation.
Mice that were not fed for three days withered and died. Those that fasted for two days and compensated the calories by overeating proved counter-productive.
To improve health the goal should be to lose weight by reducing the total amount of calories consumed. Excess weight causes disease. To lose weight, the focus should be the total amount of calories consumed, rather than focusing on when those calories are consumed.
Supposing that you fast for two days, limit what you eat the other five days, only then will you experience weight loss.
Now that science has finally caught up with researching the right subject, future research should endeavour to integrate balanced nutritionist strategies, to prevent, postpone, or treat chronic diseases associated with ageing.
Said Brad Hilon, author of the book Eat, Don’t Eat: “Intermittent fasting is becoming extremely popular.”
To which we say: It always has been. Try fasting the holy month of Ramadan.
It offers all the benefits man has always known and science has just discovered.
Resist the temptation to indulge.
“It is the truest prayer used for self-purification.”
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.