Fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan represents one of the five pillars of Islam.
More than 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide are practising fasting during this month, but with the threat of Covid-19 still lurking in the background, we are reminded that these are not normal times. To reduce the risk of developing Covid-19, adults are advised to drink plenty of fluids and eat a balanced diet.
These are part of the list of protective measures laid out by the World Health Organization (WHO). Of course, this is solid advice, but Muslims may misinterpret this as a reason to stop fasting during Ramadan. Muslims are exempted from fasting if their health status puts them at risk, as this practice is only required of healthy adult Muslims who can carry out fasting without risky health consequences.
The measures laid out by the WHO can only mitigate the symptoms of Covid-19, not eliminate the risk of infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease.
Aside from religious and spiritual purposes, many patterns of intermittent fasting are practised worldwide for general wellness. Indeed, some have been found to have benefits such as strengthening the immune system, improving insulin sensitivity and aiding weight loss. Let’s take a closer look at some of the benefits of fasting.
Recent studies have shown that periodic fasting and time-restricted refeeding can make the immune system stronger. Understanding the link between nutrients and fasting benefits can lead to the identification of fasting-mimicking diets that achieve changes similar to those caused by fasting.
Cycles of fasting and refeeding have been shown to modulate gut microbiota, ameliorate pathologies in various mouse autoimmunity models, and promote T cell-dependent killing of cancer cells. Interestingly, this intermittent fasting was practised by Prophet Mohammed about 1,500 years ago.
Multiple health benefits
Despite fasting being quite a common practice, even beyond Ramadan and the Muslim community, it has a reputation of being bad for health. However, the opposite is true.
Fasting can have major benefits for metabolic health, such as improved insulin sensitivity and reduced risk of heart diseases; inflammation; and oxidative stress. It changes human gene expression related to longevity and immunity, and has been shown to prolong lifespan in animals.
You might also boost your brain health by elevating the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor – a hormone that may protect against depression and other mental conditions.
Aside from improving metabolic health, intermittent fasting is also an effective tool for weight loss. In fact, intermittent fasting might be just as effective for weight loss as traditional calorie restriction, if not more, according to several studies.
A recent review found that for very overweight and obese people, intermittent fasting might produce better weight-loss results than very-low-calorie diets. In another review, it was found that intermittent fasting could help people lose an impressive 3-8% of their body weight in three to 24 weeks.
Deaths due to respiratory diseases are largely a result of sustained uncontrolled inflammatory infiltrates, antibody-dependent enhancement and excessive cytokine production, which eventually lead to lung tissue damage.
This includes Covid-19.
The practice of daily intermittent fasting during Ramadan has a positive effect on the overall inflammatory status of the human body and tends to decrease such pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines. Thus, fasting during this pandemic should not be viewed as harmful or increasing your risk of getting infected.
However, it should be noted that the beneficial effects of intermittent fasting on immunity during Ramadan might be reduced by the changes in sleep patterns. Several studies showed that total sleep time at night significantly decreased by about one hour during Ramadan, while daytime sleepiness increased. Partial sleep deprivation is associated with increased susceptibility to viral infections.
It impairs immune function, decreases cytokine release, and reduces the number of infection-fighting antibodies and cells. So do ensure that you get to bed earlier and get enough sleep. It’s also important to remember that the month of Ramadan is a time when people may gather more frequently, e.g. for sahur, prayers, to break fast and to spend time with family.
These are typical activities carried out during this blessed month; however, as these are not normal times, we have to be prudent about them. Those of us with young children or senior adults living with us have to be extra careful to avoid getting infected. In addition, do continue with physical distancing and proper sanitising practices.
Have a blessed Ramadan.
By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar
Published in Star Newspaper, 03 May 2021