O you who believe fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you so that you can learn Taqwa (guard from evil, or be God-conscious) (Quran 2:183)
Fasting is not completely accurate translation for the Arabic word, Sawm.
“Fasting” during the month of Ramadan (and at other times) is much more than avoidance of food and drinks. The literal meaning of sawm includes abstinence, which is closer to the essence of fasting. This entails abstinence from food and drinks, sex, seeing the evil, doing the evil, hearing the evil and so on. Ramadan is a time for seeking closeness to God. It is about self- control and incorporates behavioral modification- avoiding anger, feeling empathy for others, practicing self-restraint and so on. It involves purification of the body, the mind and the spirit.
The focus of our health care system is mainly on the physical health. Very little attention is paid to the mental health, and the spiritual health gets almost no attention. So, when we talk about health benefits of fasting, we should include all three components of our health — the physical, mental and spiritual health.
Ramadan fasting entails strengthening of all three aspects of our health. Muslims strive for spiritual purity during the entire month to seek God’s pleasure, engage in repentance, charity and good works such as feeding the hungry, helping the needy and so on. The donations to charitable organizations are the highest during the month of Ramadan.However, the focus of this article is on the medical (physical) benefits of fasting. Of course, fasting is not for everyone, and there are exceptions for physical and mental illnesses, disabilities, pregnancy, nursing and other reasons.
It is worth noting that the verse quoted above says, “fasting is prescribed to you…” This prescription implies there is a recipe for our health — physical health probably being the least important, but nonetheless a benefit.
Although there is not an abundance of high quality research on fasting in humans, a growing number of animal studies show significant health benefits. The human research is mostly done on people who were doing secular fasting, not religious fasting. Most human fasting studies are small and have lacked standardization, and their conclusion is typically “more conclusive studies are needed.” Their focus is almost entirely on medical benefits. Some studies have studied mental health benefits such as anxiety, depression and overall well-being and found positive results.
In recent years, several studies have found that intermittent fasting, meaning abstaining or reducing food and drink intake periodically (and Ramadan fasting would fall in this category), has several health benefits. I will avoid an academic review and would rather focus on nine key points of these studies, which highlights the benefits of fasting. At the end, I will list tips for healthy Ramadan fasting and for anyone looking to fast throughout the year.
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