The Benefits of Fasting
The original meaning sawm is to be at rest. We give rest to the gastro-intestinal tract, the sexual organs, the tongue, the eyes and ears, etc. The transit time for a bolus of food from the mouth to the end of the large intestine, called colon, is about 14 hours. This is the period - of 14 hours - during which we fast and withhold any stimulus, reaching the stomach and the digestive system.
In fact, fasting is an additional safety device for the regenerative processes of the body. The repair processes of the body and the brain, including the memory molecules take place when the body is at rest, especially during the stage of deep sleep. Sleeping during Ramadan is much deeper than in other times. Two hours of sleep during Ramadan are more satisfying and refreshing than more hours of sleep otherwise.
Fasting significantly increases deep sleep and reduces the dreaming time, which takes place during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. Therefore, it is more beneficial for the elderly to fast because their normal hours of deep sleep in the non-fasted state are much less.
Fasting is a divine prescription, because Allah Himself prescribed it in the Qur’an. Because the Islamic fast does not exceed 14 hours or so, the normal steady state of the body is maintained as a result of coordinated physiological mechanisms. Hence, nearly all the biochemical results in the laboratory are normal.
During fasting, serum magnesium is increased and…
• Magnesium has cardio-protective effects and it is being used in prevention and treatment of heart attacks.
• It has anti-platelet properties and prevents extension of the clot.
• It is a membrane stabilizer acting on the sodium/potassium/calcium flux at the membrane level. Hence, it prevents cardiac and cerebral dysrhythmias.
• Fasting, through the beneficial effects of magnesium, prevents the formation of atheroma as well as dissolves atheromatous plaques which are responsible for heart attacks and strokes. Hence, fasting takes an active part in the rejuvenating processes of the body through many channels.
• It increases the fibrinolytic activity of the blood, which leads to prevention and also dissolution of any recent clot.
Ramadan puts a healthy mind into a healthy body. During fasting, there is increased secretion of the growth hormone by the pituitary gland. It is an anabolic hormone for synthesis of proteins and collagen, which produces a positive nitrogen balance. It also stimulates erythropoiesis, as well as collagen synthesis.
During the exercise of fasting, prayers and different spiritual experiences of Ramadan, certain endogenous substances are released by the brain and spinal cord into the body called opioids, which include enkephalins and endorphins. These are responsible for euphoria, tranquility and serenity during such periods.
Endorphins and enkephalins are natural painkillers. Endorphins may be responsible for the "feel nice" effects, experienced by many people after rigorous exercise. Endorphins and enkephalins are derived from beta-lipotropin. On release, it is cleaved to form three major active products: called met-enkephalin, gamma-endorphin, and beta-endorphin.
Beta-endorphin is most active, and is about 20 times as potent as morphine. In addition to their painkilling properties, the narcotic analgesics cause a profound feeling of well-being (euphoria). It is this feeling that is in part responsible for the psychological drive of certain persons who are fasting. Other mechanisms reduce pain sensation by blocking the transmission of pain message to the brain.
To alter the pain sensation, the brain and spinal cord release specialized neurotransmitters called endorphins and enkephalins. These chemicals interfere with pain impulse transmission by occupying the nerve cell receptors, required to send the impulse across the synapse. By making the pain impulse travel less efficiently, endorphins and enkephalins can significantly lessen the perception of pain. In extreme circumstances, they can even make severe injuries nearly painless.
If an athlete is injured during the height of competition, or a soldier injured during a fight, or persons who are fasting, they may not realize they have been hurt, until after the stressful situation has ended! This happens because the brain produces abnormally high levels of endorphins or enkephalins, in periods of intense stress, excitement or fasting.
Fasting and bio-rhythm
Muslims who have been fasting regularly since childhood have been exposed to different sleep/wake and light/darkness cycles on a daily basis in one annual lunar month. Hence, it may be easier for such persons to synchronize at a faster rate their circadian, circa-lunar and circa-annual bio-rhythms, under difficult conditions.
Therefore, it is expected that Muslims who fast regularly would least suffer from jet lag while traveling in a plane from West to East and that health problems in Muslim shift-workers would be minimal. In fact, the central circadian biological clock is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus. It is a cluster of about 10,000 neurons on either side of the mid line, above the optic chiasma about 3 cm behind the eye.
Re-setting proceeds at the rate of 1-2 hours/day to adapt to a reversed shift pattern. There are widespread individual variations in the rapidity of resynchronization. Muslims who fast regularly and who have had disturbed wakefulness/sleep cycles on a daily lunar annual basis, can adapt themselves much faster to different conditions during international travel. This is while crossing time zones and do not suffer from the ill effects of jet lag.
It is also a common observation that as soon as Ramadan is over, normal circadian rhythms are established within the fasted Muslim, with such great rapidity on the first day of the following month of Shawal. This means that `Eid-al-Fitr (Minor Feast) is to be at par with pre-Ramadan levels.
Normally, a period of three weeks is required for resynchronization, among shift workers. As the fasting Muslim attunes himself to resynchronization processes, during the space of just over four weeks in Ramadan, his health problems - as a shift worker - would be negligible. His synchronization processes would be more rapid, whether during Ramadan or any other time.
The Benefits of Long Night Prayers
Moreover, the social contact during tarawih or qiyam (long night prayers) and other social spiritual activities should act as a zeitgeber (from German ‘time-giver’). This is what regulates any desynchronized biological rhythm.
Throughout the year, the average Muslim performs his 5-time daily obligatory prayers, as well as the optional ones. This amounts to gentle physical exercise, involving each and every muscle in the body. During the month of fasting, additional prayers of 8-20 rak`as (physical unit of prayer) are also performed at nights. Approximately, 200 kcals. are utilized during qiyam for the 20 rak`as.
Such additional exercise utilizes any extra calories, ingested at iftar (meal for breaking the fast) approximately 1-2 hours earlier. Simultaneously, the blood glucose is steadily rising in the blood from the ingested nutrients; the circulating glucose is oxidized to CO2 and H20 during the prayers.
The physical movements during qiyam prayers improve flexibility, co-ordination and relaxation response. It also reduces stress-related autonomic responses in normal persons and relieves anxiety and depression. Adrenaline and noradrenalin are secreted during the physical exercise of qiyam. They are responsible for the consequent dynamism, which now combines with the tranquility and the serenity, due to the secretion of enkephalins, endorphins, dynorphins and others.
This makes the night prayers unique in the sense that dynamism is combined in the same individual with serenity, euphoria and dignity. The effects of adrenaline and noradrenaline are apparent, even after long night prayers is over, as evidenced by the continuing activity. In fact, even the thought or intention of performing qiyam prayers is sufficient to activate the sympathetic nervous system. Persons who fast and perform qiyam report feeling much better and healthier.
Repeated and regular movements of the body during prayers improve muscle tone and power, tendon strength, joint flexibility and the cardio-vascular reserve. The body movements help to prevent osteoporosis in the osteoporotic bones of elderly men and post-menopausal women.
The strain put on the forearm, during prostration in lifting the body from the ground, increases the bone mineral content of the forearm. The varying load during the different postures causes a lubricating effect and a protective flow of synovial fluid into the joint cavity. The reinforcement of the calf muscle pump by active ankle movements prevents deep vein thrombosis, which is a common cause of chronic ulcers of the legs in the elderly.
Exercise prevents coronary heart disease, improves carbohydrate tolerance and ameliorates late-onset type 2 diabetes. Growth hormone secretion elevated by fasting is further elevated by exercise of long night prayers. As this hormone is necessary for collagen formation, this may be an important factor in the long delay of the wrinkling of skin for the fasting Muslim who performs qiyam prayers.
Exercise of qiyam improves mood, thought and behavior. Memory for short-term events deteriorates with old age. Prayers improve memory in the elderly, for short-term events, by keeping the memory pathways in the brain open and communicating with each other, especially with constant repetition of the verses from the holy Qur’an and other supplications of Allah’s glory. This also helps to screen the mind from other incoming thoughts.
The repetition of a prayer, supplications of glorification, dhikr (words glorifying Allah) or muscular activity, coupled with passive disregard of intrusive thoughts, causes a relaxation response, leading to lowering of B.P. and decrease in oxygen consumption, as well as a reduction in the heart and respiratory rates.
All these are combined in qiyam prayers, which is an ideal situation for relaxation response, as it combines repeated muscular activity with repetition of words of glorification of Allah and supplications. Thus qiyam puts the mind at ease. Islamic prayers are unique in that tension builds up in the muscles, during the physical movements of prayers, with accompanying adrenaline and noradrenalin. Simultaneously, tension is relieved in the mind due to the spiritual component, assisted by the secretion of enkephalins, endorphins, dynorphins and others.
All those persons who perform qiyam prayers feel more alert and active, even after the age of retirement. They can meet with unexpected challenges of life much better, such as running for a bus! This improves their stamina, self-esteem and self-confidence in being independent.