Fasting and its health implications

Pharmanews Editor
Yusuff Moshood

For most people who engage in fasting, especially Muslims and Christians, it is a spiritual exercise. I have never been a fan of fasting and I rarely fast, except in the Islamic month of Ramadan, when all Muslims are obliged to fast. I have always managed to consistently observe this obligatory Islamic fasting since my childhood. However, if not for religious obligations, I would most likely not engage in fasting.

Nevertheless, over the years, I have come to realise that fasting has health effects and I had an experience that further reinforced it. Early in the month of August last year, I was having a heartburn and stomach pain. I waited for about two days for natural healing process to take place but when the problem persisted, I went to see my doctor. After some evaluation, the doctor told me I had ulcer. I was taken aback because even though I knew ulcer was an infection that could be caused by a number of factors, I had always erroneously assumed I could avoid it because I ate properly and early enough.

The doctor went on to explain other factors, aside inappropriate eating habits, that could be responsible for the ulcer. He also pointed out that the fact that I had just ended the 30 days Muslim fasting could have precipitated the condition in me. He prescribed some medications and also counselled me on things to do and things to avoid.

After leaving the hospital, the incident aroused my interest to the health effects of fasting which made me to do some research.I found out that fasting has both positive and negative effects on health, depending on how it’s done.According to experts, if done moderately, say for a number of hours, fasting can enable the body to burn fat cells more effectively than just regular dieting, thus helping those who need to reduce their weight or fight obesity.

Fasting is also said to help regulate and provide the digestive system some rest, as well as promoting healthy bowel function and improving metabolic processes.Fasting, experts say, is also helpful for those who have binge eating disorders and cannot establish correct eating pattern due to work or other commitments as they are able to feel real hunger and have appetite to eat.

Also, according to an article published by researchers in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, fasting is also helpful in improving the immune system because it reduces free radical damage, regulates inflammatory conditions in the body and starves cancer cell formation. The researchers noted that ‘intermittent fasting’ could help fight, not just obesity but many related diseases of modern life, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

It must however be emphasised that there are some health complications that can also arise from fasting, especially when done inappropriately. Aside heartburn and ulcer, doctors have also said that fasting can equally cause poor control of some health conditions(e.g., diabetes) as it can cause low blood sugar levels, which is dangerous. Also, dehydration which is common during fasting, sometimes also results in headaches.

What is important, perhaps, is that discussing with a physician maybe necessary before engaging in lengthy fasting, as proper counseling by healthcare givers can help ensure that the person observing the fast is able to get the health benefits of fasting even, if it is for spiritual purpose, while avoiding possible health complications.