Health benefits of intermittent fasting

Ramadan quran
Although Muslims fast for religious purposes, from a physiological standpoint it can be considered as intermittent fasting. (Photo: Envato Elements)
Practitioners of Islam consider the lunar month of Ramadan to be holy. Ramadan lasts 29 or 30 days, depending on the sighting of the moon, and during this time Muslims fast. They go without food and water from dawn to sunset, with fasting in the Middle Eastern region typically lasting 14-15 hours. Generally speaking, this can be described as intermittent fasting, and it is associated with many health benefits.اضافة اعلان

What is intermittent fasting?

Intermittent fasting is an eating plan by which you go through periods of not eating in order to reap certain health benefits. Although intermittent fasting is typically defined as 16-24 hours without eating, 24 hours or longer without food is generally not recommended, as it can have more negative impacts.

Although Muslims fast during Ramadan for religious purposes, from a physiological standpoint it can be considered as intermittent fasting. For those who fast for non-religious purposes, a 16:8 fasting regimen tends to be the most common; 16:8 describes the ratio of time spent fasting and eating respectively, where 16 hours are spent fasting and 8 hours are spent eating normally. For those who are looking to fast for health purposes, a 5:2 regimen may also be beneficial. A 5:2 regimen describes 5 days of eating normally and 2 days where you limit yourself to a single 500-600 calorie meal.

Intermittent fasting and changes in the body

Our bodies are well equipped to go periods of time without food. Our bodies have several mechanisms in place that help them survive extended periods without food. It is because of these mechanisms that intermittent fasting comes with numerous health benefits.

The main changes that occur in the body during intermittent fasting happen in hormones, cells, and gene expression. Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers that help regulate many vital aspects of life, such as metabolism, growth, and development. One such hormone is insulin, which is important for regulating blood sugar levels in the body. During intermittent fasting, the level of insulin in the body significantly decreases. On the other hand, the HGH (human growth hormone) may increase dramatically. Intermittent fasting also changes certain functions in cells, primarily in terms of how the cells repair themselves. During fasting, processes which induce certain repair functions, such as removing waste material, are increased. Lastly, intermittent fasting may also play a role in gene expression. Changes in gene expression improve factors relating to longevity and regulation of certain diseases.

Intermittent fasting and weight loss

One of the more obvious health benefits of fasting is weight loss. During periods without food, your body undergoes a process known as ketosis. Normally when we eat our body takes carbohydrates and converts them into sugar, which is used as a source of fuel that keeps the body functioning. Leftover sugar is often converted into fat to be used as a fuel source during periods without food.

When the body enters ketosis during long periods without carbohydrates, such as during intermittent fasting, the body uses its fat stores as an alternate fuel source. The burning of fat and weight loss are further facilitated by the changes in hormones. The decrease in insulin, increase in HGH, and increase in norepinephrine (a naturally occurring chemical in the body that acts as both a stress hormone and as a neurotransmitter) help increase the breakdown of body fat and increases the metabolic rate.

In order to effectively lose weight, metabolism needs to be in deficit. This can happen by limiting intake or by increasing your metabolic rate. With intermittent fasting, you limit intake and increase metabolic rate, making it an extremely effective tool for weight loss. Weight loss alone is associated with many health benefits since maintaining a healthy weight can greatly reduce the risk of many diseases.

Intermittent fasting and diabetes

Type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) is characterized by insulin insensitivity. Insulin reduces the amount of sugar in the blood; in those with T2DM, insulin is being produced, but the body does not react the way it should. Prediabetes is defined as having a higher-than-normal blood sugar level, but not yet high enough to be considered T2DM.

A 2014 study on prediabetic individuals found that blood sugar was reduced by 3-6 percent over an 8-12 week period of intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting may also help improve insulin sensitivity. Intermittent fasting seems to have the greatest benefit in those who are at risk of diabetes, but researchers are still assessing the benefits for those with T2DM.

People with T2DM who wish to fast for religious or other purposes should exercise caution. Generally there should be no concern fasting during Ramadan as long as you have spoken to your doctor to have your medication adjusted.

Intermittent fasting and heart health

Diseases of the heart account for the most deaths worldwide, and the risk factors associated with heart disease are multifactorial. Research into the benefits of intermittent fasting on the heart is still ongoing, but animal studies are looking promising. Intermittent fasting has been shown to help improve risk factors of heart disease such as blood sugar, blood pressure, blood cholesterol and triglycerides, and inflammatory markers.

Intermittent fasting and cancer

Cancer is a disease characterized by uncontrolled cell growth and regulation. One cause of cancer is known as oxidative stress. As a normal part of human metabolism, unstable molecules known as free radicals are produced. Oxidative stress is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants (molecules that counteract free radicals). These free radicals tend to interact with other important molecules and damage them. If a free radical damages the DNA, cancer may occur.

Studies seem to indicate that intermittent fasting may enhance the body’s resistance to oxidative stress. There is also evidence that intermittent fasting may help reduce the various side effects brought on by chemotherapy in cancer patients.

Intermittent fasting and brain health

Many of the factors that benefit the body also benefit the brain. Reduction in oxidative stress, inflammatory markers, blood sugar levels, and insulin resistance are important for the brain. There are also benefits specific to the brain. Several animal studies have shown intermittent fasting may cause neurogenesis, which is the formation of new nerve cells known as neurons that can benefit overall brain function and potentially protect against damage caused by strokes.

Intermittent fasting can also increase the levels of a hormone known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Deficiencies in BDNF have been associated with many conditions, including depression. Intermittent fasting is also being assessed as a possible preventive measure for neurodegenerative diseases. Although research is still in its early stages, animal testing has shown that intermittent fasting may delay the onset of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s.

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