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What does science say about the health effects of fasting?

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During the holy month of Ramadan, millions of Muslims around the world fast as part of the spiritual and traditional practice of Islam.

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Abstaining from food and immoral behavior is believed to bring adherents a renewed sense of piety, as well as improving community and family ties.

But along with the spiritual dimension of Ramadan, scientific studies have indicated a range of health benefits.

Intermittent fasting, similar to the kind practiced during Ramadan, can lead to improvements in obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancers, and neurological disorders, according to a research review published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Abstaining from food for long periods of time can cause the body to use energy from different sources.

While energy is usually taken from glucose stored in the liver, intermittent fasting switches up metabolism so that ketones stored in fat are used instead.

This process, known as ketogenesis, is known to have a wide range of benefits, including suppressing inflammation and improving the body’s response to stress.

Ramadan fasting can boost the immune system, reduce cholesterol, and promote weight loss, according to a 2014 review in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences.

The review of studies published between 2009 and 2014 also mentioned, however, that it was common for people to regain any weight lost during Ramadan after returning to their normal eating habits the following month.

A 2021 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that fasting during Ramadan had beneficial effects on blood pressure, weight, and body fat levels.

One 2003 study from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted several negative effects of Ramadan.

An “inherent” problem with fasting during the holy month, it said, was that patients were more likely to avoid taking medicines as prescribed.

Irritability, headaches, sleep deprivation, and lack of energy were commonly-reported side effects of fasting, the study said.

It also noted that Muslims were “undoubtedly dehydrating” during Ramadan, although no detrimental health effects were observed as a result.

Although many studies point to the positive effects of fasting, it was also noted in many of them that there is little evidence to understand the long-term effects of abstaining from food and water.

So while many Muslims report feeling closer to God during the holy month, scientific studies show that this subjective sense of wellbeing is also reflected in the body’s chemistry.

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