Fasting has so many health benefits that many people, including non-Muslims, have taken it up as a regular health practice! Of course, we as Muslims primarily fast to build our taqwa, our consciousness of Allah, but Allah has also placed countless benefits in this practice, so that we may gain maximum benefit from it in this life and the next.
There are different ways to approach the physical effects of fasting on the body. So, in this blog, we're looking at fasting from three different lenses; The first is the approach utilized by Tibb (natural medicine) practitioners, the second is the hour-by-hour approach, and the third is the weight loss and metabolism benefits of 30 days of fasting.
In the Tibb tradition, fasting is generally considered healing for the body and the digestive system. This is because fasting gives a break to the digestive system.
In modern times, we have a plethora of health problems and many of these begin in the gut. Diseases of the gut take place because we eat the wrong foods at the wrong time, overwhelming our digestive system in the process. This leads to improper digestion which in turn leads to many health problems that could have been avoided.
The proper prophetic guidance in this regard is to eat less, that is, to stop eating before we are full.
Miqdam ibn Ma’d reported: The Messenger of Allah (SAW) said:
When we eat less, there is less stress on our digestive organs to digest food. This is why fasting is considered such an important healing practice for the body. Fasting gives our body the break that it needs because the enzymes that are normally responsible for breaking down and digesting food are free to perform healing functions in the body instead.
When we fast, our body goes into healing mode, and thus strives to preserve its energy. This is why fasting also curbs our appetite and our passions.
Fasting helps keep our desires in check because we are focused on preserving our energy and getting through the day.
Fasting gives the body the ability to re-organise itself. The Arabic word for fasting is 'Siyam', which means 'to be at rest’. Fasting helps us rest mentally, physically, and spiritually. It shifts us from a state of movement and overindulgence to a state of rest and contemplation.
There are so many benefits of fasting for the digestive system and the entire body.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the holistic Tibb tradition recommends fasting as a path to healing and recovery.
During this time, your body is using energy from your last meal for cellular and tissue growth and also to provide energy for your current activity. The pancreas produces insulin which allows the body to use glucose for energy.
This is the breakdown phase. All the extra nutrients from your last meal are being used for energy. Once this energy runs out, the body turns to stored fat for energy. The body releases fat and burns it up for energy. This process releases chemicals known as ketone bodies for energy.
Autophagy kicks off during this stage, which means that the dead or damaged cellular material in your cells gets cleaned out. This damaged material, if not cleaned out, can cause aging, disease, or even cancer.
After the 16-hour mark, things speed up in the body. Glycogen in the liver and muscles as well as glucose in the cells start to decrease rapidly so the body needs to turn to its stored fat for energy.
Despite the significant changes going on throughout the body at this stage, you don’t notice it on the outside just yet. You can walk, interact with people, and get physical activity without feeling too fatigued.
A chemical known as AMPK is released during this stage which increases the rate of autophagy throughout the whole body.
Other stages take place in your body from the 24-hour mark to the 72-hour mark and this is relevant to those who wish to fast for health reasons or other reasons.
We will conclude at the 24-hour mark since we fast from before dawn to sunset, and most people around the world will not have to fast past 24 hours if they are doing the Islamic fast as prescribed by Allah during Ramadan.
On the first day that the body experiences fasting, the blood sugar level drops and blood pressure decreases. Glycogen gets pulled from the muscles, which causes some weakness, and can also cause nausea, headaches and dizziness. Hunger pangs can get quite intense during this time.
By the third day, the body starts to get used to the fast. The digestive system gets the rest that it needs, so the body’s energies get directed towards cleansing the body of toxins and healing, causing activity in the immune system to increase.
Fats in the body are converted to glucose for energy at this stage. Rancid oils start to excrete from the body, leaving skin with pimples for a few days. This is a normal part of the purging process.
After one week of fasting, old injuries and wounds may become irritated and cause pain. This is because the old scar tissue may not have had a chance to heal in the past, but during fasting, the body’s healing process is optimized so the old injuries and inflamed areas are trying to heal in the absence of additional toxins. The muscles of the legs can be especially affected since toxins generally accumulate in the legs.
Despite this pain and toxin purging process in the body, you might notice that you have more energy and a clearer headspace.
By this time, the body is well-adjusted to fasting and it knows how to purge toxins in short periods which leads to less downtime and increased energy in the body.
There is also increases the clarity of mind.
By the third week or so, the healing work of the organs is being completed. After day twenty or so, the mind is positively impacted. As a result, greater clarity of mind and better emotional balance are experienced, and this also helps improve memory and concentration.
These are all the amazing transitions are body goes through during fasting! While we starve our stomachs to feed and nourish our hearts and souls by fasting, Allah SWT in return cleanses our physical health and well-being.
May Allah SWT allow us to change our health for the better during this blessed month of Ramadan and draw our hearts closer to him.