Intermittent Fasting: Past to Present
Fasting is a practice that has been used for centuries in many religions such as Christianity and Islam as a form of sacrifice, self-discipline and gratitude. Ramadan around the world is a time where Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset every day for one full month.
In our home country of Egypt during Ramadan, you will see, at sunset, the time of breaking the fast, people giving food to less fortunate people on the streets including those in duty such as traffic wardens and police officers. They will come out with boxes of food from their cars and spread it to anyone who needs it. At the time of breaking the fast, you would hear a sound signal of a canon going through the streets and the local mosques announcing prayer and this signals to everyone that it is time to eat. Families across the world would gather around the table and eat together which in itself creates a sense of celebration and joy. Little kids will all have a new colourful lantern called a ‘fanoos’ which also signifies how Ramadan is a celebration.
Having lived here in Ireland for the last 20 years, it has been challenging carrying out Ramadan in a western environment especially when you are so far away from your family and the overall atmosphere of Ramadan is missing. However, Ireland has become vastly multi-national in recent times and the awareness about Ramadan and its practice has improved majorly. It is no longer as challenging as it was and if anything our friends and family here in Ireland only make it easier with their support and understanding. On several occasions some of our Irish friends have even fasted with us for support for a day and then they join us for breaking the fast and we eat together which has been incredible.
Over the years, it has been difficult to complete Ramadan while working full days especially when sunset is so late during the summer months, and keeping your focus is something we have struggled with in the past but we have learnt that it’s what we eat that determines our energy levels and levels of focus. Oftentimes, we have been fortunate to work with organisations who take our fasting into consideration and help to accommodate us as much as possible, for example, allowing us to go home early as we aren’t taking a lunch break or allowing us to work half days etc. Now that we work for ourselves, it has become much easier to split the time between us so it’s not too long a shift for one person.
In terms of food choices and what we have found really beneficial is making a superfood packed smoothie and having it before going to bed. It would include chia seeds, almond or coconut milk, nut butter, matcha powder, spinach, wheatgrass and variety of different fruits and nuts and generally anything else we find lying around! It was amazing how much energy we got from this smoothie and how long it stayed in our system.
As well as the fact that it’s part of our religion and despite its difficulty to complete sometimes, especially since we work as full time pharmacists and our concentration is vital for our jobs, we feel a great sense of achievement and personal satisfaction when we’ve completed a day. There’s no doubt also that we generally feel more energised and have a greater sense of well being both mentally and physically while fasting.
Besides its religious uses, in recent times there has been a major spotlight on the health benefits of fasting especially intermittent fasting. As pharmacists and diet counsellors who also fast as part of our religion, we were very intrigued to learn about why more and more people are integrating fasting into their lives and not for religious purposes.
Periods of deprivation of food facilitate change around a range of different immunological and metabolic responses in the body. Studies suggest that restricting the time period in which you eat could have profound effects on your health including blood sugar balance, digestion, sleep and weight loss.
Studies on mice suggest that changes in feeding schedule can have a massive influence on weight and metabolism. Mice that ate the same amount of food and calories throughout 24 hours compared to those whose eating time was restricted, put on more weight. So the calories eaten were the same but yet it led to a significant difference in weight. The researchers concluded that periods of regularly fasting for 12-16 hours a day might have a dramatic impact on body weight. What was particularly interesting was the results were the same regardless of the type of diet they ate, even when they ate a high fat, high sugar diet.
Intermittent fasting means alternating between a period of fasting and non-fasting. There are many different takes and suggested protocols on intermittent fasting and how to follow it. For example overnight fasting, which is the most straight forward way to implement fasting into the diet, suggests taking that window when a person sleeps and is not eating anyway and adding to it either in the morning or before they sleep, several more hours of fasting so that in total they are fasting for at least 10-12 hours per day. This is enough to achieve all the positive effects fasting can have on the body without it being too difficult since the majority of it is carried out while you sleep.
The 5:2 diet is another method of intermittent fasting that has been largely in the spotlight lately which suggests you fast for 2 days per week and consume very little calories on those days and eat normally for the other 5 days of the week.
Valter Longo, professor of gerontology and biological sciences at the USC Davis School of Gerontology and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences carried out a study on mice and how fasting can weaken cancer and concluded that “the combination of fasting cycles plus chemotherapy was either more or much more effective than chemo alone.”
What we have also found particularly interesting, is traditionally, we break our fast with a few dates soaked in milk and a large glass of water. This has been the way we’ve always done it and it’s been passed down from generation to generation. When we skip doing this, we have generally found that when we break our fast we tend to eat everything in sight! We end up overeating and have to contend with a subsequent food coma on the couch afterwards! Well, it turns out that studies have shown, that when you break your fast with something sweet such as dates, it re adjusts your insulin levels back to normal which prevents you from over eating. The large glass of water also helps hydrate you straight away as it’s generally more thirst than hunger that we feel while fasting.
There is no one correct way to introduce fasting into someone’s life and it is not something that we all necessarily have to do since some people cannot follow it for health reasons for example pregnant and lactating women, children and the elderly, type 1 diabetics etc so anyone on medication or suffering from any medical conditions should consult with their doctor before commencing any form of fast. However, the extensive research and studies being carried out on the benefits it has on the body particularly in certain disease states, as well as its power to support the immune system, is promising and ongoing, so we will surely learn more in the near future.
Perhaps this traditional religious form of sacrifice that has been around for centuries may become a vital medical tool in future.
Ola & Sally