Friday, July 13, 2012

Is fasting good for you?

For many people, the key question regarding fasting is 
whether it is good or bad for your health. The answer to 
this requires a quick overview of what happens inside the 
body during fasting: the physiology of fasting.

The changes that occur in the body in response to fasting 
depend on the length of the continuous fast. Technically 
the body enters into a fasting state eight hours or so after 
the last meal, when the gut finishes absorption of nutrients 
from the food. In the normal state, body glucose, which is 
stored in the liver and muscles, is the body’s main source 
of energy. During a fast, this store of glucose is used up 
first to provide energy. Later in the fast, once the stores 
of glucose run out, fat becomes the next store source of 
energy for the body. Small quantities of glucose are also 
‘manufactured’ through other mechanisms in the liver.

Only with a prolonged fast of many days to weeks does 
the body eventually turn to protein for energy. This is 
the technical description of what is commonly known as 
‘starvation’, and it is clearly unhealthy. It involves protein 
being released from the breakdown of muscle, which 
is why people who starve look emaciated and become 
very weak.

As the Ramadan fast only extends from dawn till dusk, 
there is ample opportunity to replenish energy stores at 
pre-dawn and dusk meals. This provides a progressive, 
gentle transition from using glucose to fat as the main 
source of energy, and prevents the breakdown of muscle 
for protein. The use of fat for energy aids weight loss, 
preserving the muscles, and in the long run reduces 
your cholesterol levels. In addition, weight loss results in 
better control of diabetes and reduces blood pressure. 

A detoxification process also seems to occur, as any 
toxins stored in the body’s fat are dissolved and removed 
from the body. After a few days of the fast, higher levels 
of certain hormones appear in the blood (endorphins), 
resulting in a better level of alertness and an overall 
feeling of general mental well-being.

Balanced food and fluid intake is important between 
fasts. The kidney is very efficient at maintaining the 
body’s water and salts, such as sodium and potassium. 
However, these can be lost through sweating. To prevent 
muscle breakdown, meals must contain adequate levels 
of ‘energy food’, such as carbohydrates and some fat. 
Hence, a balanced diet with adequate quantities of 
nutrients, salts and water is vital.

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