The potential to increase self-control, intelligenceWritten by Shahino Mah
The human body is considered to begin fasting when it has completed the digestion and absorption of a meal, which takes place three to five hours after a person stops taking food or water.
Some might think that fasting is unnecessary starvation and has negative health implications.
But research shows that mild nutrient starvation causes no harm, but instead provides health benefits as long as it is under control. Autophagy is a recycling process that can be initiated only from mild starvation, where the cell "repairs" itself by reusing dysfunctional components to sustain a new healthy cell. But overstarvation could lead to cognitive deficiency.
There are several ways to avoid starvation, such as breaking fast at a proper time when needed; providing the body with sufficient nutrients before stopping food intake for prolonged fasting or regulating physical activities to endure longer fasting time.
These will require a person to gain the right knowledge regarding fasting; familiarise with his body's capabilities and limits and adapt to different situations if needed. There are also guidelines for those who are interested in practising intermittent fasting for health benefits.
Research has proven that intermittent fasting could alter the body's endurance and individual behaviour patterns up to the neural level that controls brain functionality. The increase in focus and self-control ultimately leads to better learning and stronger memory.
Scientifically, there is a correlation between the increased memory and cell (chemical) changes in the body and brain. Research has found that intermittent fasting can reduce oxidative stress, a known factor contributing to brain ageing, and can induce cell injury and impairment of learning and memory.
It improves brain structures by the increase in dendritic protein expression and CA1 pyramidal cell layer thickness. Intermittent fasting has proven to improve performance in hippocampus-dependent learning and memory in the fear conditioning test.
Besides, it could reduce the risk of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. More people are interested in practising intermittent fasting for better body durability, life longevity, improved immune system and maintaining brain functionality.
In Islam, the primary reason for fasting is to adhere to Allah's command, while the health benefits gained are a reward granted at Allah's pleasure. The role of intention (niat) is, therefore, key to fasting in Islam. In this sense, all Muslims inculcate sincerity (ikhlas) and trust (tawakkul) in this form of worship (ibadah).
The main purpose of fasting in Islam is to attain taqwa (piety), as in the Quran (al-Baqarah 2:183): "O you, who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous." Fasting also inculcates moral values.
Muslims start fasting from an early age. Children and those who have not reached puberty often start training by fasting half a day. They normally begin by having the recommended pre-dawn meal (sahur) together with their adult (mukallaf) parents or guardians. After around six to eight hours, they break their fast and are free to consume food.
Such practice reduces effects of starvation for children while they train and familiarise with fasting.
Some children might continue fasting for the second cycle after the mid-day meal until dusk, together with adults who fast for a full day.
Muslims are to break their fast (iftar) as soon as the sun sets (maghrib) with no further delay.
In the context of self-control, fasting is meant to be a protective shield for every Muslim.
Fasting dampens rebellious tendencies of the carnal self through physical effort and submission, which involves abstention from lust, as in the saying of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH):
"O youth! Whosoever amongst you can afford to get married, let them get married. And, whoever cannot afford to do so, then they should fast because it will help him control his desires." (Narrated by al-Bukhari and Muslim.)
In a nutshell, fasting is not limited to improve health and brain intelligence in learning and memory, but it also strengthens spiritual intelligence in the journey to be a pious believer (mukmin) with a strong belief and commitment in seeking Allah's blessing.
The writer is a Research Fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia
Published in: The New Straits Times, Tuesday 5 May 2020