Muslims do not fast because of medical benefits but because it has been ordained to them in the Qur’an. The medical benefits of fasting are as a result of fasting. People with illnesses like diabetes, hypoglycemia or those which are made worse by fasting are exempt. However, some illnesses are in fact benefited from fasting.
Several studies have mood disorders such as depression and anxiety benefit from fasting as written Master of Public Health students from the University of Michigan named ‘Katie” in the following excerpt from her article, “Fasting for Mental Health: Does it Work”?
“Fasting is an ancient practice has been revered for ages as a health and spiritual tool. In the time of Hippocrates, fasting was prescribed to treat all manner diseases and religions have used it to help man open up to spiritual experiences. But isn’t this counterintuitive? Haven’t you experienced that slow, foggy mental state that accompanies skipping a meal? As a clever candy bar commercial suggests: you’re not you when you’re hungry. I know I’m not me when I haven’t eaten but the mental effects of longer bouts of fasting may surprise you.
So what are the mental effects of fasting? Clinicians have reported finding improvements in mood, mental clarity, vigilance, a sense of improved well-being, and sometimes euphoria.
But first, what exactly is fasting?
Fasting can refer to many practices but in the scientific literature there are 3 main types of fasting:
- Intermittent Fasting (IF): Also known as alternate day fasting, this is the practice of abstaining from food every other day for a period of time. More on the effects of this type of fasting in Ann’s post later this week!
- Therapeutic Fasting: This is the continuous restriction of food for a period of 2 days to a few weeks consuming only 200-500 calories per day in the form of fruit or easily digested carbohydrates like rice.
- Calorie Restriction: This process involves consuming 30-40% less calories than usual everyday for an extended period of time.
Short Term Effects: Moods and Migraines
It is stressful to go without food but this is not an uncommon occurrence. The mood-boosting effects of fasting may be an evolutionary adaptive mechanism for periods of famine. In other words, when food is scarce our bodies release chemicals to help protect our brains from the negative effects. These chemicals can put us in a good mood–but, as you know if you have skipped a meal or two, it takes a few days. During the first week of fasting, the body begins to adapt to starvation by releasing massive amounts of catecholamines including epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and dopamine as well as gluco-corticoids, steroid hormones involved in regulating the immune response and glucose metabolism. All of these chemicals are also released during the infamous ‘fight or flight’ response. After a while, our body responds to this stress through a boost of feel-good and protective chemicals.
A study by Michaelson et. al. in 2009 showed that therapeutic fasting alleviates depression symptoms and improves anxiety scores in 80% of chronic pain patients after just a few days. The mechanism behind this is not known but it might be linked to the release of endorphins in the first 48 hours of fasting. Similar to a runner’s high, endorphins, which resemble opiate drugs, make you feel good in response to a metabolically stressful event. Another study by Michaelson et. al. in 2003 has demonstrated that after 8 days of therapeutic fasting, sleep improves significantly compared to pre-fasting conditions. Anyone who has ever had a few nights of poor sleep knows this can be a powerful moderator of mood as well as changing your general sense of well-being, which was also subjectively reported to improve with fasting.
Other researchers have found that fasting boosts the levels of available serotonin in the brain. This is thought to explain the interesting findings that therapeutic fasting can significantly reduce migraine headaches. Currently, therapeutic fasting is not a common practice for such disorders in the United States but older studies suggest that this is efficacious.