Ramadan: The Real Hunger Games
by Haadi Ali
Growing up in a Muslim-American family, the month of Ramadan was always a time marked on our calendars. Ramadan is the Islamic month celebrating when the holy book of Islam, The Quran, was said to be revealed to the Prophet Muhammed. Muslims fast to commemorate this revelation and to follow God’s commandment. Ramadan is centered around a lunar calendar, so the date changes every year relative to the Gregorian solar calendar. The requirements of the fast include the avoidance of food, drink, and other harmful habits from sunrise until sunset.
Taqwa is the Arabic word for self-restraint or God-consciousness and the cornerstone of eluding things harmful to the body and mind. While every religion differs in their conception of fasting, the results are priceless benefits such as weight loss, cardiovascular improvement, and psychological well-being.
British anesthesiologist Razeen Mahroof, MRCP, studied this phenomenon by juxtaposing the normal process of metabolism and the metabolism of a fasted individual. The human body runs on glucose, which is stored in the liver and the muscles. Glucose is also found in the food that we consume. Fasting forces the body to metabolize fat stores once the glucose runs out, providing a natural mechanism for weight loss. A continual fast, commonly referred to as starvation, results in the breakdown of proteins as well. However, fasting as prescribed in Ramadan prevents protein breakdown because the fast is broken daily, after sunset.
Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disorder characterized by high blood glucose due to insulin resistance. Endocrinologists prescribe weight reduction diets as treatment since the disorder is usually paired with obesity. Intermittent fasting, like the kind practiced during Ramadan, has proven to reduce the occurrence of diabetes. Studies in the British Journal of Diabetes and Vascular Disease have also shown the reduced progression of Type 2 diabetes in obese individuals undergoing a fasting regimen. The study showed that diabetes could be reversed with caloric restriction because of improved pancreatic function. Metabolic parameters, insulin levels and insulin sensitivity are improved and normal function may be attained.
Fasting initiates a chain of benefits to the body starting with weight loss. The resulting loss of fat directly targets the cardiovascular system. Plaques formed in blood vessels resulting from poor lifestyle choices such as an unhealthy diet, consumption of reﬁned sugars, and smoking begin to disappear. The chances of developing atherosclerosis, stroke, and high blood pressure are reduced after adopting the habit of fasting.
High cholesterol is a major risk factor for atherosclerosis because cholesterol is a significant component of plaque formation which hardens and narrows arteries. This condition is reduced by fasting through lowering Low Density Level Cholesterol (LDL-C), the so-called “bad” cholesterol. Adherents to the fast during Ramadan also cannot smoke, which normally damages blood vessels and can contribute to plaque formation.
In addition to atherosclerosis, high blood pressure is a significant factor for heart disease. High blood pressure exerts a lot of force on the vascular system and may result in weakening of the heart. Fasting yields improvements in blood pressure and heart rate that have been similarly exhibited with physical exercise. It also prevents heart disease by stopping apoptosis (cell death) and preventing remodeling within the heart that may occur as a result of high blood pressure.
The National Stroke Institution (NSI) defines a stroke as a blood clot that travels from the heart to the blood vessels in the brain, hindering blood flow there. It may also cause blood vessels in the brain to burst, resulting in the death of neurons. Depending on the affected area, various abilities such as movement or touch may be affected. The benefits that are gained from fasting reduce the probability of strokes. Lowering blood pressure decreases stroke risk. The fatty deposits that may block blood flow to the brain are combated by the weight control (and prohibition on smoking) procured from Ramadan.
Sultan Ghuman, a third year medical student at Drexel University and a Pitt alumnus with a strong connection to the Muslim Student Association, explained to me that Muslims do not fast for the medical benefits. While a purpose of fasting is to foster improvement in the body, the mind is touched as well. Speaking from experience, fasting has imparted qualities such as patience and peace onto me, reducing stress levels. Scientifically, fasting during Ramadan has been shown to increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which improves neuron survival and promotes neuron growth especially in areas of the brain important for learning, memory and higher cognitive functions.
The idea of a fast symbolizes physical, mental, and spiritual growth. During Ramadan, when I sit at the table with my family, ready to break the fast, I witness the healthier food choices, decreased portions, increased spirituality, and mental clarity. Elders that usually complained about their multitude of health and worldly issues adopt a rarely seen sense of relaxation and a tranquil state of mind. At the end of Ramadan, the accumulation of these wide-ranging benefits results in the reality of the definition of taqwa.