Health Benefits Of Fasting

It has become more or less a tradition for many churches across the country to declare several days of fast at the beginning of every year. This is aimed at spiritually ‘fortifying’ their members for the challenges ahead. In addition to fulfilling spiritual obligation, fasting gives a sense of accomplishment to those who are able to carry out this seemingly herculean task.

In this piece, ARONKE OLAYIWOLA takes a look at the benefits of fasting and the proper way to fast without endangering the body.

Fasting is a willing abstinence or reduction from certain or all kinds of food or drink or both for a period of time. Fasting can be absolute, partial or intermittent. Absolute fasting is complete abstinence from all foods and drinks for a defined period, usually between one and three days. It’s not good for the body to be without water for a long time, therefore absolute fast should not last for more than a few days. Partial fast is abstinence from certain kinds of food for some time. An example of partial fast is eating only fruits or avoiding meat and milk for some days. Intermittent fast is going without food for some hours, usually twenty four hours.

For most people who fast, it’s a spiritual exercise and therefore some things that happen during the period may be beyond what science can explain. While fasting, appetite is suppressed and people are able to focus and pray better; however, this comes with some sacrifice and endurance of the initial pain that comes from nagging headaches as a result of low blood sugar and hunger pangs. This could also cause some general body weakness.

However, fasting has quite a number of advantages to the body, even medically. According to a research by Valter Longo, it has been uncovered that there is a potential link between fasting and improved efficacy of chemotherapy. A team of cardiologists in the UAE found that people observing Ramadan, the Islamic fast, enjoy a positive effect on their lipid profile, which means there is a reduction of cholesterol in the blood.

According to a consultant public health physician at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Dr. Folu Olatona, “it is possible to fast and remain healthy if an individual eats balanced and healthy diet before and after the period of fasting. If fasting is prolonged and meals taken thereafter are not nutritious enough to make up for the deficiencies, it may lead to under-nutrition. The immunity of such people may be suppressed and in turn lead to increased susceptibility to infections; they may become thin and underweight making them prone to premature ageing in which case, they look old, hagard and frail.

“On the other hand, if someone fasts regularly and eats heavily after fasting, the body interprets the fasting period as emergency, and becomes intelligent enough to store the excess food as fat, waiting to use it during another emergency period. This puts the body in a “non-losing” fat mode and such a person may become overweight or obese because it’s difficult for him/her to lose weight,” she further stated.

On the proper diet to take while fasting, Olatona opined that the best way to eat after fasting is to act as if you didn’t fast. You should not overeat because you haven’t eaten in twenty four hours; just eat a regular meal. It is important to understand that the stomach has rested from working for several hours and it would not be nice to give it a very heavy job right away. If it’s an absolute fast, it’s nice to start with drinking water or any other fluid before eating. The first meal after days of absolute fast should be light in consistency. It can be a fruit or

“Intermittent fasting does not necessarily lead to ill-health. There can be some biochemical changes during the period of fasting but the body can adjust back to normal after a while. Usually when the body is deprived of certain or all kinds of foods and drinks, the energy level becomes low and muscular performance may reduce. This is important for those who are involved in manual labour, especially those who work in hot environment. Since fluid intake is restricted during fasting and they lose a lot of water to the environment, their bodies can become dehydrated faster than their counterparts who are not working outside. Dehydration makes people feel tired and unable to perform usual tasks. Such people may be able to endure the fast better and achieve their goals if they take water, otherwise occupational heat stress can occur and that may terminate the fast and the work”, she said.

Certain nutrients can become deficient in those who undergo partial fasting. For example, someone who does a prolonged fruit fast and avoids all other foods may have protein and energy deficiency. If fasting is prolonged, the body mass can reduce and there can be loss of body fat.

During fasting, people can have tension headaches because of the hunger, sleep disorders, mood swings and become irritable. There’s reduction in alertness and ability to judge situations correctly. This can lead to road traffic accidents and injuries. It is advisable for people who are involved in prolonged fasting to avoid driving and cycling.

Many people who are on drugs forget to take their drugs because of the change in eating pattern during fasting. This can lead to a worse health state for those with chronic illness such as diabetes. Such people should discuss with their doctors who can prescribe long acting drugs for them if such a fast cannot be avoided.

When pregnant women and lactating mothers fast, it can lead to detrimental effects on the growing fetus or baby. The fetus will not get enough nutrients for its growth and can be delivered with a smaller weight than expected. For lactating mothers, the volume of the milk will reduce and this may lead to the caregivers giving solid foods before the baby reaches six months of age. Reduced volume of milk and introduction of complementary foods before six months will lead to under-nutrition. Babies who are small for age or suffer under-nutrition are more susceptible to infections and die more often compared to others who are well nourished.

Most people can fast, but pregnant women and lactating mothers should avoid fasting or do so for very short periods to avoid nutritional injury to their babies. The babies may never recover from the effect of such nutritional insults. It can affect their brain among other organs permanently. Acutely ill patients, frail elderly and some chronically ill patients need proper nourishment and therefore should avoid fasting.

People who have stomach ulcer (ulcer is like a wound in the stomach) may delay their fasting until the ulcer is healed, otherwise they can undergo partial fast (eg fruit fast) or fast for a shorter period compared with others.

People who have stomach ulcer or hyperacidity or any other stomach disorder should eat alkaline producing foods such as fruits, soft yam, potatoes, porridge, ‘amala’ etc as their first meal after taking water when breaking their fast. These foods form alkaline substances that would neutralize stomach acid and thereby prevent them from having stomach pain.

Olatona, however, insisted that she would not recommend fasting for a diet programme. Any method that drastically reduces calorie intake or puts the body in a state of starving makes one lose weight initially but lacks sustainability, since the loss is both fat and muscle. The muscle is needed to burn calories therefore anything that will make one lose muscle tissue is not good. When fewer calories are consumed, there’s a tendency to be less active, which probably stems from biological programming to preserve body weight for survival. The metabolism slows down to keep one going on less food.

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