Here are 5 Scientifically Proven Physical and Psychological Benefits of Fasting

Muslims the world over are readying themselves to settle into a time of reflection and challenge. As the month of Ramadan is determined by the lunar calendar, the month’s position within the solar calendar moves back a little every year. We are now in those years when the month falls in amongst the longest days of the year; Ramadan 2017 is due to begin on the 26th or 27th of May, meaning the longest days of the year (the summer solstice) are upon us. Those of us living in the more northerly parts of the world might find themselves fasting as long as 21 hours per day. The challenges presented in this month also offer up many opportunities to benefit both physically and psychologically. Here are 5 of those potential benefits.

1. Increasing Insulin Sensitivity

Insulin sensitivity is a term used to describe how effective a body is at lowering blood glucose levels, by way of secreting the hormone insulin. Someone with higher insulin sensitivity will require less insulin to deal with the glucose in their blood than someone with lower sensitivity. Having low insulin sensitivity can bring on a range of ill effects such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, heart disease and obesity. Fasting has been scientifically proven to increase insulin sensitivity significantly.

In short, fasting can help promote insulin sensitivity, which can in turn help us to have healthier blood pressure, cholesterol levels, heart functions, to be of a healthier weight, and to reduce our risk of having diabetes.

2. Inducing Autophagy

The winner of last year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, Professor Yoshinori Ohsumi, has devoted himself to the study of a process called Autophagy. Autophagy is the process by which living cells breakdown and recycle dead, diseased or unused cellular parts, rendering them available for use again in a more effective way. Put in layman’s terms, it is like stripping down an old car and reusing the parts that might still be of use elsewhere. Autophagy has been found to play a crucial role in helping the body fight the onset of a wide range of diseases and ailments, including neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s disease. Fasting has been found to be a potent way to induce the body’s process of autophagy. For those of us who are more concerned about beauty rather than the health of their brain, autophagy has also been found to reduce the speed at which individuals age.

In short, fasting can induce autophagy, which can in turn keep a range of neurodegenerative disorders at bay, as well as helping us to look younger.

3. Promoting Gut Health

The presence of a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut has been found to be crucial to digestive health. Researchers from the lab of Professor John Thomas reported that fasting fruit flies experienced a genetic activation that results in an anti-inflammatory response that protected their digestive systems and the bacteria within them. While this study was carried out on fruit flies, the flies were chosen due to the fact that they have the same metabolism-related genes as humans do. A healthy digestive tract can significantly boost our immune system. Accordingly, the researchers found that flies that fasted lived twice as long as flies that did not.

In short, fasting can promote healthier guts, which in turn can improve our immune system and digestive processes, allowing us to potentially live longer. 

4. Killing Cancer Cells

Fasting has been shown to kill cancer cells. Researchers from UT Southwestern in Dallas, Texas, reported that intermittent fasting inhibited the development and progression of the most common type of childhood leukaemia. Another study, this time carried out at the University of Southern California, reported that fasting, when combined with chemotherapy, stripped away the guard that protected breast cancer and skin cancer cells, thus allowing the body’s immune system to more effectively tackle the cancer. Other published research has shown that combining fasting with chemotherapy makes the therapy more effective.

In short, fasting can help the body fight cancerous cells, as well as slowing their progression and development. 

5. Increasing Willpower

Professor Roy Baumeister of Florida State University has spent a significant amount of time researching both self-esteem and self-control/willpower. Perhaps surprisingly, he has found that it is willpower that is more important to happiness and success than self-esteem. His Strength Model of Self-Control likens willpower to a muscle that can get stronger with exercise. Using this model, Baumeister and his colleagues have found that individuals who dedicate some time to improving their “self-control muscle” see a whole raft of benefits, some expected and others less so. By having participants engage in self-control improvement programmes, researchers have found that individuals consume less nicotine and caffeine, manage their emotions better, carry out more chores, spend less impulsively, eat less junk food and spend more time studying too. Their research found that self-control can be improved, and significantly, improving self-control in one area (e.g. abstaining from food and drink) led to improvements in other areas (e.g. emotional control, financial habits, or time management).

Researchers have used the strength-model of self-control to find that stronger willpower can also help individuals act in ways that are pro-social. Psychologist Nathan De Wall reported that individuals whose willpower was intact were more likely to help a stranger, donate money to a sick child and give food to a homeless person. Improving our willpower strength can be a useful way in increasing our compassionate behaviours.

More famously, psychologist Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test is a seminal study that highlighted the benefits of having strong willpower. Mischel’s tasty experiment put children in the hot-seat, presenting them with one marshmallow that could be eaten immediately, or they could choose to wait for a number of minutes, after which they could have two marshmallows. This study got very interesting when the researchers followed up with the children later in life. They found that the children who were able to resist the urge to eat the single marshmallow, and so delay their gratification for a bigger, later reward, were less likely to be on the wrong side of the law, obese, users of drugs, while also being more likely to have higher levels of academic achievement, have better relationships, to be more competent, and to be healthier, both physically and psychologically.

A huge volume of scientific research now exists that highlights just how important strong self-control is to success, happiness and quality of life.

In short, fasting can improve our willpower, which in turn can help us in a range of behavioural, physical and psychological outcomes including academic success, relationship health, eating habits, spending behaviour, prosocial and compassionate acts, management of our emotions, and psychological wellbeing. 

Written by Tamim Mobayed

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Tamim is a 28 year old Dublin born Syrian who grew up in Belfast. He is working in the Media and studying for a Ph.D. in Psychology, part-time. He's a big fan of Liverpool Football Club and cats.