Intermittent fasting has become trendy, and people from all walks of life are suddenly using this technique as a weight loss tool. It turns out that there are many health benefits to fasting that go beyond a slimmer physique. Scientific experiments show that fasting can benefit the brain by improving cognition and memory, increasing resistance to injury and disease, generating new brain cells, and sharpening the senses.
As Muslims, we know that we should fast during Ramadan purely in obedience to Allah. In the Quran He enjoins:
“Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may attain taqwaa (piety and mindfulness of Allah).”
(Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:183)
I am not trying to suggest that we fast because it will benefit our brains. However, it is nice to know that our act of worship might be helping us in ways we did not realize. It also reminds us of the wisdom of our Creator, who ordained something that is good for us in many ways, though it might be challenging.
According to Rahul Jandial, MD, PhD, “Going without food for even a day increases your brain's natural growth factors, which support the survival and growth of nerve cells called neurons. Metabolic switching between glucose and ketones—the energy source produced when the liver burns fat—is when cognition is best and degenerative diseases are kept at bay. As a recent paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience put it: ‘Metabolic switching impacts multiple signaling pathways that promote neuroplasticity—the ability for neurons to change and grow—and resistance of the brain to injury and disease.’”1
As if resistance to injury and disease is not amazing enough, fasting can actually help the brain make entirely new cells. Dr. Jandial says, “Whether for set windows throughout the day, every other day, or longer, there’s reason to believe that fasting for extended periods may help generate new brain cells.”2
Mark Mattson, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, credits fasting with even more benefits: “One thing we found pretty recently, that may explain the ability of intermittent fasting to reduce levels of anxiety and also protect against a number of neurological disorders, is that intermittent fasting will enhance the ability of nerve cell networks to control their activities and electrochemical activity.”3
According to an article reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD, “When you fast, your body has less toxic materials flowing through the blood and lymphatic system, making it easier for you to think. While fasting, the energy you’d normally use to digest food is available to be used by the brain. You likely won’t notice this mental change until the first few days of a fast because your body takes time to adjust. You might have headaches or pain points at the beginning of the process. But after your body clears itself of toxins, your brain has access to a cleaner bloodstream, resulting in clearer thoughts, better memory, and increased sharpness of your other senses.”4
In other words, fasting can help the brain renew its cells, improve its function, protect against neurological disorders, and stay mentally focused and healthy. Let’s add that to our long list of reasons to say Alhamdullilah, all praise and thanks are for Allah alone, for Ramadan!
Laura El Alam is a first-generation American Muslim and the author of over 100 published articles. She has written a children’s book, Made From the Same Dough, due to be released in 2023. You can visit her online at www.seaglasswritingandediting.com.