Fasting, The Astonishing Benefits Of Ramadan And Mind Discipline

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar and one of the most important months in the Islamic Year. It lasts for 29 / 30 days and is a time of year when fasting occurs. During this time Muslims around the world give up consuming all food and drink (including water) from dawn until sunset.

Why are Muslims fasting?

There are a range of reasons why Muslim fast. Firstly, the obvious being it is a commandment from god. As 1 of the 5 pillars in Islam, it is a fundamental part of the Muslim faith. As a result, Muslims all around the world come together for this month. It is considered an act of worship for the believers. Consequently it allows them to spiritually connect with their God thereby attaining taqwa (God-consciousness). It provides the opportunity for individuals to exercise virtues such as patience and self control. This is obtained by abstaining from food and drink as well as all other desires whilst fasting. As well as this, it helps Muslims to be appreciative of the blessings they have. Thereby feeling compassionate towards those less fortunate and in need.

Is there any science behind it?

There have been multiple studies on the effect of intermittent fasting. Harvard medical school have suggested the benefits include reducing weight and belly fat, reduce insulin resistance, reduce stress and inflammation, heart health, cellular repair, brain health and lifespan. Naturally this can be applied in helping a range of conditions including PCOS which I covered last week.

Since intermittent fasting consist of not eating for 14-16 hours and only eating in a 8-10 hour window, it is a little different from Ramadan. Ramadan has a dawn to sunset fasting time, and this can vary depending on when Ramadan is in the Gregorian Calendar. In addition, this changes based on where you live in the world.

Fasting benefits

Are there any health benefits?

Building on this, studies have shown that entirely removing food and drink has remarkable effects on the body. Reduced meal frequency helps prime the body to lose fat. Furthermore, fasting for 30 days has seen to reduce level of LDL cholesterol and anxiety. These are majority risks for cardiovascular diseases, and so it is argued that Ramadan helps to prevent heart issues and boost health.

Adding to this, fasting for as little as three days can help the immune system of individuals. Researchers found with fasting the body started to pump out brand new white blood cells, which helped the immune system to combat diseases also.

There have been some studies that have suggested that cancer may also be helped with fasting. A study using mice with cancer tumours showed the tumours reduce at a greater rate when fasting and chemotherapy were coupled, rather than the chemotherapy alone. However, this is still an area which requires some scientific study.

Can I incorporate fasting into my daily life?

There has been a recent phenomenon which many people have been adopting known as the 5:2 diet. This is a diet where individuals fast or eat around 500-600 calories for 2 days of the week and the other 5 days eat normally. However this is not a ‘new’ concept for lots of Muslims. The Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) would fast on Mondays and Thursdays, and so many Muslims follow this in order to replicate his actions. With these fasts, you can reap the benefits of fasting on a weekly basis thereby improving your health.

Does fasting improve mind discipline?

It is agreed that fasting can help boost your brain, with the benefits been seen in mental well-being and spiritual focus. A study by scientists in the USA found that this mental focus achieved in Ramadan increased the levels brain cell production thus improving brain function. Furthermore, the reduced production of the cortisol hormone means that stress levels are greatly reduced during and after Ramadan.

If you remember my blog post on self control and sticking to diets, I discuss our chimp and our human. The chimp wants instant gratification (like a child) but the human will be more willing to wait for the long term gratification (like an adult). Muslim believe that each individual has a Nafs which can be translated as you ego or inner self. This Nafs has lowly desires which can either lead you to good or bad. With the constant desire we have around us, Nafs can lead us towards that which is not good for our mind, body and soul.

One of the ways to control the Nafs is through fasting and it is advise to do when one is struggling with lowly desires. If we relate this to eating behaviour, fasting can help individuals to control their chimp (child) and ensure that their human (adult) stays in control. As a result the individual can make more logical decisions around what food they eat and how much of it. Fasting can therefore help to reduce weight and encourage healthy eating on a daily basis.

Why not give it a try!

Since Ramadan has just started, if you are not already fasting, why not give it a go? There are many health benefits to be reaped, and you can keep your Muslim friends company too!

Have you tried intermittent fasting, 5:2, or Ramadan fast? Let me know in the comments below or via email@behaviouralfoodie.co.uk!

PCOS & Food: The Hidden Potential of Mind Management

Today’s blog post is a slightly different approach as I am focusing on the particularly interesting topic of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). This was a request from one of my subscribers who has this condition and wanted some tips to help her. I think it is important for all of us to be aware of how we can help ourselves or others with conditions like these.

What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?

Polycystic ovary syndrome is a common condition that affects how a women’s ovaries work. The NHS identifies there to be 3 main features of PCOS including:

  • Irregular periods meaning your ovaries do not regularly release eggs
  • Excess androgen meaning there are high levels of ‘male’ hormones which can lead to physical signs of excess facial and / or body hair
  • Polycystic ovaries causing your ovaries to become enlarged and contain underdeveloped fluid-filled sacs (follicles) around the eggs. These sacs are often unable to release the egg and so ovulation does not take place.

If you have 2 or more symptoms you can be diagnosed with PCOS. PCOS affects about 1 in 10 women in the UK and although it is difficult to know the exact amount of women, it is a prevalent and very common condition. The exact cause of PCOS is unknown to doctors currently, but there is a general consensus that it can run in families.

What are the symptoms of PCOS?

The symptoms usually appear in your late teens or early 20s and they can include:

  • Irregular or no periods
  • Difficulty with getting pregnant as a result of failure / irregular ovulation
  • Excessive hair growth – usually on face, chest, back or buttocks
  • Weight gain
  • Thinning hair and hair loss from the head
  • Oily skin or acne

PCOS can also be related to development of health problems later on in life such as type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.

For the remainder of the discussion I have chosen to focus on the symptom of being overweight. There are ways in which our food choices can combat this to an extent, and therefore avoid future health conditions as much as possible.

What causes PCOS weight issues?

PCOS can often cause abnormal hormone levels in the body including high insulin. In many cases women are insulin resistant resulting in them having a very high insulin level.

Being overweight or obese also increases the amount of insulin your body produces.

What is insulin and insulin resistant?

Insulin is a hormone that controls the sugar levels in the body. The role of insulin is to allow cells of the body to take in glucose and use them either as fuel or to store them as body fat.

If an individual’s body becomes resistant to insulin it will try to cope by producing more insulin. As a result it is possible that there can be a build-up of insulin levels in the blood. With the over production of insulin it is difficult to use it all as fuel, and it can lead to excess fat storage.

Insulin resistance can make it extremely hard to lose weight and many PCOS sufferers struggle with this.

However there are food choices that individuals can make that can help rather than hinder these PCOS symptoms.

What foods should I add to my diet?

Below I have created a diagram showing the types of foods that if added to insulin resistant diets can help with PCOS and weight. This is described as a low glycaemic index (GI) diet in which the body digests slower. As a result the insulin levels rise less and slower than they would otherwise.

What foods should I avoid from my diet?

In the next diagram I have listed some of the items to avoid. In general foods highly saturated in fat and sugar should be avoided. Obviously the reality is that it is impossible to completely remove them from your diet. It is important to remember that everything should be consumed in moderation and where you can reduce intake, try doing so.

I would like to say that I am not a dietitian or expert on what is the best alternatives. My understanding is that if you make switches like white bread to brown and milk chocolate to dark, these will definitely be helpful. I think it is important to eat alternatives rather than cut food out of your diet, and again remember eat everything in moderation! 

The behavioural science behind this is much the same as my other articles relating to dieting. Training your System 1 & 2 can help immensely and remembering to focus on long term goals rather than short term gain.

Don’t fall for the marketing tricks, check your labels when you shop, and try to make more pro-active choices. Remember that having a growth mindset is just as important as making the initial choices. This mindset will help you keep in mind that you are in control of your food choices and you can change them in order to help yourself.

Check out my Indian Chickpeas with Poached Eggs recipe featured in the image below for a high fibre and anti-inflammatory meal!

I hope you enjoyed this slightly different post today. If you have any other topics like this you would like me to cover, feel free to leave it in the comments below. Alternatively, email me on email@behaviouralfoodie.co.uk

I love to hear from you!