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Fasting Bolsters Brain Power

By Amal Al-Sibai:

Fasting is an obligation on Muslims every year in the month of Ramadan. It is also highly recommended to fast intermittently throughout the year, such as three days per month in the middle of the lunar month or on the first nine days of the month of Dhul Hijjah.

Today science shows that fasting does good things not only for the body, but for the brain as well, particularly in relation to the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases of aging, such as Alzheimer’s.

A report by the American Alzheimer’s Association stated that by 2050, the number of people aged 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease may nearly triple, from 5.2 million today to a projected 13.8 million.

Researchers have found improvements in lifespan and also in mental abilities of laboratory animals when they were put on intermittent periods of fasting.

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Dr. Mark Mattson, the Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging and Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University led research that looked into the effects of energy restriction on the brain.

Researchers found that they could slow down the abnormal accumulation of amyloids in the brains of laboratory mice by sharply restricting energy intake. And the accumulation of these amyloids in the brain is strongly associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

This holds true for humans as well. And one of the best ways to cut food intake is fasting.

Throughout history, many great thinkers and scientists have described the healing effects of fasting. Plato is known to have said, “I fast for greater physical and mental efficiency.”

Philippus Paracelsus, one of the three fathers of Western medicine said, “Fasting is the greatest remedy, the physician within.”

And you have probably heard the ancient Egyptian saying: “Humans live on one-quarter of what they eat; on the other three-quarters lives their doctor.”

Dr. Mattson the numerous health benefits of fasting, proven by scientific evidence, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and age-related cognitive impairment. Fasting reduces inflammation and oxidative stress in the body, and it burns fat.

Researchers and health protection advocates suggest a variety of different patterns for fasting. One recommendation is to fast two days a week during the daylight hours, eating a very light meal at the break of the fast.

If we look to the tradition of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), we see that he (peace be upon him) used to fast Monday and Thursday of every week. And at the time he (peace be upon him) had no lavish meals to break his fast, but only a few dates, water, and milk.

So, how does fasting bolster brain power? Why do laboratory animals perform far better on memory tests and mazes when they are put on a fast?

Dr. Mark Mattson explained that fasting is a challenge to the brain. The brain responds to that challenge of not having food by activating adaptive stress response pathways that help the brain cope. With a deficiency in energy intake, the nerve circuits actually become more active, and this increase in nerve cell activity keeps the brain healthier as it ages.

Fasting stimulates the production of neurotrophic factors in the brain. These chemicals promote the healthy growth of neurons and promote the formation of nerve connections in the brain. Fasting can even increase the production of new nerve cells from stem cells.

Through these mechanisms, fasting can improve memory and learning ability. Fast for better physical and mental health, and more importantly, fast for the rewards from Allah.

This article is from Science’s archive and we’ve originally published it on an earlier date.