The most basic requirement of fasting is abstention from solid food. In total fasting, even fluids are avoided. In other forms of fasting, plain water or juices are permissible. In all cases, there is a drastic reduction of calorie intake ( less so for juice fasting ) throughout the duration of fasting.
CALORIE RESTRICTION DIET
Sustained calorie reduction has been repeatedly confirmed in animal studies to increase lifespan. There is growing interest in the field of “calorie restriction” ( CR ) as many other measures to prolong life have proved disappointing. Understanding the physiology and biochemical processes that occur during CR has enabled scientists to suggest interventions and even supplements that can mimic the effects of CR and promote longevity.
CR does not only extend the ‘average lifespan’ (the average number of years an animal is expected to live), but it also prolongs the ‘maximum lifespan’, which is the maximum number of years the animal can possibly live. In addition, CR also prolongs the ‘healthspan’ which is the number of years an animal can live without any major chronic disease.
The average human lifespan is about 80 years in developed countries ( 75 for Malaysia), with women outliving men by about 3 years. The maximum human lifespan is 120 years. While the average lifespan has steadily increased over the decades, the human healthspan has actually not increased at all. The average person has at least one major chronic health problem by the age of 50. The increase in lifespan is not due to the reduction in the incidence of major chronic diseases, but due to medical advances that allow survival despite having these diseases. The number of people still living because of cardiac angiosplasty, bypass surgery, heart transplant or even artificial hearts is staggering.
Recently I celebrated my secondary school’s classmates’ 50th birth-year anniversary. Among them, some looked like they were 60, and others looked much younger than 50. It was obvious that among 50 year-olds, the difference in how they aged is so glaring. The genes, hormones, diet, lifestyle ( especially smoking and exercise ), stress, environmental pollution and many other factors determine how we age. Some of my classmates have been suffering from chronic lifestyle health problems like diabetes and hypertension for many years. Many are overweight and do not exercise regularly, including those who were very fit athletes in school. Some have heart disease and had cardiac bypass surgery or angioplasty. One died of heart attack ( after playing badminton ) and several others died due to accidents. I guess they are typical of any group of 50 year-olds in Malaysia, which means that every year from now we are going to start hearing about serious health casualties, unless they drastically improve their health.
The dietary restriction in CR applies only to the calorie intake. The CR diet has 30% to 70% less calories compared to the amount usually taken. The amount of nutrients – vitamins, minerals, important proteins, carbohydrates, lipids and other factors in the diet – is not compromised. I have always promoted what I call “The Sensible Diet” which is a high nutrient and low calorie (HNLC) diet. To ensure adequate nutrient intake, I advise taking supplements when eating less food. The CR diet is an extension of this, with a more drastic reduction in calories.
While on the CR diet, there is weight loss and initial weakness, but the activity levels return to normal after sometime. Biomarkers of aging also return to normal levels and the subject remains healthy. Research performed at the National Institute of Aging (USA) shows that many of the beneficial effects of CR are seen in mice, rats, primates and even humans.
One human study was the Biosphere 2 experiment in which eight scientists followed a CR diet for about 2 years. They experienced the same physiological changes as those encountered in calorie-restricted primates. However, more research into the effects of CR on humans is needed before it is universally accepted, but the future looks promising.
REDUCED METABOLISM CONSERVES QI
A reduced calorie intake means that the cells have to work less to burn or store the calories. The mitochondria have to work less, conserving Qi while at the same time ensuring that free-radical production is much reduced. Qi provides the energy spark that powers the mitochondrial energy-generating mechanism. Free radicals are usually produced in large numbers during energy production which occurs here. Free radicals are ultimately responsible for the cellular damage that cause aging, chronic diseases, and cancer. Someday, scientists will understand Qi and its effects on health, healing, aging and longevity; and perhaps include it in the list of benefits attributed to CR.
BENEFICIAL EFFECTS OF CR
Among the benefits of CR found through research are:
· Reduces body weight
· Lowers blood pressure and pulse rate
· Improves insulin sensitivity and reduces blood glucose levels
· Lowers body temperature
· Improves activity of key metabolic enzymes
· Modulates apoptosis ( orderly cell death )
· Improves DNA repair
· Increases Protein synthesis
· Increases elimination of proteins damaged by free radicals
· Reduces free radicals (both in numerical and in activity terms)
· Lowers LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides
· Increases muscle mass and reduces fat mass (including intra-abdominal fat)
· Boosts endogenous DHEA ( an important pro-hormone )
· Modulates growth hormone secretion
· Improves memory, cognition, energy, and physical activity
· Stimulates BDNF (a nerve growth factor which benefits brain function)
· Reduces the risk of chronic disease (heart disease, diabetes, cancer and arthritis)
· Inhibition of cancer cell growth
· Stimulation of healthy cell growth
CR IN RELIGIOUS FASTING
Whilst fasting conforms to the calorie restriction criterion, the health benefits can only be expected if the calorie reduction is sustained over sometime, including after breaking-fast time. This is where those who fast properly and those who don’t get vastly different health benefits, as far as aging and longevity are concerned. Although I elaborate on the Muslim fast below, the principles about eating lightly ( but repeatedly) in breaking the fast apply to anyone who fasts for health.
The proper Muslim fast begins after a small pre-dawn meal. Fasting continues until dusk. Breaking of fast is by sweet foods such as dates and sweetened drinks. After a short rest for prayer, the meal follows. At all times the guideline for the good Muslim ( and true for everyone else too ) is that the stomach should only be filled one-third with food. Another third is reserved for fluids, and the final third always left empty, ie. one should never eat or drink until the stomach is full. Then it is time for the prayer again. The night prayer in Ramadhan is somewhat long, after which it is time for supper. In this way, the body is gently fed small meals when the fast is broken. If the full anti-aging and longevity effects are desired, then the meals must be very light ( take nutritional supplements also ).
Unfortunately, the trend in Malaysia is that fasting has turned into a gastronomic festival, more so as the nation becomes more affluent. For many, the fast is broken with a huge meal, defeating any health benefit that may have been achieved while fasting. The scrumptious dishes offered at the Bazaar Ramadhan and the sumptuous, albeit expensive, meals served at the hotel Ramadhan Buffets ( most hotel buffets are fully booked ) help ensure this transgression. Indeed many such Muslims actually gain weight during Ramadhan. Even if they don’t, the delicacies served during the month-long Hari Raya open houses that follow will make sure they do later. So it is a real challenge to maintain one’s weight, what more to reduce it, during the combined Ramadhan and Hari Raya period.
Very few people are able or willing to undergo a period of prolonged hunger in order to live a few extra years. Research has shown that a CR regime lasting for two years reverses many age-related changes. Fortunately, even a four week period of CR is capable of reversing about 70% of those changes. In other words, 1 month of proper (calorie-restricted) fasting during Ramadhan can significantly slow down aging and prolong life.
This is another reason for local Muslims to fast according to how Prophet Muhammad ( may God bless him and give him peace ) fasted, and not indulge in the extravagance that now characterizes the fasting month here. I don’t want to be a spoil-sport to suggest that we skip the Ramadhan buffets and send the money saved to the starving children of Darfur ( Sudan). But it would really be commendable if the hotels donate some of their profits from these buffets towards the cause.
GETTING QI ENERGY DURING THE NIGHT PRAYER ( TARAWIKH)
As explained above, the true calorie-restricted fasting will conserve Qi. In addition, extra Qi can be achieved through the special Ramadhan prayers.
I have often related how I first experienced Qi while doing the early morning prayer about 15 years ago, and that the main exercise of Islamic Qigong ( Tang Ping Gong) is almost identical to the Muslim’s ritual prayer. The tarawikh night prayer, which is a long prayer done only during Ramadhan, is an excellent opportunity for Muslims to get the Qi. However, it must be done in a slow, relaxed, but disciplined manner. But it will make the prayer even longer. Incidentally, the meaning of tarawikh is “to rest” or “relax”. The prayers were originally done without any hurry, with rest and discussion periods in between.
Now, however, most people do not have the patience, and in some mosques, the prayers are done so fast such that the older folks have problems catching up with the Imam!
THE CALORIE RESTRICTION SOCIETY
The CR enthusiasts have in fact formed The Calorie Restriction Society ( motto is ” Fewer Calories. More Life” ). The stated goal is to achieve a longer and healthier life by eating fewer calories while maintaining adequate nutrition, based on the premise that CR is the only intervention proven to retard aging and extend maximum lifespan in studies on mammals. The CR Society ( www.calorierestriction.org) aims to translate the research findings into practice. For references to this article, please refer to the website.