Fasting practices improve gut health, reduce disease risk - Health expert

A tradition with modern medical benefits

24 Mar 2024 07:03am

FASTING has been a practice observed since the time of Prophet Adam, as narrated by Ibn Kathir, involving fasting three days every month.

These three days, known as the white days, were also observed by Prophet Muhammad and fall on the 13th, 14th, and 15th days of the Islamic lunar calendar month.

But what makes fasting a practice of the prophets? Surely, it carries health benefits and virtues.

Sinar Islam interviewed Dr Nik Ahmad Hilmi Nik Zaid, a Medical Officer in General Medicine at Universiti Sains Malaysia Hospital, to shed light on this matter.

Dr Nik Ahmad disclosed that fasting is observed in various communities in different forms, including intermittent fasting (IF), which encompasses alternate-day fasting (fasting every other day) and modified fasting regimens, where calorie intake is reduced by 20 per cent on two days of the week.

"Ramadan fasting, where individuals fast for about 12 hours daily before breaking their fast, is also widely practiced," he said.

Good effect on metabolic symptoms

From a health perspective, Dr Nik Ahmad highlighted the many benefits of fasting, particularly for metabolic syndrome.

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"This disorder, characterised by interrelated health issues such as high blood pressure, abdominal fat accumulation, and elevated blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, can be positively impacted by fasting," he said.

He said that a person is considered to suffer from this syndrome when he experiences three out of five health conditions, namely hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, high triglycerides, diabetes, and obesity.

"Fasting also has a positive effect on gut microbiota, which refers to the densest population of microorganisms in the gut and helps efficient digestion.

"Fasting also has a positive effect on body metabolism efficiency and reduces the risk of atherosclerosis-related heart diseases and strokes," he said.

Fasting such as Ramadan fasting or intermittent fasting can harmonise gut microbiota. - Image for illustrative purposes only. - 123RF
Fasting such as Ramadan fasting or intermittent fasting can harmonise gut microbiota. - Image for illustrative purposes only. - 123RF

Dr Nik Ahmad added studies also indicated that fasting can lead to weight loss and indirectly reduce the risk of breast, colon, and prostate cancers.

On the benefits of fasting for the intestines, he stressed that the microbiota present in the intestines has a rhythm and active time according to day and night cycles.

"These microbiotas are active during the day and become passive at night.

“Obese patients and those with atherosclerotic disease (blood vessel blockages) typically experience disruptions in gut microbiota.

"This is a metabolic disorder along with the tendency of gut microbiota obesity in the systemic inflammation process, which is a major factor in obesity and atherosclerotic diseases," he said.

Dr Nik Ahmad added studies also revealed that fasting can harmonise the metabolism of gut microbiota and reduce the production of proteins that lead to inflammation.

However, he cautioned against fasting before surgery to prevent food-related complications during surgical procedures.

"If patients do not fast before surgery, it is feared that the food can cause bacterial infections and inflammation in the lungs, and dependence on respiratory machines will be prolonged," he added.

Patients with GERD, gastric

On concerns about fasting and gastrointestinal diseases such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), Dr Nik Ahmad categorised patients into moderate and high-risk levels.

He advised high-risk patients, particularly those who have experienced intestinal bleeding, against fasting.

Moderate-risk patients can fast after consulting a doctor and taking appropriate medication.

Lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, losing weight, and avoiding spicy, carbonated, and fatty foods can help prevent GERD attacks.

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