Fasting heals the brain and body

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Words by Dr. Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director of The LightHouse Arabia

Dr. Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director of The LightHouse Arabia

While many enjoy the reflective, spiritual, and community aspects that are part of this month, they struggle with moodiness and fatigue, which they attribute to lack of food or water during the day. The truth is that being ‘moody’ and ‘tired’ probably is the result of people experiencing withdrawals from addictive substances, dehydration, poor sleep, lack of exercise, and eating poorly at sunset. 

The research is conclusive:  fasting, when done right, is healing and restorative for your physical health.

Here are some benefits you should know about fasting and your physical health. 

  1. Fasting turns on autophagy –  Autophagy is fundamental to the body cleaning, healing, and rebuilding itself. The digestive system uses 40-50% of the body’s energy. When the body gets time off of digesting food, it kicks on its rest and recovery system and starts to clean and heal itself of bacteria and viruses, dead and deteriorated cells, and damaged proteins. A lack of autophagy is linked to most mental and physical health problems.⠀
  1. Fasting reduces inflammation. Inflammation is the root cause of many mental and physical health diseases such as depression, anxiety, diabetes, auto-immune disease, multiple sclerosis, and IBS. Fasting reduces monocytes in the blood, which are the cells that cause inflammation in the blood.⠀
  1. Fasting improves mood and stress levels. Fasting helps to stabilize the cortisol and reduce stress, tension, anger, confusion, and depression. Some might think that fasting makes them more tired and less focused, but scientifically speaking, abstaining from food and water for a certain period of the day, cannot result in people feeling tired and less focused. What they are most likely describing is the first week of detoxing, or poor habits they adopt during the month of Ramadan, such as eating heavy late at night, staying up all night, and not focusing on their hydration.  If done right and with consideration, you will find yourself with more energy and more clarity. ⠀
  1. Fasting improves learning and memory by increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), related to improved learning capacity, and memory. ⠀
  1. Fasting reduces blood pressure. Hypertension or prehypertension lowers blood flow to the brain. Low blood flow to the brain has been seen with depression, bipolar disorder, ADD/ADHD, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse, and Alzheimer’s. Fasting regulates your blood pressure, improving overall health. 

The aforementioned benefits cannot be utilized if the person is not intentional with how they spend this month. Many of the bad habits (staying up all night, eating fried and heavy foods, drinking coffee late at night etc.) that are adopted during this month are culturally condoned and unhealthy, defeating the purpose of this month all together. If we fast with intention, and are mindful about what we are eating, staying hydrated, sleeping properly, and continuing on with our physical exercise, only then will we reap the benefits of this month.  

As a clinical psychologist for the past 13 years, Dr. Saliha Afridi has spent 12 years working in the UAE and founded The Lighthouse Arabia in 2011, a community mental health and wellness clinic providing quality psychological and psychiatric care to children, adults, couples, and families. Dr. Afridi has worked with prominent companies and ministries such as The Executive Council, The National Program for Happiness and Well-being from the Happiness Ministry, many professional service firms, and fortune 100 companies in her bid to dissolve mental health stigma and be at the forefront of the mental health movement within the UAE and the region. Dr. Afridi’s vision is to make mental health practices more accessible through licensing and insurance reforms, changes within the education system to teach about mental health and emotional and mental wellbeing from a young age, taking a preventative approach to mental health rather than a treatment-based approach. Seeing the need for increased mental health literacy, she took the initiative to bring the internationally acclaimed Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) to the UAE  in 2017, with The LightHouse Arabia becoming the only licensed provider for the evidence-based course which enables adults and teens to become accredited mental health first aiders. Dr. Afridi is committed to leading and being at the center of the continued positive mental health changes to be seen in the region.