Maha Shivratri 2023: Are There Any Health Benefits To Fasting?
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Maha Shivaratri is upon us, and like many festivals on the Hindu calendar and indeed the calendars of most major religions in the world, this one also entails fasting during the festival. The additional feature of Shivaratri is, of course, that one is expected to stay up all night. A feature that would hilariously backfire among some of our friends back in our school days – they would be so keyed up about the one time there was a legit reason to stay up all night that they would end up getting exhausted and falling asleep even earlier than usual.  

In a previous article, we spoke about the foundational reasons why most world religions have an aspect of fasting. In this piece, we thought we would try and understand if indeed there are any health benefits to it. What does science have to say about different kinds of fasting? And what do various research studies indicate as the benefits of fasting.  

Intermittent fasting has become incredibly common among health-conscious people these days. Intermittent fasting involves abstaining from food for a certain duration each day or week. Among the most common intermittent fasting strategies are:

    Alternating fasting: Eat like usual one day and then abstain from eating the next, or have a single tiny meal (fewer than 500 calories) on the fast day.

    5:2 fasting: Eat like usual five days out of the week and fast for the remaining two.

    Daily time-restricted fasting: Eat regularly but only within a period of eight hours every day. For instance, skip breakfast but have lunch around 12pm and dinner by 8pm.

Dr. Mark Mattson of Johns Hopkins University, who has studied intermittent fasting for 25 years, says that our bodies have evolved to be able to go without food for many hours, or even several days or longer. Mattson says that after hours without food, the body exhausts its sugar stores and starts burning fat. He refers to this as "metabolic switching." So, yes, it is possible for humans to go without food for significant periods of time. And in many cases, it may even be a desirable option, as the research on the benefits of fasting is only growing.

1.    Role in controlling blood sugar

Studies have found that fasting may improve blood sugar control, which could be useful among those who are at risk of diabetes. One small study with only 10 people with Type 2 diabetes showed that short-term intermittent fasting significantly decreased blood sugar levels. Another 2014 review concluded that intermittent and alternate-day fasting were as effective as limiting calorie intake at reducing insulin resistance. Lowering insulin resistance ensures more efficient transport of glucose to cells for storage.

2.    Role in lowering inflammation

Chronic inflammation could be a huge source of distress to the body and may result in a range of conditions, including heart disease, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis. One review of 18 studies found that intermittent fasting could significantly reduce levels of C-reactive protein, which is a marker of inflammation. Interestingly, one animal study showed that limiting calorie intake was shown to reduce levels of inflammation and was beneficial in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, a chronic inflammatory condition.

3.    Role in improving heart health

This is connected to the decreased insulin resistance that may be a consequence of fasting. When your body's glucose levels are stabilized, it hinders the chances of gaining weight and developing diabetes, both of which are major contributors to the development of cardiovascular issues and other heart-related illnesses. Studies have also shown that fasting can also be beneficial for heart health by reducing "bad" cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein (LDL), as well as decreasing blood pressure and inflammation; however, more research is required in this field.

4.    Role in autopsies and preventing certain conditions like Alzheimer'

Autophagy is a process that allows the body to break down and reuse old cell parts so they can work more efficiently. It is essentially a quality control for your cells and a process of good housekeeping to get rid of mutated cells which may otherwise develop into cancer or neurological conditions like Alzheimer's or Parkinson’s disease, according to the EMBO Journal. According to the Autophagy journal, fasting may be the best way to "reset" the body and help it run more efficiently by clearing out cellular debris.

More research needs to be done to truly understand the various facets of fasting and the benefits it holds for the human body. But if initial indicative reports are anything to go by, our ancestors clearly preceded them by sticking to regular fasting rituals even before modern science could come up with reasons why fasting may be good. This Shivaratri (or any other day you choose to fast), we wish you zero good food, but a great fast and even better health!