When we think of fasting, the first thing that comes to mind for most Muslims is Ramadan. After all, this is a time when most Muslims are fasting if they are able to. Families and friends are more likely to come together for iftaar in the evening. People are generally nicer and more people are thinking about charity and joy and reward. Overall, there is a general feeling of community and closeness to Allah (swt).
But fasting doesn’t need to be limited to one month a year, nor does it need to be a chore for women who have been busy growing and nurturing small humans. Many Muslims see fasting only as an obligation or having some sort of negative connotation. I have told by well meaning Muslims that that we fast simply because Allah (swt) has commanded or because fasting helps you to “appreciate” what you have. But Allah’s (swt) wisdom and mercy are infinite. As science has caught up with our deen, studies have shown that fasting can be an amazing way to reset.
The term “fasting” can mean many different things depending on what the intention is. When it comes to food, the two overall fasting types are dry fasting and wet fasting. Dry fasting involves abstaining from both food and water for a prescribed time. From a food only perspective, this is what we do in Ramadan. Wet fasting means that you abstain from food, but can have certain fluids. There are varying degrees of both wet and dry fasting. The most extreme dry fasts include abstaining from any exposure to water including showering or brushing your teeth, while the most lenient wet fasts include black coffee, black tea and even nut milks.
In addition to what we eat, different fasting methods also dictate when we we eat. The timing is either prolonged (longer than 24 hours) or intermittent. Fans of prolonged fasts say that not only is it possible, but every day of prolonged fasting increases benefits exponentially. However, studies behind these types of fasts are scarce, and someone that is not accustomed to fasting would no doubt find a prolonged fast extremely difficult.
Within intermittent fasting, you generally have a window without food, and a window with food. Ramadan is an example of dry intermittent fasting. Other intermittent fasting types include 12:12, 16:8, 20:4. The first number is your fasting window and the second number is your eating and drinking window. So if you are doing a 12:12 fast, you abstain from food and/or drink for 12 hours, and after that you are free to eat and drink for another 12 hours. A 16:8 fast is a 16 hour window of no food and/or drink and an 8 hour window of eating and drinking.
There are other types of fasts like 24 hour fasts, where you eat one meal per day, alternate day fasting, and 5:2 fasting, which is also a sunnah, involves fasting twice a week on prescribed days while eating and drinking as normal for the rest of the week.
There are an abundance of studies on the benefits of fasting, especially intermittent fasting that go beyond weight loss. Fasting has been shown to improve blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, improve brain function, control blood sugar levels, and fight inflammation among others. In addition, about 70% of the immune system is in the gut. Giving your gastrointestinal system any extended break will reap health benefits. And while food takes 6 – 8 hours to pass into the intestinal tract, it can take between 40 – 52 hours to be fully digested and excreted. The key is lower food intake with larger periods of gastrointestinal rest.
Fasting does not have to be difficult or torturous! Even a 12:12 fast can provide benefits for someone just starting out. If 12 hours seems like a long time to fast, remember that you are asleep for a part of the night, and this can boost your fasting window. A person sleeping 8 hours only needs to wait four additional hours in the morning before eating their first meal. If dry fasting is difficult, then try wet fasting first and work your way up to dry fasting. Although one day of dry fasting is equivalent to three days of wet fasting, any amount of extended fasting is beneficial.
Finally, although fasting can help you lose weight, the overwhelming evidence of health benefits make fasting worth it even if weight loss is not a concern.
Interested in fasting? I’ll be putting up two posts this week: one on tips for fasting success and another documenting my journey fasting over the past month. Stay tuned!
“But to fast is best for you, if you only knew.”