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Jakarta Post

Fasting can boost our mental health

  • Tommy Dharmawan

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Sat, July 19, 2014   /  01:00 pm

Every Ramadhan, Muslims all over the world fast from dawn to the dusk for a month. The fasting month is not only about shifting the pattern of intake from daytime to the hours of darkness, but also about working to control emotion to get through the fast. As the Prophet Muhammad said, Muslims who cannot hold their temper do not get anything from their fasting except hunger.

Although it is stressful to go without food, fasting can actually improve human emotional and mental health. The stressful part is normally the first few days. The mood-boosting effects of fasting may be an adaptive mechanism for long periods of hunger.

In other words, when we are hungry for a short time, our bodies release chemicals to protect our brains from the negative side effects.

During the first week of fasting, the body begins to adapt to hunger by releasing massive amounts of catecholamines hormones, including adrenaline, norepinephrine and dopamine as well as gluco-corticoids, steroid hormones, which are involved in regulating the immune response, and glucose metabolism. After a while, our body responds to this stress through a boost of good feelings that can improve our mental health.

One effective method to cope with stress is by religious activity '€” a behavioral-cognitive method to overcome tension and physical and psychological discomfort. Fasting coupled with the exercise of religious faith can speed recovery from depression in older patients.

Fasting decreases depression symptoms and downstages anxiety scores in 80 percent of chronic pain patients after just a few days, according to a study conducted by Michaelson in 2009. The mechanism behind this might be linked to the release of endorphins in the first 48 hours of fasting.

Fasting can also improve human sleep quality. Michaelson showed in 2003 that after 8 days of fasting, sleep improves significantly compared to pre-fasting conditions. Better quality of sleep usually leads to better mood.

Other researchers found that fasting boosts the level of available serotonin in the brain. This is thought to explain findings that fasting can significantly reduce migraine headaches.

For much of the 20th century, science seemed reluctant to study spirituality and ritual habit. Sigmund Freud declared God a delusion. But now, researchers are using technologies to understand spiritual experience and understand the benefit of spiritual activities, such as fasting, for a person'€™s body and mental health.

They'€™re peering into our brains and studying our bodies to look for circumstantial evidence of a spiritual world.

Scientists have completed research that indicates spirituality is a complex phenomenon and multiple areas of the brain are involved in the many aspects of spiritual experience. Brain imaging techniques, such as MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and PET (Positive Emission Tomography), which are presently being used to locate the different areas of the brain during religious rituals, show activity in some areas.

During religious activities, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the seat of attention, lights up and the superior parietal lobe (acting as the '€œorientation association area'€, which processes information about where our three-dimensional body stands in space and time, and which is situated toward the top and back of the brain) is switched-off, and so is the amygdale, which registers fear and anger by monitoring the environment for threats and dangers.

Scientists have speculated that the human brain features a '€œGod spot'€, one distinct area responsible for spirituality. Experimentally, bursts of electrical activity could be triggered in the temporal lobes through mini-electrodes, which produce sensations described by the patient as supernatural or a sense of the divine. Such brain storms can also appear in times of fasting when hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) happens.

This may be a reason that some people '€œfind God'€ in such moments. So, fasting that Muslims perform during Ramadhan affects this brain spot and can induce a more relaxing and comfortable mental state.
Scientists admit that fasting and other ritual activities give rise to a relaxed dualistic mind with intense feelings of love and joy when both excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain come into play to exert their biological and emotional effects.

In terms of emotion, fasting can teach us not to be greedy and curb our enthusiasm for consumerism. Fasting teaches us to eat less. But in practice, we often do the opposite. At dusk, we eat a lot of food to compensate for the lack of food during daytime. Thus, the benefits of fasting to control our emotions are not achieved.

Fasting also teaches us to spend less, but during Ramadhan people tend to shop more, especially for new clothes. The Prophet Muhammad taught Muslims not to be spendthrifts. He taught us to spend only on what we need. Fasting during Ramadhan also teaches Muslims solidarity for people who fight starvation and poverty by allocating funds for alms and donations for the poor and orphaned.

Fasting therefore not only advances physical but also mental health. Stay healthy during Ramadhan.

The writer is a medical doctor living in Jakarta.

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