There is surprisingly little definitive research results of whether fasting is good for your health. Ramadan is a very special type of fasting - and perhaps more difficult to research. But why don't we know if fasting is healthy?
Studies of the effects of fasting on health fail due to the medical paradigm. A typical statement from the medical systems are like this WIKI quote " Benefits include reduced risks of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, insulin resistance, immune disorders, and more generally, the slowing of the aging process, and the potential to increase maximum life span". Duh.. These are mostly medical benefits, not health benefits. And the next step taken by the 'medical paradigm' is to measure the 'side effects' of fasting, as if fasting was a 'medicine'. I think trying to study health using the medical paradigm is a bit like trying to study darkness by shining a light on it.
Why don't we know if fasting is good for your health? Because we don't measure health. We only measure illness. And we don't have a solid framework to define and study health. How can you measure health effects without a clear definition of health?
If you read my blog - you may know that I have developed a framework for understanding and studying health, as opposed to illness. The primary components of health are nutritional health, cellular health, tissue health, organ health, systems health, body health, mind health, spirit health and community health.
With this framework we have useful way to study the effects of fasting on health. One step at a time.
What are the effects of fasting on:
Nutritional Health: at first glance we might think that fasting could not possibly improve nutritional health, but looking closer we can see at least two nutritional advantages. First, if we eat the same, or similar foods repeatedly over a long time period our bodies are exposed to the toxins in those foods. Every food contains some toxins. By fasting, we stop our exposure to those toxins for the length of the fast, giving our bodies time to clear out and recover. Secondly, many people fast by avoiding on some foods. This may force consumption of more 'different foods'. If the standard diet is deficient - the fasting diet may provide missing nutrients. Both of these areas are potential rich areas of study - if we study health. The first major stumbling block is that we don't have any validated, commonly used techniques to measure nutritional health.
Cellular Health: does fasting make our cells healthier? I'm not sure we have any method of measuring overall cellular health. Can you imagine going to your doctor and she says "I'm sending you to the lab to test the health of your cells" - or even a subset "I'm sending you to the lab to test the health of your blood cells" or "your skin cells". When we can measure cellular health, we can take the next step - to measure whether or not fasting improves cellular health in the short, medium and long term. Of course we might learn that fasting improves the health of some types of cells and degrades the health of some other cells - there are hundreds of different types of cells in the body.
Tissue Health: does fasting improve tissue health? Health proponents claim that fasting helps the body to clear toxins and improve tissue health. Medical practitioners say... ? Well, medical practitioners do not measure tissue health on a regular basis, so what could they say? Suffice to say they don't have any meaningful agreement on any meaningful statements. When we can reliably measure tissue health - we can take the next step and measure the effects of various types of fasting on tissue health.
Organ health: do you see a pattern here? Medical practitioners research organ illness, but do not measure organ health in any useful fashion. It is not at all uncommon for someone to have a medical, be given a 'clean bill of health', and then rapidly succumb to organ failure that was not detected. Because we don't measure organ health. When we learn to measure organ health effectively, we can measure the effects of fasting on organ health.
System Health: does fasting improve or degrade your circulatory system? your lymphatic system? your digestive system? We don't measure system health, so how can we know?
Body Health: is the whole more that the sum of the parts? The body is more than the sum of the cells, tissues and organs. We need to learn to understand this more clearly. To define 'body health' clearly enough that we have useful measurements of body health - separate from measurements of illness, before we can measure the effects of fasting on the body. And when we speak of the effects of fasting on the body - our statement should be separate from statements about the effects of health on the liver, the respiratory system, etc.
Mind Health: is fasting good for your mind? Does it improve your memory? Your calculation abilities? Your planning abilities? In the short term? Medium term? Long Term? We have techniques to make these studies - but there are no 'standard lab tests'. When we can reliably, expertly measure mind health - we can study the effects of fasting on mind health. Mind Health studies may be the most difficult for our society to accept as a general practice, but it is an essential component of health measurement.
Community Health: does fasting improve community health? Studies have shown that there are fewer crimes committed during fasting periods, like Ramadan. That is one component of community health. What other components we should measure to understand community health?
Spiritual Health: does fasting promote spiritual health? It is an interesting question in light of the fact that most people fast based on spiritual beliefs. But how do we measure spiritual health? At present, we have no way to measure spiritual health - although we might have two fleeting impressions. One - spiritual health exists and can be strong or weak in different individuals and in the same individual at different times in their life. Two - measuring spiritual health might be dangerous from a religious or political perspective.
So.... Does fasting improve health? We don't know. Frankly, we don't reliably know if anything improves health (as opposed to avoiding or curing disease) - because we don't measure health.
I believe in Personal Health Freedom. I believe we need to study health, separately from our studies of medicine, if we are to truly understand health. This is one necessary first step to true Health Freedom.
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Tracy is the author of two book about healthicine: