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Fasting and Your Biological Rhythms
By Ebrahim Kazim, M.B., B.S., D.T.M & H., M.R.C.P.

Allah (all glory be to Him) tells us in the Holy Quran about Ramadan that,  “(He wants you) to complete the prescribed period (of fasting), and to glorify  Him in that He has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful.” (2:185) 

Many benefits, in addition to the spiritual, result from completing this  prescribed period of fasting. This article attempts to explain those related to  our biological rhythms. 

The Stages of Sleep 

The background activity of the brain is called the electroencephalogram (EEG)  and can be recorded by the use of scalp electrodes. The dominant frequency  and amplitude characteristic of the surface EEG varies with states of arousal. 

A person goes through five stages while going to sleep.

Calm wakefulness is accompanied by alpha waves 8-12 Hz (cycles per second)  and low voltage fast activity of mixed frequency. This is called stage one.  Alpha waves disappear when we open our eyes. 

As sleep deepens into stage two, bursts of 12-14 Hz (sleep spindles) and high  amplitude slow waves appear. 

The deep sleep of stages three and four is featured by an increasing  proportion of high voltage slow activity. Breathing is regular in slow-wave sleep or  non-REM (Rapid Eye Movements) sleep. 

Delta activity (very slow waves, 0.5-4 Hz, high amplitude) is unusual in a  normal record and accompanies deep sleep i.e. stages three and four sleep. 

After about 70 minutes or so mostly spent in stages three and four, the first  REM period occurs, usually heralded by an increase in body movements, and a  shift in the EEG pattern from stage four to stage two. These rapid low-voltage  irregular waves resemble those seen in alert humans; sleep, however, is not  interrupted. This is called stage 5 or REM sleep, when the EEG activity gets  desynchronised. There is marked muscle atonia despite the rapid eye movements in  REM sleep, and the breathing is irregular.

Theta activity with a pattern of large regular waves occurs in normal  children and is briefly seen in stage one sleep and also in REM sleep. 

Non-REM (NREM) sleep passes through stages one and two, and spends 60-70  minutes in stages three and four. Sleep then lightens and a REM period follows.  This cycle is repeated three or four times per night, at intervals of about 90 minutes throughout the night, depending on the length of sleep. REM sleep  occupies 25% of total sleeping time.

When the eyes are opened, the alpha rhythm is replaced by fast irregular low  voltage activity with no dominant frequency, called the alpha block. Any form  of sensory stimulation or mental concentration such as solving arithmetic  problems could produce this break-up of the alpha rhythm. This replacement of the  regular alpha rhythm with irregular low voltage activity is called  “desynchronisation”. 

Fasting Positively Affects Sleep 

During the first few hours of an Islamic fast, the EEG is normal. However,  the frequency of the alpha rhythm is decreased by a low blood glucose level.  This may happen at the end of the fasting day towards evening when the blood  sugar is low. 

Fasting improves the quality and intensifies the depth of sleep, a matter of  particular importance to the aged who have much less stage three and four  sleep (deep sleep). The processes of repair of the body and of the brain take  place during sleep. Two hours of sleep during the month of Ramadan are more  satisfying and refreshing than more hours of sleep otherwise! 

REM sleep and dreaming are closely associated. Dreaming may be necessary to  maintain health, but prolonged REM deprivation has no adverse psychological  effects. Dreaming sleep occupies 50% of the sleep cycle in infants and  decreases with age. Brain synthetic processes occur in deep sleep; brain protein  molecules are synthesized in the brain during deep sleep or used in REM sleep in  restoring cerebral function. Fasting significantly increases deep sleep and  leads to a fall in REM sleeping time or dreaming time, and also accelerates  synthesis of memory molecules.

Fasting and the Circadian Rhythm 

The period of the circadian pace-maker in humans is 24 hours 11 minutes.  Hormonal secretion is frequently characterized by rhythmic fluctuations which may  be regular or irregular in periodicity. The period of regular oscillation  may be as short as a few minutes or as long as a year. 

The body timing system that drives circadian rhythms is exposed to external  factors ranging from the imposed activity-rest cycle, the natural light-dark  cycle, and social activities outside the workplace. 

There are biological pacemakers or oscillators within the body with  time-keeping capacity which synchronise with the external environmental cycles such as  light. Environmental cues that synchronize biological pacemakers are called “zeitgebers” (from the German “time-givers”), and the process of re-setting  the pacemaker is called re-synchronization. 

The light/dark cycle is a potent zeitgeber for circadian rhythm but daily  cycles in temperature, food availability, social interaction (such as  congregational prayers) and even electro-magnetic field strength synchronize circadian  rhythm in certain species. Because of recurring cycles of light, temperature  and food availability, organisms evolved endogenous rhythms of metabolism and  behavior providing response to specific environmental cycles. Many biological  rhythms reflect the period of one of four environmental cycles: cycles of the  tide, of day and night, of moon phase and of seasons. 

Muslims who have been fasting regularly since childhood, have been exposed to  different sleep/wake and light/darkness cycles on a daily basis in one annual  lunar month. Hence, it may be easier for such persons to synchronize their circadian, circalunar and circannual biological rhythms under difficult  conditions. 

Fasting, Jet Lag and Shift Work 

International travel across time zones produces symptoms of jet lag such as  sleep disturbances, gastro-intestinal disorders, decreased alertness, fatigue  and lack of concentration and motivation. 

Factors contributing to symptoms of jet lag are (1) external desynchronizing  due to immediate differences between body time and local time at the end of  the flight. (2) internal desynchronisation due to the fact that different  circadian rhythms in the body re-synchronies at different rates, and during the  re-synchronisation period, these rhythms will be out of phase with one another. 

General symptoms arising from resynchronization include tiredness during the  day and disturbed sleep and reaction time. The severity of these adverse  effects and therefore the time required for re-synchronization depends on the  ability to pre-set the bodily rhythms prior to flying, the number of time zones  crossed, the direction of flight, age, social interaction and activity. NASA  estimates that it takes one day for every time zone crossed to regain normal  rhythm and energy levels. A 6-hour time-difference thus needs 6 days to get back 
to normal. 

Rapid adaptation to a new zone can be facilitated by maximizing exposure to  zeitgebers for the new cycle e.g. changing to meal times and sleep times  appropriate to the new time zone. Maximizing social contact and exposure to natural lighting will result in faster resynchronization than staying at home in a  hotel and eating and sleeping without regard to local time. There are  widespread individual variations in the rapidity of resynchronization. 

Muslims who fast regularly and who have experienced disturbed  wakefulness/sleep cycles on a daily lunar annual basis, can adapt themselves much faster to  different time zones during international travel and do not suffer from the ill  effects of jet lag. Moreover, the social contact during the Tarawih  congregational prayer and the other social-cum–spiritual activities act as zeitgebers  which regulate any desynchronized biological rhythm. 

Shift workers also experience similar symptoms as jet lag, especially  gastro-intestinal, cardiovascular, and sleep disorders and also reproductive  dysfunctions in women. The inverted schedule of sleeping and waking also results in  diminished alertness and performance during night-time work with attendant  increase in the number of fatigue-related accidents during night time shift hours.  Normally, a period of three weeks is required for re-synchronization among  shift workers, and as the fasting Muslim attunes himself to resynchronization  processes during the space of just over four weeks in Ramadan, his health problems  as a shift worker would be negligible, as his synchronization processes would  be more rapid, whether during Ramadan or at any other time.

It is also a common observation that as soon as Ramadan is over, normal  circadian rhythms are established in the fasted Muslims with such great rapidity as  to be at par with pre-Ramadan levels on the first day of Shawwal, i.e. Eid-ul-Fitr.

Fasting and Encephalins 

During fasting, certain endogenous, narcotic-like substances known as opioids  (or endorphins) are released into the body. They have a tranquilizing effect  as well as an elating effect on the mind. These are also probably  responsible for prevention of psychosomatic diseases. The opioids have several effects,  including slowing down metabolism to conserve energy. Another effect of  opioids may be that, although they produce elation as well as intense hunger, they  do not drive the person to eat with sheer gluttony.

Muslims in Ramadan experience an ability to intensely focus their minds on  meditation, Quranic recitation and prayers. This spiritual gain during the Holy  Month is despite the fact that normal sleep/waking cycles are somewhat  disturbed and despite a long day of fasting. Perhaps now we have a closer idea as  to the science of this miraculous process.

Dr. Ebrahim Kazim is a medical doctor and the founder and director of the  Islamic Academy in Trinidad. The above article was excerpted with permission of  the author from his book “Further Essays on Islamic Topics”. 

courtesy: Henna Akhter



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