This Is Your Brain On Ramadan

Neurons in the brain - illustration

So here’s an interesting fact about the brain: During a period of fasting, a hormone is released that upsets how your body changes food into energy. When that happens, it increases the number of mitochondria in neurons that tell you when you’re hungry.

Neurobiologists at Yale University School of Medicine found that this caused mice to overeat. The study suggests there’s a connection between “breaking fast” and eating more that you need to replenish yourself.

“Typically we have noticed a trend in increased obesity and many incidence of diabetes during the Holy month because of irregular and inappropriate eating after breaking the fast,” said Dr. Wedad Al Maidor, family physician, and member of the Dubai Ministry of Health.

(From WAM’s article ‘Ahlan Ramadan’ encourages Healthy Ramadan.)

An article published by the American Diabetes Association doctors recommend distributing calories over 2-3 smaller meals during non-fasting hours help prevent type 2 diabetes.

So be careful not to binge during this month of Ramadan!

Why Are Dates So Common During Ramadan?

Your brain is like a spoiled little princess; she always wants the crème de la crème.

Borrowing a metaphor from a Medical News Today article, the body gets energy in two ways: high-octane glucose (sugar) or cheap, low-octane fat. Most of our body can take energy from either glucose or fat, but the brain is pickier – it’s glucose or nothing.

So when there is no glucose to be burned, the liver takes protein from the muscles, where it is transformed into glucose then shot up to the brain.

Just one date has about 15g of sugar – that’s a lot. So it makes sense that this would be a traditional way to break one’s fast before Iftar (the evening meal). What better way to raise everyone’s spirits than a small, quick shot of glucose to the brain?

But you only need a handful of dates. Don’t forget about those greedy little mice!

Fasting And Alzheimer’s

There seem to be some mysterious benefits for the brain in Ramadan-style fasting. A study conducted at the National Institute on Aging showed that intermittent deprivation of food can protect the brain from diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

[Mark] Mattson and his colleagues also shared data from research on humans, which shows that populations with higher caloric intakes—such as the United States and Europe—have a greater prevalence of Alzheimer’s than do populations that eat less—such as China and Japan. (From Andrea Useen’s article Why Religious Fasting Could Be Good for Your Brain.)

So how can it stave off degenerative brain diseases? Mattson claims fasting can actually creative new neurons. From his article published by the National Institutes of Health, it reads:

"[Dietary restriction] can stimulate the production of new neurons from stem cells (neurogenesis) and can enhance synaptic plasticity, which may increase the ability of the brain to resist aging and restore function following injury."

Now there was one part that seemed to conflict with what doctors recommend to prevent obesity and diabetes. Mattson suggest that we eat more in one sitting.

"…increasing the time interval between meals is beneficial, even when the size of the meals are increased to a level that results in no overall decrease in caloric intake."

Perhaps both the neuroscientists and diabetes specialists would be content if we slowly graze from sunset to bedtime.

Fasting May Even Affect Sleep

According to Dr. Ebrahim Kazim, a low blood-sugar level can lock the brain into stages of deep sleep. He writes:

"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!"

While this may be true if one goes to sleep before eating, we must wonder if this particular phenomenon belongs to Ramadan fasting. Breaking fast at sundown would increase the blood-sugar level. The question is if the evening meal would raise the blood-sugar level enough to improve the depth of sleep.

Ramadan Kareem!

Image:: flickr
Source {Muslim Voices} | Megan Meyer

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