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Fasting in Ramzan may prevent cancer: Studies

Hifzur R. Siddique and Homa Fatma

Ramzan is the most sacred month in the Islamic calendar, commemorating the momentous occasion when the holy Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammed. Spanning 29 to 30 days, this sacred month is marked by a profound spiritual journey for Muslims worldwide. Central to this observance is the daily fasting, wherein individuals abstain from food and drink from dawn until sunset, fostering discipline and empathy through shared experiences of hunger and thirst.

However, Ramzan encompasses far more than mere abstention from physical nourishment. It serves as a transformative period to increase self-reflection, compassion, and generosity. Charity, in particular, holds great significance during this time, as Muslims are urged to extend a helping hand to the needy, reinforcing the values of empathy and social responsibility. Most Muslims donated the Zakat money (one of the five pillars of Islam, generally described as a 2.5% tax on savings to be donated to the poor and needy) during this month.

Moreover, Ramzan is a time for self-examination and spiritual growth. Beyond refraining from indulging in gossip or other sinful behaviors, Muslims are prompted to engage in introspection, seeking forgiveness, and striving for personal improvement. Through prayer, reflection, and worship, individuals cultivate virtues such as patience, gratitude, and humility. Ultimately, Ramadan catalyzes positive change, instilling values of compassion, self-discipline, and spiritual growth that extend far beyond its temporal confines.

Fasting during Ramzan offers numerous physical, mental, and spiritual benefits. Observational studies examining the potential association between Ramadan fasting and cancer risk have indeed yielded some intriguing findings, particularly regarding certain types of cancer, such as lung, breast, liver, and colorectal cancers. Improvements in lung function and respiratory health during fasting may lower the risk of developing lung cancer. Several studies have explored the relationship between Ramadan fasting and breast cancer risk, with mixed findings.

Some observational studies have reported a potential protective effect of fasting against breast cancer, possibly attributed to changes in hormone levels, metabolic factors, or dietary patterns during Ramadan. For example, fasting may lead to alterations in insulin (the hormone that helps in the absorption of sugar from the blood) levels, which could influence breast cancer risk. Studies have investigated the impact of Ramzan fasting on colorectal cancer risk.

Some research suggests that intermittent fasting may have beneficial effects on gastrointestinal health, such as reducing inflammation, improving gut microbiota composition, and enhancing bowel function. These factors could potentially lower the risk of developing colorectal cancer.

The potential mechanisms via which fasting can prevent the development of certain types of cancers include reduced glucose availability, improved insulin sensitivity, cellular regeneration, and autophagy (removal of an unnecessary body component). Glucose availability plays a significant role in cancer development and progression, and fasting can potentially influence cancer risk by altering glucose metabolism. Cancer cells show increased demands for glucose as compared to normal body cells. During fasting, glucose availability in the bloodstream decreases, which prompts the body to utilize other energy sources. This energy source shift creates stress on cancer cells, which may be less adaptive to nutrient fluctuations. Further, fasting regulates the insulin levels in the body, which are often associated with an increased risk of cancer.

Autophagy is crucial in maintaining the cellular environment stable, promoting cell survival, and protecting against various diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, etc. Numerous laboratories are doing intense research to develop drugs to target autophagy in different diseases. Fasting triggers a state of metabolic stress within cells due to the temporary deprivation of nutrients, which alters the cells’ essential state and induces autophagy.

Prof. Yoshinori Ohsumi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2016 for his discoveries of the mechanisms of autophagy and its link to fasting. In summary, fasting induces autophagy, which removes harmful components of the cells, resulting in healthy cellular integrity, reduced risk of cancer initiation, and increased lifespan. Autophagy induced by fasting also reduces chronic inflammation in the body, which is one of the reasons for the development of cancer.

On the other hand, fasting allows the body to detoxify and cleanse itself, giving rest to the digestive system and promoting rejuvenation and detoxification. It can improve metabolic health, insulin sensitivity, and blood sugar control.

Many individuals report increased mental clarity and focus during fasting. With fewer fluctuations in blood sugar levels, cognitive function may improve, leading to heightened alertness and concentration.

Fasting during Ramzan fosters a deeper spiritual awareness and connection with one’s faith. It helps in spiritual growth through self-introspection and reflection, strengthening one’s relationship with God and fostering a greater sense of gratitude and mindfulness.

Ramzan fasting cultivates self-discipline and self-control. By abstaining from food, drink, and other indulgences during daylight hours, individuals learn to exercise restraint and develop tremendous willpower, which can extend beyond the month of Ramadan into different aspects of life.

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Overall, Ramzan fasting offers a holistic approach to health and well-being, encompassing physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions, which also includes creating a less hospitable environment for tumor growth.

The authors are associated with the Aligarh Muslim University

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