“Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may develop self-restraint” (Qur’ān 2:183).
The first command to fast in the Qur’ān contains inherent wisdom behind why we should fast – to develop self-restraint. This concept of self-restraint is a central tenet in many religions, but it is also one of the most predictive factors in long-term success. Most people find it difficult to give up a single meal occasionally, let alone for an entire month. But research finds that self-restraint has long-term consequences. When young children are presented with an attractive toy or piece of candy and told not to touch it until a timer goes off, those who showed the strongest self-restraint by waiting for the timer, were found, 14 years later, to have higher executive functioning – a term psychologists use to describe higher order cognitive abilities, including problem solving, good decision-making, and the ability to switch from one task to another. Developmental psychologists believe that self-restraint, one aspect of emotional intelligence, plays a more substantial role in long-term life success than even IQ.
What does self-restraint have to do with life success? Self-restraint requires willpower and determination, key ingredients in following through with tasks and goals when they become demanding, rather than giving up. Fasting, which by its nature, requires that people refrain from what is most appealing to them for long periods of time, provides one of the most definitive exercises in willpower and determination that together translate into self-restraint. And self-restraint is key to success.
The physical effects of fasting are well-known and researched – weight loss, cell regeneration, slower aging, prevention of chronic diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Far less known are the psychological benefits of fasting, though research points to an array of positive effects of fasting on mental health, including:
- Improved mood – after hours of fasting, women reported feeling an increased sense of achievement, reward, pride, and control, which indicates a rise in self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. These effects are partly produced by an increase in certain hormones while fasting, and also by that feeling of euphoria experienced after accomplishing a difficult task, which acts as a powerful feel-good drug on the brain.
- Lower stress and anxiety – A more direct effect of fasting on the brain is the production of brain proteins that mimics the effects of anti-depressant drugs, lowering levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. In fact, improvements in anxiety were so great in individuals who fast that clinicians have suggested using it as a tool to treat depression and other mood disorders.
- Increased alertness – despite popular myths suggesting that fasting increases irritability and sleepiness, individuals who fast instead seem to benefit from increased vigilance and alertness. Our body converts food into glucose, an excess of which leads to feelings of sluggishness and sleepiness, which most people experience right after eating. Fasting helps regulate glucose levels in the body, thereby reducing sluggishness and increasing alertness. An increase in alertness translates into several other benefits.
- Improved attention – alertness leads to better attention for both mundane tasks like getting ready in the morning, and complex tasks like driving.
- Improved memory – better attention is the key to a healthier memory. Remembering where you parked your car is hardly a function of how forgetful you are, and more an indication of how well you paid attention in the first place. Fasting can therefore be a cure to the disease of inattention. Fasting also has a direct effect on memory by rejuvenating cells in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, thus acting like a “spring cleaning” for the brain, leading to better cognitive functioning.
- Improved sleep quality – Individuals who fast experience significant improvements in the quality of their sleep, and this is in turn related to improvements in mood. Sleep can almost be described as a magic pill in psychology. People who sleep the recommended daily hours experience improvements in many aspects of psychological and physical health.
Fasting is challenging for many – depriving ourselves of food is one of the most difficult things to do. But Islam commands fasting upon us with a clear indication of the benefits we may attain – self-restraint, which consequently leads to greater consciousness of God, and better focus during our worship of God.