18/06/2015 11:30 BST | Updated 15/06/2016 06:59 BST

Fasting: It's More Than Just Starvation

Fasting is often associated with those in search for mental clarity, divine guidance and inner serenity. It is a practice that has existed for centuries and is still continued today, not just for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment but for its health benefits; be it to regenerate the immune system or even treat various disorders such as diabetes and epilepsy.

Over the next month millions of Muslims across the world will be observing fasts during the month of Ramadhan (the Islamic month of fasting). Fasting is a very important component in Islam; it is one of the five main pillars that make up the values of the religion and is also seen as a practice that is good for the soul. It encourages one to take stock of their life and their actions, and inspires others to care for the less fortunate. Charity and the spirit of sacrifice are considered a big element during this month.

Many religions believe that fasting is prescribed not just for its spiritual benefits, but also for the positive mental and physical effects of intermittent or short periods of fasting. Before Islam the practice of fasting existed in all religions but often it was only compulsory for a particular section of the community. For example, In the Greeks, fasting was only prescribed for the women. Among the Zoroastrians, fasting was necessary for their priests only and for Hindus fasting was not necessary for the non-Brahmans. Traditionally observant Jews fast six days of the year with the exception of Yom Kippur, however fasting is never permitted on Shabbat.

So in honour of the month of fasting here is a brief look some of the physical and mental benefits of fasting.

Benefits the brain

The earliest records of therapeutic fasting date back to the ancient civilizations of Greece and the Near East; Plato and Socrates considered fasting as an important component for physical and mental efficiency. Pythagoras required his students to fast before entering his classes. Recent studies have shown that intermittent fasting can enhance learning and memory and can decrease the risk of degenerating brain function. According to research by the Society for Neuroscience the stress of fasting helps the brain adapt and improve energy flow of neurons and increases the production of a protein called brain derived neutrophic factor (BDNF) which is thought to be key in the growth and division of mitochondria (known as the powerhouse of cells).

Mark Mattson, chief neuroscientist at the National Institute of Ageing has released various studies that show the neurological effects of intermittent fasting. Tests conducted with mice showed that periodic fasting protects neurons against various kinds of damaging stress. One of his studies revealed intermittent fasting made the mice's brains resistant to toxins that induce cellular damage similar to the kind cells suffer as they age. He also discovered that this practice also "protects against stroke damage, suppresses motor deficits in a mouse model of Parkinson's disease and slows cognitive decline in mice genetically engineered to mimic the symptoms of Alzheimer's."

Cures disease and increases lifespan

Again dating back as far as the Ancient Egyptians, it has been documented that physicians of that time prescribed therapeutic fasting to cure various ailments including Syphilis. Prominent Greek physician Hippocrates recognized therapeutic fasting very important in curing disease, he was famously quoted to have said: "Instead of using medicine, rather fast a day." In the early 1900s, western doctors began recommending periods of fasting to treat various disorders--including diabetes, obesity and epilepsy.

In another similar study conducted at Cornell University by nutritionist Clive McCay, the results showed that the specimen rats that were subjected to stringent daily dieting from an early age lived longer and were less likely to develop cancer and other diseases compared to animals that ate at will.

Refraining from food for as little as two days can regenerate the immune system, helping the body to fight infection.

Cure for Cancer?

It seems like quite a preposterous concept but according to new studies intermittent fasting or certain periods of fasting can help regenerate cells during treatment and chemotherapy. Studies have shown that fasting reduces levels of the enzyme PKA, an effect which is known to increase longevity in simple organisms, as well as levels of the hormone IGF-1, which has been linked to ageing, tumour progression and cancer risk.

In 2007 a report produced by Krista Vardy and Marc Hellerstein showed that Alternate Day Fasting was linked to reduced blood levels of glucose, IGF-1, Insulin and bad fats, which in the long term reduced the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

In other studies long periods of fasting significantly lowered white blood cell counts. In mice, each cycle of fasting instigated a switch that triggered stem cell-based regeneration of new white blood cells, and in turn renews the body's defense system. In 2014 Dr Valter Longo of the University of Southern California released a study that showed that a three day fast could regenerate a strong immune system.

In a report published by The Oncologist magazine in 2013 the results showed that restricting calories in patients having radiotherapy produced better results. It is thought that the same results might be achieved in calorie restriction during chemotherapy.

This is just a brief look at some of the possible advantages of fasting, so following in the footsteps of our ancestors why not give it a try this month, if only for a few days it may give your body the immunity boost it craves, help slim your waistlines and in the long run help better your body, mind and souls.