Abu Dhabi: A growing body of evidence is beginning to show the tremendous health benefits of fasting. Chief among these is the positive impact on the microbiome, the totality of microorganisms in our gut.
This, in turn, improves gut health, boosts the immune system and helps in muscle recovery.
Doctors in the UAE are therefore calling on residents to maximise these benefits during the holy month, and to work on extending them as much as possible afterwards.
More on fasting during Ramadan
Prioritising gut health can also help reduce many of common gastrointestinal complaints reported in Ramadan, including acid reflux and indigestion.
What is the microbiome?
“Our gut hosts many mutually beneficial bacteria and fungi. In aggregate, the microbiome [can be considered] one the largest organs in our body, consisting of trillions of organisms. Nearly all are helpful to our health and aid in digestion, maintain the health of immune systems, and prevent dangerous microorganisms from taking up residence. The gut microbiota also play an important role in our biological processes, including the absorption of nutrients and minerals, the production of short-chain fatty acids [that provide energy to colon cells], and the synthesis of enzymes, vitamins and amino acids,” Dr Michael Wallace, chair of gastroenterology at the Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City (SSMC), told Gulf News.
While researchers are still studying the exact roles placed by the various microorganisms, some recent studies have effectively demonstrated how fasting helps certain a certain group of healthy bacteria, known as gut lachnospiraceae, to expand in number.
Benefit of fasting
“These bacteria are responsible for producing butyrate, a fatty acid that acts as the main energy source for colon cells and also helps reduce inflammation. It therefore helps the lining of the intestine. Some of it is absorbed into the bloodstream, and can affect the immune system. It can also help in muscle metabolism and recovery. We do not fully understand and appreciate all its effects. But this is just one group of bacteria that has positive impacts [on the human body] because of fasting,” explained Dr Pranab Gyawali, gastroenterologist at Mubadala Health Dubai.
The project, published in the American Journal of Nutrition in 2021, also found that the increased numbers of lachnospiraceae only lasted during the month of fasting.
These metabolic and anti-aging effects have made fasting much more common as a diet and lifestyle alternative, especially in the form of intermittent fasting. Residents can also reap these benefits while completing their mandatory Ramadan fasts.
Reducing digestive complaints
“Some practices known to support the gut microbiota, and they also help reduce gastrointestinal issues commonly reported in Ramadan,” Dr Gyawali said.
In fact, the most widely reported concerns in Ramadan – following the initial period of adjustment – are heartburn and acid reflux.
“About 20 to 30 per cent of the population will have this problem exacerbated. Not everyone seeks medical attention either: they realise it is due to the change in their eating habits, or from eating fatty, sugary food and then lying down afterwards, which triggers heartburn and reflux,” Dr Gyawali said.
How to boost gut health
Fortunately, there are foods that can help boost gut health as well.
Plant-based foods: These help the good bacteria thrive in your intestine. For instants, dates, which are very important in the tradition, has fructans, a type of prebiotic fibre. Bacteria work on this, and this helps increase the population of good bacteria.
Fermented foods: These are things like yogurt, kefir milk, kimchi, kombucha and sauerkraut. These are very much part of a healthy diet. They contain a lot of good probiotics that help good bacteria thrive.
Fibre-rich foods: Not only do these help gut also boost gut health, they also help you feel full for longer. They are therefore a very good choice for suhoor. Good choices are whole grain cereals, nuts, seeds, lentils, and legumes.
What to avoid
Certain foods, on the other hand, can negatively impact gastrointestinal health, and are therefore best when consumed in limited quantities or avoided.
-Caffeine products: These worsen digestive problems, particularly by making it easier for the stomach acid to reflux.
-Highly processed foods with many chemicals and preservatives