Coronavirus outbreak: Does fasting weaken immunity?

Muslims this year observe Ramadan amid lockdown and coronavirus fears. Ramadan is the fasting month for Muslims in which those who are fit enough to do so, are expected to fast (refrain from eating and drinking) between the hours of sunrise and sunset for the whole lunar month. Muslims spend the entire month with increased worship and devotion to Allah.

Does fasting weaken immunity?

Calls were being made asking people not to fast amid COVID-19 fears because doing so could weaken immunity and lead to contracting the respiratory disease. However, experts and specialists and World Health Organization representatives, who had held a special meeting to look into this matter, have concluded that there is no relationship between the coronavirus and fasting.

Fasting boosts immune systems

Discussing the health implications of observing Ramadan under lockdown and during a viral pandemic, Dr Amir Khan, an NHS doctor and a senior university lecturer in the United Kingdom, dispelled the fears that fasting can affect a person’s chances of contracting the coronavirus. On the contrary, he observed that fasting is believed to be beneficial to the body in a number of ways, including through the effect it has on boosting our immune systems.

Ancestors had recognised benefits of fasting

Saying that our ancient ancestors might have recognised the benefits of fasting, Dr Khan pointed out that besides Muslims fasting during the month of Ramadan, fasting is also observed in the month of Lent in the lead-up to Easter for Christians, and during Yom Kippur in Judaism. He noted that there was also evidence that the ancient Egyptians fasted for long periods to purge their bodies of ailments and disease.

Fasting puts body into “energy conservation mode”

Dr Khan in his article published in Aljazeera revealed that recent studies have shown that fasting can actually have beneficial effects on the immune system by reducing the amount of general inflammation that can occur in cells around the body. Due to the lack of nutrients coming in, fasting is thought to put the body into an “energy conservation mode”, he asserted. Further explaining the process he informed that in an effort to save energy, the body recycles many of its old or damaged immune cells, which later promotes the generation of new, healthier immune cells when the fasting period ends. These new cells are quicker and more efficient at fighting infections so overall immunity improves.

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Abstinence from drinking water is the key factor

Explaining how Ramadan fasting differs from usual diets, Dr Khan pointed out that the abstinence from drinking water is the key factor that differentiates Ramadan fast from usual diets that promote weight loss through intermittent fasting regimes.

According to a study, though the prolonged water fasting beyond 12 to 24 hours can have a slight detrimental effect on the immune system, putting a person at a slightly increased risk of catching any kind of infection, it also showed that immunity returned to a better state soon after eating and drinking again.

Difference between Ramadan fasting and diet

Noting that separate studies show that the religious fasting of Ramadan has comparable health benefits to other types of fasting, he however warned that overindulging in fried foods such as samosas and pakoras during the breaking of the fast, will certainly not help the immune system.

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Dr Khan cited evidence that abstaining from both food and water for up to 12 hours can have an overall beneficial effect on the immune system.

Coronavirus and Ramadan fasting

Dr Amir Khan concluded that, “as this will be our first Ramadan during a coronavirus pandemic, it is impossible to know whether fasting may offer some level of protection against getting the illness itself and, although it is not beyond the realms of possibility, it is important to stick to the things that we do know work: social distancing, hand-washing, hygiene and self-isolation.”

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