Ramadan as an Anticancer Therapy

Islam enjoys a firm tradition of fasting diet as Muslims observe an annual obligatory fast for 29 or 30 days during the holy month of Ramadan.

Many also choose to observe an optional fast on Mondays and Thursdays every week, according to the prophetic tradition or sunnah.

Research is increasingly showing how fasting helps tackle a variety of ailments.

Short-term fasting, for example, has been shown to protect the body’s cells from oxidative stress: an imbalance between the production of free radicals and the ability of the body to detoxify their harmful effects.

Fasting as an Anti-cancer Therapy

Cell Death

Diagram of the programmed cell death process.

In 2009, researchers studied the effects of fasting prior to and after taking chemotherapy. The results suggested that fasting has the potential to improve its negative side effects.

One of the side effects of chemotherapeutic drugs is the potential to cause damage to DNA. As a consequence, secondary tumors may occur.

Fasting was also found to reduce the oxidative stress produced by a kind of oxygen-containing, chemically reactive molecule known as reactive oxygen species on both normal and cancer cells.Fasting appears to be effective in inhibiting cancerous cells and reducing their ability to form new blood vessels to feed themselves, live and further divide to cause more cancer.

Fasting for Anti-aging

Aging is the process by which cells are overpopulated with biological error accumulations that drive the cells to get older by oxidative stress.

A 2012 study evaluated the effects of short-term fasting on a variety of tumors in mice.

When the mice were deprived from food over two 20-day cycles while simultaneously given chemotherapeutic drugs, the result was long-term cancer-free survival.

Since the secretion of considerable levels of the human growth hormone could induce the growth of some human breast cancer cells, the need to control this pathway was a must for oncologists.

Human growth hormone (HGH) is a hormone that favors fat burning, protein sparing and focusing on tissue repair.

It’s also considered as one of the body soldiers for turning on genetic repair mechanisms.

However, another study found that fasting appeared to be a successful method to increase the effect of HGH in a way that appeared to eliminate the cancer cells’ growth.

Cancer Metabolism and Fasting


Diagram showing the difference between the effects of short-term starving on normal and cancerous cells.

One of the cancer’s hallmarks is Warburg effect which describes the metabolism of tumor cells as well as its respiration and how do they live and increase in the body of cancer patients.

Any body cells whether normal or cancerous need energy to live.

Paradoxically, cancer cells utilize glucose units to get Adenosine Triphosphate (2 ATP) –the energy currency of life– as an easy source for energy as well proliferation in a process known as anaerobic glycolysis.

In contrast, ketosis is the metabolic state of the body to get energy from ketone bodies.

Normally, ketosis occurs when a person suffers a shortage of glucose; which exactly what happens during fasting.

This is like starving the tumor cells and weakening them by preventing their nutrition and energy.

A 2014 study showed that caloric restriction led to effective tumor prevention and played a protective role because carbohydrate restriction prohibited metastases formation.

Metastasis is the spread of carcinogenic cells from an organ to hit a normal organ.

In addition, fasting which is considered a ketogenic diet prevents the progression of cancer cells and metastasis.

Moreover, when the cells get aged, they die with apoptotic mechanism, a crucial biological process that develops and maintains the health of the body by eliminating old, unnecessary, and unhealthy cells including tumor ones.

Of course the presence of these extinct cells will enhance cellular detoxification process.

Liver tolerate these toxins via detoxification which was induced in fasting.

Fasting also appeared to allow the liver to control the cholesterol levels. A 2012 study showed that fasting triggers detoxification features as normal cells adapt to fasting by regulating a large number of genes while cancer cells don’t respond.

At the same time, oncologists assure that chemotherapy and physiotherapy require hydration especially for cancer patients at critical tumor stages who are already advised and allowed by Islamic Shari’ah not to fast.

Patients going through an acute phase of cancer need water for a good body hydration because they can experience kidney failure or increased levels of uric acid in the blood; causing gout, in case their bodies don’t get sufficient quantities of water.

CancerDrugs used in chemotherapy kill cancer cells. This releases uric acid into the body, which can lead to kidney failure. This is why it’s important for cancer patients to hydrate.

Vomiting and diarrhea are two common side effects of chemotherapy. As a result, cancer patients discharge water frequently and they are in need of drinking considerable quantities of water to avoid dehydration.

On the other side, stable cancer patients undergoing prolonged therapy but who have the stamina to fast can do so while being cautious.

There is a building body of evidence that shows that cancer patients may improve or even survive this fierce disease by introducing fasting into their therapy.

Taking care of necessary nutrition intakes and avoiding over-eating by trying to compensate the short-term fast are sound methods to improve the lives of cancer patients.

Imagine that you can obtain all these health privileges from fasting during Ramadan while also getting rewarded for your efforts by Allah.

As the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Fast and you will be healthy.”

This article is from Science’s archive and we’ve originally published it on an earlier date.

  1. Safdie, F.M., et al., Fasting and cancer treatment in humans: A case series report. Aging (Albany NY), 2009. 1(12): p. 988-1007.
  2.  Lee, C., et al., Fasting cycles retard growth of tumors and sensitize a range of cancer cell types to chemotherapy. Sci Transl Med, 2012. 4(124): p. 124ra27.
  3.  Lee, C., L. Raffaghello, and V.D. Longo, Starvation, detoxification, and multidrug resistance in cancer therapy. Drug Resist Updat, 2012. 15(1-2): p. 114-22.
  4.  Lv, M., et al., Roles of caloric restriction, ketogenic diet and intermittent fasting during initiation, progression and metastasis of cancer in animal models: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One, 2014. 9(12): p. e115147.
About Lamia Mostafa Elsayed Abo-Elkhear
Lamia Mostafa Elsayed Abo-Elkhear graduated in 2008 from Zoology Department of the Faculty of Science at Tanta University. She finished a diploma in Biochemistry and Physiology at the Faculty of Science, Suez University in 2013. She received her masters' degree in Immunology at the Faculty of Science, Tanta University in 2015. And she's currently a Ph.D. student of Biology at the Zoology Department of the Faculty of Science at Tanta University. The Egyptian biologist is a volunteer at the Public Relations Department of Egypt Scholars Inc. and she works as a Medical Representative at Sigma Pharmaceuticals Company, Egypt.