Fasting during Ramadan and its Health Effects

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At the sight of the crescent moon, over one billion Muslims across the globe will declare the beginning of the Holy Month of Ramadan. Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam and involves followers to abstain from food and drink for up to 18 hours every day, for 30 days.

It isn’t the easiest thing to do. One day you are feasting away at your breakfast, lunch and dinner, and on the next, you have to prepare your mind and body to give that all up for a month. Faith aside, does fasting pose any health benefits?

Of course, for Muslims it is not the time of the year to look forward to losing a few pounds. With the spiritual aspect of Ramadan in their conscience they also gain physical benefits. According to a consultant from Oxford and the NHS, they are as follows:

Healthier diet choices – During Ramadan, three meals a day is replaced by 2 meals a day; one meal before sunrise and another after sunset. Apart from the usual dehydration and decrease in concentration, the body now undergoes a gentle transition from using the fat stored in our bodies to burn energy as opposed to the usual glucose. This helps cholesterol levels and blood pressure to decrease giving better control of blood pressure especially for diabetic people (but only with preparation and medical advice from their GPs). But it is still recommended to have meals with all the five major food groups included and to avoid oily, fried and overly sweet foods. An article published by the Harvard School of Public Health states that people who consume lots of oily, greasy fried foods are at a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It also states that fried foods away from home poses a greater risk. It is very common during Ramadan for many restaurants to organize ifthars (breaking fast) and most of them provide oily fried foods and therefore should be avoided as much as possible. Caffeinated drinks also should be avoided as they are diuretic and can cause rapid water loss.

Rise in levels of endorphins – A week or two into Ramadan, your body is now acclimatizing to the new eating and drinking patterns. This occurs when blood endorphin levels rise and makes fasters more alert and gives them better mental health.

Reducing overindulgence – At ifthar time, fasters break their fast with a date (or three dates like the Prophet Muhammed used to do) and lots of water. Dates are very sweet and provide an energy boost after not having any food for almost the entire day. It is recommended to consume lots of water to rehydrate the body during Ramadan.

A common misconception of Ramadan is that it is compulsory when it is not. Fasting is excused in Islam for specific groups of people. Pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, elders and critically ill persons are a few examples as they require a constant energy supply throughout the day to sustain themselves.

Most health experts rave about the positive health benefits of fasting only during the Ramadan period of 30 days. What effect does long-term fasting after Ramadan have on our bodies? Unfortunately, there aren’t many studies that have been done on the effects of long-term fasting but the Sydney Morning Herald focuses on the effects long-term fasting has on diabetic patients. Diabetic Muslims who fast can help them control their blood pressure to some extent but without preparation and medical advice from their GPs they are putting themselves at the risk of getting hyperglycemia, hypoglycemia and blood clots. Apart from the negative effects of consuming oily foods, overeating during fasting is common due to the long hours without food or drink which also poses a great risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.

Overall, it is safe to say Ramadan not only rejuvenates the faith of Muslims and their spiritual relationship with God, but it also gives them a chance to rectify some of the health mistakes they are not aware they are making. Fasting help them take a step back and revise their health habits that could potentially save their health.

Written by: Sadiya Badurdeen