Ramadan – Healthy Fasting!

4 08 2011

Ramadan is a holy month for those who follow Islam. During this time, many are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset and by doing so, learn self-discipline, patience, and empathy for those less fortunate.

Years ago, I lived in a tiny country in North Africa where most of the citizens were practicing Muslims. At that time, Ramadan was in the summer, as it is this year. It was HOT. We’re talking Sahara hot.

I remember wandering around a small town one boiling afternoon, searching for an open shop—anyplace to buy water and maybe one of those buttery croissants with a thin stick of dark chocolate wrapped inside. I’d heard of Ramadan, but was in my 20s and not used to inconveniencing myself for religion.

There was one bakery open. I can only assume it was because there was a large group of individuals with various religious beliefs staying in town for a few weeks.

I got my water and croissant and continued my wanderings. While I was busily licking the delicious crumbs off of my fingers, I noticed that the few townspeople on the road were politely and pointedly looking away from me.

Boy, did I feel dumb. And crass. And ignorant. It’s OK to skip Ramadan observances if you’re not a Muslim, but it’s not OK to walk around gorging yourself when others are fasting. In my defense, pitiful as it is, I’d been there about a week and was clueless to the reality of Ramadan. My experience with religion up to that time was that of a child, watching as adults got dressed up for an hour of Bible talk each Sunday, and then spoke no more of it the rest of the week.

It’s another hot summer and Ramadan is here. I wonder what fasting each day for a month does to one’s health? The fasting isn’t meant to be a health benefit or punishment, it’s meant to be a holy act. But, the potential for side effects to one’s health is a common concern.

Ramadan requires fasting from sunrise to sunset, and then eating and drinking is allowed. The body is not as stressed as it would be if the fast lasted 24 hours a day for several days.

If you are sick, or traveling, or of a certain age, fasting is not a requirement. But, for those who are fasting, it is terribly hard to perform manual labor. The body loses sodium and potassium through sweat, so working shorter hours and consuming a balanced diet in the evening and early morning hours is critical to maintaining good health.

Foods to avoid when breaking the fast are the same as at any other time—deep-fried foods, sugary and fatty foods. Caffeine is a diuretic. The last thing you want during Ramadan is consuming anything that increases urination (water loss).

Foods that are good for you when breaking the fast are also the same as at any other time—whole grains, fruits, vegetables, some protein and dairy.

The Ramadan Health Guide discusses possible health problems related to fasting, as well as solutions:

  • Thinking of food can increase the acid in one’s stomach, creating heartburn. The guide suggests continuing any heartburn medication you’re on and avoiding foods that increase stomach acid. Sleeping with your head higher than the rest of your body may help.
  • Those who are ill shouldn’t be fasting, so check with your doctor if you’re living with diabetes or any condition or infection.  You may or may not be able to fast, but if you do, there will be precautions you’ll want to take to do so safely.
  • Seems like everyone gets headaches when they’re hungry.  Take painkillers with your morning meal (check with your HCP first), wear a hat in the sun, get lots of sleep and know that, no  matter what, you’re going to hurt if you’re a caffeine lover and you’ve given it up for Ramadan.
  • Dehydration is an obvious problem. Stay hydrated when not fasting, and take in plenty of sugar and salt.
  • Some people gain weight during Ramadan. They consume too many calories when not fasting, to make up for the loss during the day. Everything in moderation!
  • Constipation can be a side effect of daily fasting. Keep hydrated and eat lots of fruits and veggies when you break your fast. If all else fails, there are over-the-counter options.

If you’re fasting for Ramadan or for any other reason, the guide is worth reading. There’s also a section for healthcare professionals that will be useful if your patients are observing Ramadan.

And finally, happy Eid-ul-Fitr on 31 August, the end of Ramadan!

By Trish Parnell 

Image courtesy of Vit Hassan