In the month of Ramadan, the breaking of dawn beckons more than one billion Muslims around the world to observe a rigorous ritual of moral abstinence and fasting. Practised by the rich and poor alike, the fast requires enormous spiritual discipline to forego food and water for around 18 hours a day. It acts as a reminder to empathise with the less fortunate who suffer the pangs of hunger, thus bridging social classes and statuses.

While fasting during this time may be seen as purely religious, health experts claim there are many health benefits to this ritual of denial and abstinence.

1. Weight Loss

Dr Razeen Mahroof, an anaesthetist from Oxford, says that though the spiritual aspect is emphasised more than the health aspect, “it’s a great chance to get the physical benefits as well.”

In an article in The Washington Post, Tehran diet doctors are said to be using Ramadan to help overweight people achieve their goals. The common practice for most Muslims is to gorge on sweets and fatty foods as soon as the sun set – but, doctors would encourage a healthy evening meal consisting of soup, fresh bread, dates and goat cheese.

These foods, which are traditionally eaten in the holy month, are without the sweet temptations and sauces, and thus have slimming effects. With their high levels of potassium, magnesium and B vitamins, dates are one of the healthiest fruits that give the desired energy boost. An average serving of dates contains 31 grammes of carbohydrates.

2. Low Blood Sugar

With long hours of food deprivation, our blood sugar tends to go down. According to Dr Mahroof, the body uses up stored glucose for energy when we are fasting. However, people with diabetes should consult their doctors before fasting for long periods, but those with high blood sugar – but no diabetes – will benefit from the process.

3. Lower cholesterol

A team of cardiologists in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) found that people observing Ramadan enjoy a positive effect on their lipid profile, which means a reduction of cholesterol in the blood.

Low cholesterol increases cardiovascular health, which will reduce the risk of heart diseases such as strokes or heart attacks. If Muslims follow a healthy diet even after Ramadan, they should have no problem keeping this lowered cholesterol level.

4. Absorption of more nutrients

Fasting throughout the day can make our metabolism more efficient. Thanks to the combination of fasting and eating late at night which produces an increase in a hormone called adiponectin – thus, allowing our muscles to absorb more nutrients. Various areas of the body will then be able to make use of the nutrients needed to function effectively.

5. Detoxification

Besides spiritual cleansing, fasting allows the body to detoxify the digestive system as we refrain from drinking and eating throughout the day. When the body starts eating into fat reserves to create energy, it will also burn away any harmful toxins that might be present in fat deposits. This returns the body to its blank slate, supporting a consistently healthy lifestyle.

6. Better mental well-being

According to a study by American scientists, the mental focus achieved during Ramadan increases the level of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which causes the body to produce more brain cells, thus improving brain function. It promotes clarity of mind and reduces stress, especially when fasting leads to a distinct reduction in the amount of the hormone cortisol, produced by the adrenal gland.

Besides, the body begins to adjust to its new eating and drinking pattern as higher levels of endorphins appear in the blood, hence making us more alert and happier, thus adding a boost to our general well-being.

Keeping tab on potential health risks

While fasting may reap surprisingly great benefits, medical experts caution diabetics of its dangers. “There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and 148 million have diabetes. And that number is growing at a faster pace than in non-Muslims,” says Osama Hamdy, Medical Director of the Obesity Clinical Program and Director of the Inpatient Program at the Joslin Diabetes Centre, Harvard Medical School.

In presenting his research on Ramadan fasting and diabetes at the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) conference in Austin recently, he says, “The effects of fasting during Ramadan – which requires no food or fluids from sunup to sundown – can include dehydration, hypoglycemia during fasting hours, and hyperglycemia after the big meal at the end of the day.

“Some of the large, end-of-day meals, which may be eaten quickly because of hunger, can be as high as 1500 calories and usually includes sugary desserts specific to Ramadan,” he adds.

He suggests that patients do a trial fast three consecutive days before Ramadan to help them and their doctor adjust insulin dosage during fasting.

Though fasting may cause complications such as heartburn, irritability, dehydration and a decline in concentration levels, its benefits outweigh the negative. “You should have a balanced diet, with the right proportion of carbs, fat, and protein,” Dr Mahroof advises.

“The way Muslims approach diet during fasting is similar to the way they should be eating outside of Ramadan anyway.”

Evidently, fasting during Ramadan – if done the right way – will not only lead us to a deeper spiritual awareness, but will also pave the way for a healthier lifestyle. MIMS

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Note: Article first published on 5 June 2017.