Dr Noreen Kassem
(Fasting is) for a fixed number of days; but if any of you is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed number (should be made up) from days later. For those who can do it (with hardship), compensation is the feeding of one who is needy. But he that will give more, of his own free will, it is better for him. And it is better for you that you fast, if you only knew. The Quran 2:184
This year the month of Ramadan falls during the long days of summer, making fasting more challenging physically, mentally, and emotionally. Understanding the benefits and limitations of fasting and following the right nutritional guidelines, will help you to make the most of this month.
According to medical research, intermittent fasting – such as from dawn to dusk in the Islamic tradition, repairs and cleanses the organ systems, enhances your body’s natural healing abilities, gears your metabolism for more efficient energy production, and helps you to lose excess fat and maintain a healthy body weight.
However, fasting is not an easy task and requires mental will power, emotional strength, and physical endurance. Islamic tradition emphasizes moderation in all aspects of life; it is critically important to protect the body and mind from harm. The key is to balance fasting with healthful nutrition and sufficient exercise, rest, and sleep.
Often recognized as the missing link in western conventional medicine and nutrition, fasting results in fascinating processes, by which the body sheds toxins, heals, repairs and replenishes its energy supplies. Fasting also forces the body to become more resourceful and efficient in its normal cellular functions.
Digestive Health: Fasting allows the digestive system to rest and repair itself. This helps to regulate digestion, promotes more efficient bowel function, and improves the absorption of food nutrients.
Blood Sugar Levels: Eating excessively or eating unhealthy, carbohydrate and fat-rich foods causes your blood glucose levels to spike and then dip quickly. This causes low energy, fatigue, and mood changes, as well as excess hunger that continues this cycle. Over time, fasting can help to balance glucose sugar levels by burning fat at a steady rate.
Medical research shows that fasting also increases insulin hormone sensitivity. This means that your body is more effectively able to use insulin to transport glucose from the blood into the cells of tissues and muscles, where it is converted into energy. This improves metabolism and reduces the risk of type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes.
Fat Metabolism: When you fast, your body is temporarily deprived of sugar that is normally the easiest currency to convert into energy. This will initially lower your baseline metabolism, causing low energy and weakness when you first begin fasting.
However, with regular fasting, the body is forced to burn excess fats for energy. This resets your metabolism so that the body burns more fat as a primary fuel source even when you are not fasting, improving your metabolism and energy levels.
Immune System: Regular fasting along with a healthy, balanced diet and daily exercise strengthens your immune system. This helps the body fight pathogens and remove diseased cells. It may also to balance the immune system helping to improve some types of allergy and autoimmune conditions.
Detoxification: Fasting helps to improve your body’s ability to remove wastes and toxins that accumulate from the food we eat, normal body functions, and the environment.
When the body is forced to metabolize its fat stores for energy, trapped toxins and wastes are also released. Additionally, during fasting the body becomes more efficient at finding dead, damaged and diseased cells to burn for energy.
Healing and Repair: The body is better able to repair and replenish itself after normal body processes. Eating excessively or grazing on snacks and beverages throughout the day diverts needed energy and resources to the digestive system. While fasting, the body is better able to heal itself. This is evident in the lack of an appetite when you are ill with the flu, and in wounded animals that do not eat while they are healing.
Cardiovascular Health: Fasting may also help to improve several risk factors for heart disease and stroke. According to a medical research, fasting and reducing daily caloric intake can help to enhance heart and brain function by improving stress adaptation, lowering blood pressure, regulating heart rate, and reducing cholesterol deposits in the arteries.
Food Dependency: We are emotionally dependent on food, just as we are physically dependent on it. It is normal to feel depressed or anxious when you begin fasting. Regular fasting helps you to reevaluate your attitude toward food, provides clarity about your diet, and determines what your body really needs for optimum function and health.
Longevity: Medical studies show that fasting may contribute to a longer lifespan. This is likely because when done properly and regularly, fasting curbs caloric intake to protect against obesity, type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. These conditions increase the risk of heart disease and stroke -the leading causes of disability and mortality. Fasting may also increase the production of hormones that help to slow aging of the body.
Foods for Fasting
It’s especially important to keep your diet balanced during Ramadan. Overeating during the Iftar meal and at night will burden the body and undermine the healing processes of fasting.
It is also important to eat the right foods at the right times. To maintain more stable, long-term energy levels during the day eat more low-glycemic, slower digesting foods during Sahur (the pre-dawn meal). These include fiber-rich foods, and complex carbohydrates such as whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice, semolina, barley, oats, beans, lentils, and seeds.
Eggs are rich in protein and iron for energy and mental stamina. Two-thirds of the brain is composed of fat; therefore you need essential fats, such as those in olive oil, fish, milk, cheese, and lean meats to avoid midday brain fog. It is also very important to drink plenty of water before and after fasting.
Dates, a traditional Ramadan food, are an excellent source of natural sugars, fiber, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals - including more potassium than a banana. Eating one to three along with other fresh fruit and water is a recommended way to open your fast during the Iftar meal.
Avoid or limit unhealthy, high-glycemic index foods that cause hunger, lethargy and dizziness soon after eating them. These include refined, simple carbohydrates such as sugary foods, biscuits, cakes, crackers, crisps, potatoes, white bread, white rice, pastries, and pasta.
Too much food, as well as a heavy, unhealthy diet will reduce energy and cause digestive upset or headache. Avoid or drastically limit fried and greasy foods. Additionally, limit coffee, tea and sodas because the caffeine causes dehydration.
Consult a nutritionist or the Ramadan resource guides below for more information on your diet.
To Fast or Not to Fast
Fasting is neither a responsibility nor a right for those who are too ill too tolerate it. If you have any health concerns, it is very important to seek your doctor’s advice before fasting. Pregnant or nursing women are exempt from fasting. Additionally, if you are taking prescription medication for any health condition including depression and mental health, consult your doctor or specialist before fasting.
For most diabetic individuals, fasting is safe and beneficial, particularly if you have type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes. However, a careful diet must be followed and glucose levels must be monitored cautiously. Long term complications, dehydration, infections, nerve damage, hypoglycemia (low glucose levels) and coma are real harms that can occur without adequate diabetes care.
If you are on prescription medication for high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, angina, high cholesterol, or other cardiovascular disorders, consult your doctor before fasting. Do not change your medication schedule, reduce your dosage, or stop medication on your own; this can have serious effects such as heart disease and stroke.
Islamic scholar Imam Zaid Shakir states: “If fasting will cause harm to a person afflicted with an illness or chronic disease, they are not required to fast. Instead, they should provide food for a needy person for every fast they miss. The amount of food is termed a “mudd” or approximately 600 grams of the dominant staple food of that land, such as rice, wheat, or potatoes. They are excused from fasting for as long as the relevant affliction endures.”
Please note that this article does not replace medical counsel. Please see your GP or specialist for individual health advice.
Resources and Guidelines:
Ramadan Health Guide
NHS Choices: Ramadan Health FAQs
Department of Health: Ramadan Health Guide: A Guide to Healthy Fasting
NHS Health: Coping With Diabetes During Ramadan
Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry: Beneficial Effects of Intermittent Fasting and Caloric Restriction on the Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Systems. March 2005
Current Opinion in Gastroenterology: The Scientific Basis of Caloric Restriction Leading to Longer Life. March 2009