Staying Healthy in Ramadan

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Ramadan is around the corner, a spiritually up-lifting and exciting time for most Muslims. Each year during this blessed month, Muslims around the world unite and abstain from food and water from sunrise until sunset  It is a time to truly put our differences aside and enjoy the spiritual cleansing that we are so easily blessed with.  It is a time of re-birth, a re-examination of our state of being and a time to take action to improve ourselves for the better.  Yet with all that said, for ordinary Muslims Ramadan may take a toll on the physical body. Insha’Allah this piece will provide some useful tips on how to stay healthy during Ramadan, after exploring the changes that occur to the body whilst fasting.

Full vs. Starving State

The body functions by maintaining a balance within it, altering certain aspects of its metabolism to keep it alive.  When we eat throughout the day, our body takes much of the food and stores it as energy in our fat cells, muscle fibers and glycogen molecules.  It does this through a chemical called insulin, the body’s main storage hormone.  Insulin tells the body that it is full and thus will need to store some food as energy.

When the body is not eating or has not had food in a while, it begins to break down and expend the stored energy. It begins by first breaking down glycogen, then protein and then fat (although at many times it breaks down all three at the same time, but to varying degrees).  This is done through glucagon, a hormone which functions opposite to insulin. As the body’s main “un-packing” hormone, glucagon increases the amount of energy in the form of sugar in the blood.

Why Do I Not Lose Weight during Ramadan?

We said when we are in the fasting (i.e. “starving”) state, our body is continuously breaking down stored energy.  One would think this must mean we should be losing weight, but this is not the case.  Our bodies are very clever; they know we are not eating as much as we normally do when we are not fasting, thus it breaks down the stored energy (in the form of glycogen, protein and fat as mentioned above) very slowly.  Using up energy slowly in this way compensates for not eating throughout the day. The body then stores a whole lot of the food that we consume upon breaking our fast to be the energy supply the following day.  This is why we generally do not lose too much weight in Ramadan, and in many instances, actually gain it.

Why Do I Feel Tired When I Fast?

When we are fasting, our blood sugar level drops because it is being depleted, however it is not being replaced as the body is not receiving any sugar back in through food. The brain consequently tells us to sit down and relax so that we do not continue using up what little sugar and energy remains in our blood.  The body is able to use up the stored fat, but since it is not used to receiving energy from here, it just slows itself down.

Why Do I Get Cranky and Dizzy When I Fast?

The brain’s main source of energy is glucose, the body’s form of sugar.  When the blood sugar level drops to around 65 or below (depending on each person), the brain begins to react differently, resulting in mood swings and causing us to make thoughtless and irrational decisions. We may perform worse on exams and be slower to respond to questions.  This all results from the brain being deprived of the food it requires to function at its optimal level.  For the same reason, as the nervous system slows down we may become dizzy, weak and even a little shaky.

Oh Dear! So What Should I Do to Stay Healthy?

Thankfully, fasting is something the majority of us can handle and is also very beneficial if done correctly.  It gives us time to rest our bodies and take a break from constantly digesting and working. In fact, many studies and much of the medical and scientific literature have shown that a restricted calorie intake decreases the chance of cancer and tissue damage, as well as increase in life expectancy.  Indeed, eating less has many benefits, and is a practice that should be taken by healthy individuals both during and outside of Ramadan.

An important factor in minimizing dizziness and mood swings is eating suhur, which should be a balanced meal consisting of sugar, carbohydrates, some fat and protein.  This will wake the body up and allow it to begin to function normally, so that much weight will not be gained and the brain has the energy it needs to function throughout the day.  Drinking plenty of water with this meal is also vital to prevent the body from becoming dehydrated.  This simple suhur will help to combat the weight issue, the dizziness and also the mood swings.

The way we have iftar also plays a huge role in maintaining our health. While it is the favorite part of the day for many, it is also one of the most harmful  as many of us eat so much in one sitting that we become extremely tired and lazy afterwards. Having eaten all that is usually consumed throughout the whole day within a span of half an hour, the body wants to store as much of this food as possible and thus provides it with more than the required amount of sugar into the blood, causing much damage to the body and creating a whole metabolic mess.  Ideally, iftar should therefore consist of a normal serving of dinner (or even less than this) and thereafter a break should be taken before eating again. This will prevent the body from overloading, and rather than finding our weight increase, we may in fact see it decreasing in a healthy manner as we train ourselves to keep a stable metabolism.

We pray for Allah to give us the strength and will power to have a healthy and blessed month of Ramadan.  Remember to take your vitamins and a pain killer for suhur!

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