The blessed month of Ramadan is almost over. During this time Muslims around the world have been indulging themselves in deep spiritual practice that not only purifies and reenergises the soul, but also teaches compassion by making us relate to and engage with those less fortunate than us through the acts of fasting and charity.
Whilst the spiritual importance of fasting is widely discussed, the physical aspects of fasting are gaining equal interest. This includes understanding the effects of fasting on the body and the benefits and potential complications of fasting on general wellbeing.
So read on if you want to discover what’s been happening to your body when you’ve been fasting.
What happens to the body when we fast?
The changes our bodies undergo during fasting depends on the length of the fast. The body will enter the fasting state 8 hours after it has absorbed all the nutrients from the final meal.
In its normal state, the body first derives its energy from glucose stores in the liver and muscles before turning it to fats as its source of energy. Starvation occurs when the body, having exhausted the first 2 sources, turns to proteins as its main energy source.
This normally occurs after many days or even weeks of fasting, so is unlikely to occur in Ramadan where the fasts are intermittent, being broken at the end of each day.
What are the side-effects of fasting, and how can they be helped?
The initial few days are usually the toughest when the body is suddenly subjected to changes in dietary habits overnight. With time, we are able to understand the new pattern of eating and work around it.
For some this can be harder than others and during this time you may have experienced physical symptoms. Some may have come and gone, others may have lasted a little bit longer.
This is attributed to the body not being able to store water. Once the kidneys have absorbed all the water the body needs, it will then get rid of the excess as urine. This loss is in addition to the small amounts of water normally being lost as sweat from the skin and moisture when we talk. Generally speaking, dehydration is associated with the appearance of less frequent and darker urine.
You may have experienced mild symptoms of dehydration which include tiredness, headache and difficulty concentrating, but studies have shown these are relatively harmless as long as we have had plenty of fluids from Iftar onwards to compensate for this. More severe symptoms of dehydration warranting immediate fluids include confusion, dizziness on standing up or altered consciousness.
Dehydration can be addressed by drinking water with a small amount of salt and sugar which helps with hydration. We can minimise inevitable loss of water through simple measures such as preventing ourselves from over heating or even talking too much. Salt and sugar are obvious stimulators of thirst and we need to be careful to avoid including too much of these in our meals.
This is commonly experienced by those of us who love our caffeine. The first few days are difficult when we may experience fatigue and headaches from absence of our usual dose of caffeine, but the body eventually learns to accommodate for this.
This is also an added advantage as caffeine is naturally a diuretic - a substance that promotes urination and thus loss of water. By cutting down on caffeinated beverages, we are in this way preventing unnecessary loss of fluids.
This is a common outcome of the altered diet. This may be short term or persist for longer periods. Constipation can be addressed by consuming plenty of fibre rich foods such as whole grains, bran, fruit and vegetables, dried fruit and nuts along with drinking plenty of fluids.
Some light physical activity such as going for a walk after Iftar has also been shown to help with movement of the bowels.
Often Iftar is a social celebration with family members coming together for the first meal of the day. This then seems the perfect opportunity to indulge in fried, creamy and sweet foods. The consumption of these largely unhealthy foods high in fats and calories is the main reason why some people gain weight during the month of Ramadan.
If we want to maintain our weight, we need to watch not just the foods we eat but also our portion sizes. It is after all the sunna of the Prophet (PBUH) leave 1/3rd of our stomachs empty.
This can commonly be attributed to meals that are spicy, oily, large in portion size and consumed late at night and often within 2 hours of going to bed. Hot beverages are another common culprit. It can be associated with additional symptoms such as belching and passing gases. The foods which cause this vary between different individuals but some examples include:
How can we make our meals healthier during Ramadan?
An ideal meal is one which is balanced in its composition and portion size. It is best exemplified by the eat well plate. with only a few days to go, this is the best way to start getting in to healthy eating habits, both for now and in the future.
The eat well plate is divided into 5 compartments each representing a different food group.
As discussed earlier, this is the body’s main source of energy and hence should make up 1/3rd of our plate. The best options amongst these are starchy foods which are of the high fibre whole grain variety. These include wholemeal pasta, wholemeal bread, brown rice and potatoes with the skin left on.
This can be divided into animal and non animal sources. Non animal proteins include:
all of which are an excellent alternative to red meat because they are higher in fibre and lower in fat content.
Choose lean cuts of meat and mince and eat less of red and processed meat. There is a suggestion that no more than 70g of red meat should be consumed per day. This is especially because of its high fat content and association with bowel cancer.
Aim to have 2 portions of fish per week one of which one should be an oily oily such as:
salmon (unsalted variety)
These fish are rich in omega 3 fatty acids and are a source of vitamin D.
A small amount of fat is essential in the diet as it is a source of essential fatty acids such as omega 3, which the body can’t make itself. These are essential as they are needed to absorb vitamins A, D and E. However balance is key as consuming too much fat can lead to a rise in LDL cholesterol - the type which leads to complications such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
To reduce the overall risk of heart disease, one should generally cut down on the amount of fat in the diet and swap saturated for unsaturated fats. These can be found in foods such as:
Oily fish are especially good as they are also a source of omega 3.
Fruits and vegetables:
These should contribute to 1/5 of the day’s meal. They are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and fibre. You should aim to have 5 portions over the course of the day.
Dairy are an excellent source of proteins, vitamins, and vitamin D. Additionally they contribute to our fluid intake. It also includes unsweetened calcium fortified dairy alternatives such as:
Soya cheese products
Finally, the effects of fasting are becoming ever apparent with emerging evidence of the beneficial outcomes of fasting. Lowering of cholesterol through the use of fats as an energy source, has been linked to weight loss and better diabetes and blood pressure control at the end of the month.
Elevated levels of endorphins also known as “happy hormones” have also been identified in the blood after a few days of fasting, inducing an overall sense of mental wellbeing.
More recently some studies have also suggested fasting to temporarily boost the immune system, including possibly even lowering the risk of cancer. In general the beneficial effects of fasting can be extended to include all systems in the body.
In this way fasting inspires healthier eating habits, which together with its associated benefits is a testament of how the the blessed month of Ramadan promises to enlighten us right through from a physical to a spiritual level.
This post was written by Ruba Shahid from Muslim Doctors Association.