Ramadan, the period of fasting celebrated by millions around the world, is expected to start next week.
As Muslims prepare for one of the most significant events in the Islamic calendar, we take a look at the health impacts of Ramadan.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.
It is marked by a 29 to 30 day period of fasting, which commemorates the Islamic prophet Muhammad being visited by the angel Jibreel/Gabriel and revealing the foundations of the Qur’an.
Ramadan, a period of fasting celebrated by Muslims worldwide, could carry a number of health benefits as well as some potential health risks
During Ramadan most Muslims only eat twice a day, at a predawn meal called suhoor and again in an after sundown meal called iftar
It is celebrated across the world with adult Muslims required, with some exceptions, to not consume any eat food or drink from sunrise to sunset.
Instead, they eat and drink before dawn in a meal called suhoor and again in an after sundown meal called iftar.
Smoking is also banned during daylight hours in Ramadan.
The spiritual idea behind the fasting is that it allows Muslims to empathise with those less fortunate as well as to study the Qur’an and improve their relationship with Allah.
Another aspect of Ramadan is that spiritual rewards are multiplied during this month.
This means that activities like swearing, lying, fighting and arguing, and sex are also discouraged during Ramadan, whilst charity towards others is encouraged.
This year, Ramadan is expected to be between 22 March and 21 April in the UK.
Are some Muslims exempt from fasting?
Yes, generally those who could suffer negative health consequences from fasting are exempt.
These groups include the elderly, frail, those who are ill or being treated for a medical condition, pregnant and menstruating women as well as those who are breastfeeding.
Children who have not reached puberty, as well as all Muslims who are travelling far from home, are generally exempt from the fast as well.
People who miss out on fasting due to a temporary reason, such as menstruation or short illness, are encouraged to make up the fasting at a different time of the year.
Pregnant women are among those groups who are exempt from fasting during Ramadan
For those unable to make up the fast, a charitable donation to help feed the poor is encouraged instead.
During the Covid pandemic, some Muslim NHS staff were made exempt from not drinking during Ramadan due to the risk to themselves and to patients caused by potential dehydration while wearing extensive PPE.
What are some of the health benefits of fasting?
Fasting has the obvious benefit of reducing, in theory, the number of calories consumed, which could help you lose weight.
However, whether a person loses weight or not depends on what they eat during the pre-dawn and post-sundown meals.
If a person opts for heavy decadent calorific feasts to break their fast every day, they won’t lose any weight despite not eating or drinking during the day.
This is why Muslims are recommended to eat a normal balanced meal, featuring a variety of major food groups for suhoor and iftar.
For some obese or overweight people, change to their regular diet can lead to weight loss during Ramadan.
However, unless they make changes to their eating habits for the rest of the year the weight will return.
Intermittent fasting, which has a superficial resemblance to Ramadan fasting in that proponents skip meals for hours a day, has been linked to anti-aging benefits by some studies, though this is disputed.
Some small studies have found Ramadan fasting lowers the levels of cholesterol and boosts the immune system, but others found no observable effect.
Reducing the levels of smoking, which is in Ramadan fasting, could be beneficial as it might encourage people to quit fully.
Smoking reduction could encourage people to quit cigarettes full time
Are there any health risks from Ramadan fasting?
Muslims at risk of potential health complications from fasting, like the injured and pregnant women, are exempt there aren’t many broad health risks from the practise.
While oral medication can be considered breaking the fast, people who are seriously ill are exempt from fasting.
Additionally, many medication regimes can be changed so that pills are taken as part of suhoor and iftar.
However, anyone with concerns should consult with their GP or doctor before deciding not to take their medication.
Some medical professionals advise their patients to postpone fasting until the winter when the daylight hours, and therefore the fasting period, is shorter to reduce the impact on their health if they still wish to fast.
One of the health conditions to obviously be aware of is diabetes and the impact fasting can have on blood sugar levels.
Muslims with diabetes are encouraged to speak to their diabetes management team before Ramadan to discuss if fasting is advisable.
Oral medications are generally considered to breaking the fast during Ramadan which can cause some people to have to change their medication timings
Most imams generally support Muslims with health conditions being exempt from fasting as the Qur’an itself states people should not act in a way that harms their body.
More generally, fasting can cause a few minor health problems.
Mild dehydration can occur from not drinking which can cause headaches, tiredness and difficulty concentrating.
The same is true for people who normally consume caffeinated drinks such as tea and coffee during the day, though this usually eases over Ramadan as their body gets use to the withdrawal.
Lastly the changes to eating habits and lack of fluids during the day can cause constipation in some people.
Muslims are recommended plenty of high fibre foods, such as wholegrains, high fibre cereals, bran, fruit and vegetables, beans, lentils, dried fruit and nuts alongside plenty of fluid during their predawn and post sundown meals.
Additionally, a light physical activity, like a walk after iftar, is recommended to reduce the risk of constipation.