Muslims all over the world fast from dawn to dusk for the entire month of Ramadan as ordained in the Qur’an. Research and studies across the world have proved the medical significance and importance of fasting. It is generally stated that Islamic fasting causes no adverse medical effects. The calorie intake of Muslims during Ramadan is at or slightly below the nutritional requirement guidelines, so there is no possibility of malnutrition.
Several studies have shown that fasting helps decrease cholesterol levels in the blood and prevents hypertension. A reduction in fat in the blood helps reduce gallstones as well. Tanweer Alam, a doctor with the Ministry of Health in Riyadh, said, “Although Muslims do not fast for medical benefits, the main aim is to purify our soul. In addition, there are tremendous medical benefits provided we fast the way our Prophet advised.”
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “With fasting comes health.” He suggested “one third (of the stomach) for food, a third for drink and a third for breathing.” Fasting in Ramadan does not only entail refraining from food and drink but also abstaining from bad habits and behavior. During this month, generous giving through charity and doing good unto others while exercising piety and self-discipline have positive psychological effects on individuals.
The recitation of the Qur’an, which was revealed in Ramadan, not only produces tranquility of the heart and mind, but improves the memory as well. Ramadan allows affluent Muslims to experience hunger and deprivation, thereby appreciating the value of food and learning to avoid its wastage. “It enhances the spirit of charity toward humanity,” said Essam Muhammed Dawood, an MoH doctor. Every Muslim who is past the age of puberty and is mentally and physically fit must fast.
Exceptions to the rule include the mentally unfit, minors who have not reached the age of puberty, patients on mandatory medication, women during menstruation, pregnancy, post-childbirth and lactation. In addition, travelers who are unable to fast can make up the days when back home but are encouraged to feed the less fortunate during Ramadan. On the other hand, “patients who are suffering from severe diseases, whether uncontrolled Type I diabetes or coronary artery disease, kidney stones, chronic renal failure and active peptic ulcer disease, among others, are exempt from fasting,” said Dawood.
Fasting in Ramadan provides a period of relief for the digestive system and other organs and glands and allows detoxification of the human body from harmful metabolic end products. The physiological effects of fasting include lowering of the blood sugar, cholesterol and systolic blood pressure, with subsequent changes in metabolic activities. It also helps control obesity, as one can keep away from frequent indulgence in food.
Fasting is an exercise in self-discipline. Those who smoke or suffer from eating disorders or drink tea and coffee or even carbonated drinks at regular intervals have the opportunity of ridding themselves of these addictions during this month.
Muslims do not skip a meal in Ramadan. Rather, the timing and the quantitative variety of the meals is altered. Food and drink should ideally be ingested in moderate quantities. The pre-dawn meal (called suhoor) is eaten right before sunrise and the next meal is done at sunset. Natural foods such as dates (a prescribed prophetic tradition) and juices are encouraged to counteract the effects of hypoglycemia, followed by a regular dinner later on.
“Breaking one’s fast with dates is an excellent way of restoring blood sugar since our bodies are deprived of glucose during fasting. Dates are rich in iron, glucose, potassium and other nutrients, which hold significant nutritional value, especially for the brain, and are useful in gradually raising blood sugar levels,” said Muhammed Shamim, an ICU specialist at King Saud Medical City. During Ramadan, ‘Taraweeh’ (prayers exclusive to the month of Ramadan that are performed following the obligatory evening prayer) serve as a form of exercise and help to metabolize the food. According to one study, at least 200 calories are burnt during a single session of Taraweeh, thanks to repeated sequences of bowing and prostration during prayer.
“Although Muslims do not offer prayers for exercise, Islamic prayers use all the muscles and joints and can be placed in the category of mild exercise in terms of calorific output,” said Syed Ibraheem, a doctor at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh.