Is Muslim Ramadan Fasting Healthy?

With Ramadan around the corner, I have decided to take a look into the health outcomes connected to the practitioners of Ramadan.

This post is aimed at people who practice Ramadan. For those who do not know, Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Muslims worldwide see this month as the month of fasting. It lasts from 28 to 30 days and people are not allowed to eat from sunrise to sunset. In most countries this allots to around 12 to 16 hours in one day. The fasting itself in this case is defined as an abstinence from some or all food, liquid, or both during the mentioned period. Every practicing Muslim is required to undergo this fasting, the only exception being children, pregnant, menstruating or lactating women, or anyone with an illness.

I’ve written about the effects of fasting before, I’ve discussed the health and longevity benefits, as well as different cognitive outcomes that follow fasts of different duration.

And what has been collected so far about the effects of Ramadan itself on the functioning of people who undergo it?

  • Decreases in LDL cholesterol and fasting blood glucose levels in men and women
  • Men lose more weight, notice a drop in total cholesterol, as well as a small decrease in triglyceride levels
  • Women experience an increase in HDL cholesterol

While these effects are not so dramatic or drastically beneficial, it is good to know that people who undergo Ramadan, on average, experience some health benefits. These results somewhat overlap with my post on intermittent fasting. It is true that Ramadan is conceptually a different type of fast, as it omits one from eating during the day and allows him to do so only in the morning and in the evening. However, at the end of the day, there is still that caloric restriction happening which very probably causes the mentioned effects.

One particular thing about Ramadan is that there is no rule to change the food you eat to healthier options. The only change that happens is a two-part eating window – you eat before sunrise and after sunset. Now imagine the possible benefits if this type of fast would be further enhanced by an increase in healthy food choices such as adding more vegetables, lean meat, and more fruit.

Researchers suggest that your body becomes more efficient in using its own fat storages, as total food intake during Ramadan changes quite substantially for the majority of people. With that said, however, the above-mentioned changes are not the only ones in which scientists were interested as far as Ramadan goes.

Athletes are a group which can especially suffer from Ramadan. A change in terms of eating only twice per day, as opposed to eating multiple times, affects their athletic performance. They experience a decrease in psychomotor functioning during Ramadan. Young football players report being more fatigued towards the end of Ramadan – this is something coaches should be vary of and adjust their work load accordingly to prevent injuries from happening.

Maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max) does not change for healthy sedentary people during Ramadan. However, for long-distance athlete runners, their VO2max is decreased at the end of Ramadan. Certain authors report impaired anaerobic performance, this means that they observed decreases in athletes’ abilities of performing heavy short-term exercises such as weight lifting.

Some even found that Ramadan has deteriorating effects on sleep architecture on people who practice Ramadan. This means that their delayed bedtime and shortened sleep impair their sleeping patterns, which results in partial sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation in itself is a vast topic that I can’t really cover in one sentence. Let’s just say you’d want to get your sleep to function optimally.

There is a warning which I must mention about the decreases in anaerobic performance. It is quite possible that those decreases happened because the athletes were less motivated to do it due to increased feelings of fatigue. Motivation in itself is a very important part in exercise as well. If they were not motivated, it’s more probable that they said they were tired and fatigued much quicker as they would have otherwise. This, in return, affected their anaerobic performance.

And finally, there is something else that is worth mentioning when it comes to sex differences and Ramadan. It is important to note the cultural and societal context in which these studies were done, most women from these studies were housewives, who are not as physically active as men. They continue their normal daily activities during this month, so there is a good possibility that the fasting effects of Ramadan played out differently due to the variation in physical activity in the two sexes. These mentioned differences are also the possible reason different studies observed different outcomes for women and for men as far as their cholesterol levels go.

References used: [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ]

About Author

Sebastijan Veselic

BSc in Psychology, currently doing a MSc in Cognitive science. Pursuing and interested in many academic and scientific disciplines and topics, as well as some less so. These include, but are not limited to, cute cats on the internet.

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