By Dr. Noreen A. Kassem
This article was published in part in 2007 in MG Magazine.
This month is more than simply skipping a meal and counting the minutes to Iftar and the days to Eid ul-Fitr. Don’t just go through the motions; have a meaningful Ramadan by following these healthy tips for the mind, body and soul:
- Spiritual Gain: Ramadan is a time to reconnect spiritually by personal reflection and group remembrance. Its important to remember the historical events and significant days that make this month sacred and the virtues we can receive from then. The Quran was sent as guidance during Ramadan and should be a focus of our contemplation, especially in this time. Uplift yourself in every way by becoming more spiritually aware of your life and of God. Fasting is a form of worship in Islam and has many other benefits.
- Fasting is healthy: Medical research shows that fasting can actually help you live a longer, healthier life. When you fast, your body is better able to repair and purify itself. Over time, this improves your immune system, your energy level and even your ability to think!
- Ramadan Detox: The digestive system absorbs nutrients that every system in our body requires. According to doctors, fasting cleanses these body systems by removing harmful toxins that accumulate from normal, everyday life, helping absorb nutrients faster and more effectively. This gives us better overall health and even radiant, glowing skin!
- Fasting of the heart: Ramadan is a time for patience, selflessness and gratitude. By fasting, the heart becomes sensitized to others, teaching us empathy and kindness. We also learn self-control, dedication and discipline. This helps to get organized, set the right goals and priorities, as well as to decrease stress, frustration and procrastination. This empowers the mind and soul and gives us a healthier perspective on life. During Ramadan look inward at your own attitudes and habits and make positive changes.
- Foods for fasting: It’s especially important to keep your diet balanced during Ramadan. To boost energy during the day have slower digesting foods, especially during Sahur (the pre-dawn meal). These include fiber-rich foods, and complex carbohydrates such as whole grain breads and cereals, barley and oatmeal. Eggs are a power food because they are packed with protein and iron for energy and mental stamina. Two-Thirds of the brain is composed of fat; therefore you need essential fats, such as those in fish, cheese, and meats to avoid midday brain fog. It is also very important to drink plenty of water during Sahur and after the iftar meal. Dates, a traditional Ramadan food from the time of the Prophet are an excellent source of natural sugar, fiber, carbohydrates and minerals.
- Foods to avoid: During Ramadan, it’s even more important to avoid unhealthy foods, which can make you feel hungry, lethargic and dizzy soon after eating them. Avoid simple carbohydrates such as sugary foods, cookies, cakes, crackers, chips, potatoes, white bread, white rice and pasta. Too much food, as well as a heavy, unhealthy diet will also sap your energy and give you a stomachache or headache; go easy on the fried, oily and spicy foods. Additionally, limit coffee, tea and pop because the caffeine makes your body lose water; stay hydrated with water and juice instead.
- Finding the Ramadan spirit: We often eat because we are bored, stressed or feeling blue and when we can’t turn to food, we may feel moody. During fasting, our bodies also react to a withdrawal from food and you may feel depressed, restless, or anxious. It can be hard to get motivated especially if you’re not around the support of family and community. And it’s natural to feel tired, low on energy and irritable when you’re fasting. However, don’t use fasting as an excuse to not do your best at school, university or work and on projects or activities. Remind yourself that many people around the world fast in much more difficult conditions. Your own attitude will determine how much you benefit from your fasts. Understanding some of the benefits of fasting, eating the right foods, getting enough sleep, exercising and prioritizing your life during Ramadan will help keep away mood swings. And over time, your body will adapt to the physical and psychological effects of fasting and benefit from it. Fasting a few days of every month, as was the Sunnah of the Prophet, will also help you ‘train’ for Ramadan – not too mention you’ll reap the rewards of fasting all year round.
- Exercise: Yes, even in Ramadan, it’s important to stay active to keep healthy and energized. This doesn’t mean you should play your usual game of soccer or basketball or go for a long run. This month take up light activities like beginner’s yoga, walking or biking. Go for a stroll with your family after iftar. However, to stay hydrated avoid working up a sweat or being outdoors in hot climates.
- Build family and community: Ramadan is a time for charity and giving. Make time for your family this month and help out at home – you’re not the only one fasting! Try to attend prayers at the Masjid with your family whenever you can. Invite family and friends to break the fast with you and give thoughtful gifts to others.
Fasting increases our compassion for those who go hungry throughout the year. Volunteer in a soup kitchen or raise funds for your local food bank.
- Doctor’s orders: Some may not be able to fast due to important health reasons. For example, if you are diabetic, your doctor may recommend that you don’t fast this year. Don’t worry, you will be able to fast in the coming years; people with diabetes can fast once they are able to control and treat their condition. If you are on daily medications, talk to your doctor about adjusting your schedule during Ramadan. Remember, in Islam, our bodies are our responsibility and we must make our physical and mental well being a priority. Even if you cannot fast there is a lot you can do to get into the Ramadan spirit: feed someone that can’t afford a meal, organize family and community events, help raise money for charity, and of course, read the Quran and pray as much as possible.
Noreen A. Kassem is a physician in training and freelance writer from Vancouver, Canada.