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4 Surprising Health Impacts of Fasting During Ramadan as a Muslim With Health Conditions

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Every year, Muslims around the world spend the month of Ramadan (the 9th month of the Islamic calendar) fasting and further exploring their faith. Fasting requires abstaining from food and drink from dawn until dusk (yes, even water). Though it is considered compulsory for all that are able, there are a number of exemptions for people who are sick, pregnant, menstruating, traveling, etc. For years, I did not fast, and it wasn’t something I was pressured to do, so my perspective and experiences may not be representative of everyone’s experience.

As someone who deals with IBS, anxiety, depression, conversion disorder, nerve/joint pain, and a few other health conditions, I started to think about how I could fast in a safe, healthy way. Fasting is difficult — that’s kind of the point. It’s not supposed to be easy to do, and is a reminder to be grateful for what we do have, and cherish it more. That being said, the goal is also not to cause harm or undue hardship, which I feel is a very important distinction. I also want to make it clear that for many people, fasting for Ramadan can be done in a very healthy and responsible way, but it’s a bit different for me.

I observe a modified fast — where instead of going from sun up to sun down (especially in the spring/summer months where it can be as many as 18 hours), I aim for 10-12 hours of fasting per day. Sometimes I do more, sometimes I do less. For me, it’s really about being in tune with my body and determining what is challenging myself and what is hurting myself. I found this has actually been such a positive benefit for my health, because I am more connected to my body and my needs.

Here are some other benefits I’ve found along the way:

1. Slowing down.

Because fasting can be a bit arduous, many people use it as an opportunity to slow down. I found this to be quite beneficial for my mental health because as someone who often over-exerts myself and pushes myself to the point of mental exhaustion, this “excuse” to slow down has been a relief.

2. Improving my relationship with food.

I’ve struggled with my relationship with food since I was a kid. I’m on the heavier side, and would sometimes feel guilty for eating too much. I also find that the more depressed I am, the less I think about nutrition and just want to eat foods that make me feel better in the moment, but worse after. With fasting, I’ve started to think a lot more about consuming foods that leave me full for longer, give me sustained energy, and are nutritious. You’d think that fasting would exacerbate my food issues (I thought the same), but it’s helped me be more conscious of making food choices that feel good.

3. Meditation/mindfulness.

My therapist consistently tries to get me to practice meditation and mindfulness, and I never seem to get on board — except during Ramadan. Since it’s a time for many to focus on their faith more, I find myself focusing on mindfulness — something I find to be core to my faith.

4. Being conscious of my mood and thoughts.

I get very anxious and depressed when I’m hungry, so fasting poses a unique challenge to this. I’ve found that I’ve become more aware of what’s going on in my mind — and what the cause might be. Ramadan is also about trying to be a kinder, more patient, more understanding person. In order to do that, I try to bring greater awareness to my actions, words and thoughts which in turn seems to help my mental health.

With all these benefits…why do I still modify my Ramadan fast? Am I breaking the rules or cutting corners? I struggled with those questions as well, but ultimately it feels like a personal decision and practice, so I felt modifying it would still “count.” I do my best to challenge myself, but I also know it’s important to put my health first.
Some of my modifications include:

  • Shortening the length of my fast to be more manageable. With IBS, I can’t eat huge meals at once, and found that when I tried I would get very sick.
  • Not waking up too early to start fasting. A lack of sleep is a huge trigger for my seizures, so it’s important that I don’t force myself awake too early.
  • Taking one or two days off per week to reset. I can always make up my fast on other days, or let it go, because my body needs time to reset every few days.
  • Allowing myself medication and water when I need them, even if I’m still fasting from food. The goal is to not have any water, but sometimes I need to take medication (note: people on medication are exempted from fasting) and I need water with it.
  • Allowing myself grace to break my fast early if I start to feel like it’s more harmful than challenging. It’s easy to feel like I’ve failed, or be angry with my body/mind for not being able to continue, but it’s important to give myself a break in these cases.

I know I’m not the only one struggling with this balance, and feel good that I’ve found ways to participate in meaningful practices without compromising my mental or physical health. I’m sharing this because there are ways to make our practices more accessible — and for anyone else struggling with health issues and being able to participate in the same way able-bodied folks can — you’re not alone. Your choices — whether to fast, not fast, or modify your fast are 100% valid and don’t make you any better or worse than anyone else.

Getty image by Choreograph.

Originally published: April 21, 2021
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