Muslims worldwide are observing Ramadan, the holiest month on the Islamic calendar. It’s a time of spiritual reflection, increased devotion, charity work and fasting.
Fasting during Ramadan is believed to be a way to purify the soul and develop self-discipline. Muslims abstain from all food or drink, including water and chewing gum, from dawn to sunset. Depending on your location, the fast lasts 12 to 18 hours.
"In Minnesota, as we start Ramadan, that's going to be about 13-and-a-half hours, knowing that the days will increase as the month goes on," explains Dr. Nusheen Ameenuddin, a Mayo Clinic pediatrician.
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In the Islamic faith, everyone who has reached puberty is expected to fast, except in certain situations. According to the Islamic Society of North America, people exempt from fasting include the elderly, those physically or mentally incapable of fasting, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, people who are ill, and travelers.
Several health concerns exist for people with diabetes or other medical conditions who want to fast and need to take daily medication. Taking oral medicine would break the fast.
"This is something that needs to be discussed with your doctor or primary care provider to see if there are ways that medications can be adjusted, that timing of medication can be adjusted, and also to be aware of which medications might put them at greater risk for low blood sugar or high blood sugar," explains Dr. Ameenuddin.
It's a good idea to stay active while fasting during Ramadan. It can keep your energy levels up and boost your mood. However, exercising in the heat during this time can be challenging. Dr. Ameenuddin says the key is to stay hydrated and quench your thirst when you can eat and drink.
"I actually found that a very practical way to do this is to break my fast by drinking two full cups of water and then trying to drink in between prayers during the night, and making sure that I'm hydrating well in the morning as well," she says.
Health experts say it's not a good idea to do intense cardio workouts and heavy weight-training exercises while fasting.
"There's a good rule of thumb that if you usually exercise at X amount when you're not fasting, maybe decrease the intensity or the duration to about half of that during Ramadan to make sure that you're not pushing yourself too hard and that you're not getting dehydrated or using up your energy stores too quickly," says Dr. Ameenuddin.
According to the World Health Organization, fasting has several bonuses, including improved insulin sensitivity, cardiometabolic benefits and weight loss. Dr. Ameenuddin says fasting can sometimes help people with Type 2 diabetes who have their condition under control.
"Fasting can actually be an opportunity to make sure that you're eating healthy, eating the right kinds of foods to help regulate blood sugar," says Dr. Ameenuddin. However, she recommends that people consult with their health care team.
Although the fast and the accompanying fatigue can be daunting, Muslims look forward to this time every year.
"This is meant to be a good month. It’s meant to be a month of blessing for all of us. It's not meant to be a hardship. It is meant to help us have greater empathy for people who might be suffering in the world and to bring us closer to God," says Dr. Ameenuddin.
Ramadan ends April 21 with a celebratory festival called Eid al-Fitr.
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