Ramadan is the holiest Islamic month for Muslims, in which they refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and engaging in any sexual activity from dawn to sunset.
In Canada and elsewhere, Tuesday marked the beginning of Ramadan, which is determined by the sighting of the new moon.
We asked some medical experts about what fasting does to your body, what to expect with COVID-19 in the mix again this year and vaccinations during Ramadan.
What are the health benefits of fasting?
There is a growing body of research that shows multiple health benefits of fasting.
Experts say it can help control blood pressure, reduce cholesterol levels, hypertension, obesity, inflammation in the body, decrease blood sugar levels and increase metabolism.
“When you first start off in the month, there’s a shock to the system, said Dr. Balal Lone, a family physician and board member of the Muslim Medical Association of Canada.
“It does take a little bit (of time) for the body to get used to, but then as the month progresses, you develop into a steady state.”
How to take part in a healthy, active Ramadan
Some studies show that fasting is also good for mental health as it can reduce depression, anxiety and the risk of dementia, Lone added.
“There is evidence that fasting can actually help regenerate some of the brain cells, so you actually have better cognition and cognitive memory,” said Dr. Aisha Khatib, assistant professor with the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto.
Fasting during Ramadan also gives Muslims a chance to cut out unhealthy habits, like smoking or consuming too much caffeine, she added.
“It’s almost like you’re detoxing your system,” Khatib said.
What are the risks of fasting?
However, it is not uncommon for people to indulge in fatty, fried foods and binge eat after a long day of starvation.
“There always is that risk of putting on weight if you’re not careful with what you’re eating,” said Khatib.
Muslims honour Ramadan in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic
She recommended a protein-rich meal in the morning to keep the energy levels up throughout the day and eating fruits and vegetables to replenish and hydrate when breaking the fast in the evening.
There are also increased risks of fasting for people with advanced cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease and those who suffer with uncontrolled diabetes, Lone said.
Hence, it is important to seek the medical advice of your healthcare provider about whether you can safely fast.
Can you fast with COVID-19 symptoms?
Sick people, the elderly, pregnant, menstruating and nursing women are exempt from fasting, according to the Quran.
Most people who get COVID-19 develop mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, so they should be able to fast without difficulty, Khan said.
However, if you are battling more severe symptoms, then it is permissible to skip the fast, or break it if your health deteriorates while fasting, he added.
“If you have COVID-19, if you’re having symptoms and you’re feeling unwell, that could actually put yourself at risk of having a more severe disease or feeling more unwell from it,” she told Global News.
Muslims can make up for the missed fast within a year after Ramadan or give charity instead.
In all cases, you should consult your doctor if you are unsure whether fasting is safe for you, or your local Imam (religious scholar) if you are unsure about exemptions to the fast, according to Ramadan guidelines published by the Canadian Muslim COVID-19 Task Force (CMCTF).
A Mississauga husband-wife duo spread joy with their inflatable decor for Ramadan and Muslim holidays
What is the impact of fasting on COVID-19?
There is no evidence to suggest that fasting could increase or decrease the risk of developing COVID-19 illness.
“The risk is related to being exposed to someone who’s around you without enough measures in place, so enough Canadian Muslims should be able to fast, safely, as long as they’re not being exposed to others,” said Dr. Hashim Khan, a respirologist and medical co-chair of CMCTF.
“And it (fasting) doesn’t necessarily increase their risk of developing COVID-19 or catching the virus responsible for it.”
Fasting does not have a negative impact on our immune system either, Khatib added.
“In fact, with fasting, it has shown to decrease inflammation generally and over time it can even help improve the immune system.”
Can you get a COVID-19 vaccine and test while fasting?
Yes, you can get the vaccine and take a COVID-19 test while fasting.
Consuming any form of food and medication or drinking fluids is not permitted while fasting, but vaccinations and testing, which are not a source of nutrition, are acceptable.
“From a religious standpoint, there’s nothing that a vaccine intramuscularly, such as COVID vaccines are, would invalidate the first,” Lone said.
“The same goes for other vaccines as well.”
In the United States, Islamic leaders are using social media, virtual town halls and face-to-face discussions to spread the word that it’s acceptable to be vaccinated for the coronavirus during daily fasting.
Khatib said if you are scheduled to get vaccinated, make sure to hydrate well the night before and in the morning.
Ramadan under lockdown
It is not uncommon to experience some side effects after vaccination, such a fever, body aches and sore arm.
If the effects are intolerable to the point that medication is needed then it is OK to break the fast, Khan said.
“If you do have a reaction or if you do feel unwell after your vaccine and you don’t feel that you can carry on fasting, it’s perfectly fine to break your fast and make your fast up another day,” Khatib said.
If possible, Khatib said it is also a good idea to opt to get the vaccine later on in the day so that it is closer to the end of the fast, so that you won’t have to purposely break it if there are some side effects.
— with a file from the Associated Press
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.