The month of Ramadan is the reset button to potentially end all health woes that we have. It is the month when we adapt to a new regime of living. Waking up early for sahur, not eating and drinking during daylight, breaking of fast at dusk and staying vigil throughout the night observing prayers are common activities performed. Muslims observe Ramadan to share the feeling of the less fortunate in a community, where food does not come easy. It is a month where people do not indulge in extravagancy but live modestly according to their means.
When properly done, Ramadan has potential impacts onto one’s health. Look at the oft quoted definition of health – a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Just ask ourselves, just how well are we physically, mentally and socially? Likely, we may be inflicted in either one of these.
In the month of Ramadan, physiological changes occur. The body changes the main source of fuel gently, having a transition from utilizing glucose first and then fat. The meals during predawn and dusk prevent the breaking down of protein commonly seen in starved people. Reduced calorie intake and the utilization of fat by the body helps weight loss. Weight loss leads to many other benefits. It is often associated with better cholesterol levels – lower LDL levels (the bad cholesterol), improved HDL levels (good cholesterol) and lower triglyceride levels. This will kick start other domino effects – stable sugar levels, reducing insulin resistance – all mechanisms that potentially prevents diabetes mellitus. Reducing waistlines, for one, indicates that the amount of fat that surrounds your innards may have reduced. As such, you are preventing yourself from getting an apple shape body – a tell-tale sign that you may, as the doctors would say – be centrally obese. Being “centrally obese” is just one indicator of potentially having metabolic syndrome – a condition that is silently killing a lot of us in Malaysia.
You do get it – reduced calorie intake, weight, better sugar and cholesterol profile means having a healthier heart and having less risk of stroke. It gets better. With all these, with a good amount fruits and vegetable intake, the risk of getting cancers, generally reduces.
Although it is too early to mention here, there are studies that indicate fasting as potentially beneficial in cancer patients. The cancer cells among cancer patients are more sensitive to radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Since the cancer cells were “starved”, there are more significant “killing” of the cancer cells. There is more to this, when the cancer cells are more sensitive to treatment, the healthier cells are spared and the uncomfortable symptoms associated with treatment may be reduced.
Added with an attempt to quit smoking in Ramadan, the effectiveness of preventing cancers just increase by many folds. Come to really think of this, this is a wonderland for many doctors.
The spiritual wellbeing is placed heavily in Ramadan. One is “forced” to do good deeds in Ramadan, although it is obliged throughout the year. Focusing on the prayers, reflecting on oneself, seeking forgiveness, being thankful, being charitable and indulging in the true teaching of the Quran are things that creates self-discipline in a person. The feel good hormones – the natural endorphin shown to be released as a result of fasting improves a person’s general outlook, helps reduces symptoms of anxiety, alleviate the feeling of being depressed and even improved motor and cognitive function. The month of Ramadan gives a break to the mundane yet stressful routine in one’s life – enough to rid the monster in you.
When one is physically and mentally well, the social wellbeing will be improved too. You have no time to think about your un-wellness. You interact better with people, have positive thought on people, act appropriately – offline and online – basically sharing the love the world is lacking at the moment. You action to others is with the clear conscience of the mind.
What has been discussed so far is the use of Ramadhan. It cannot be denied that it can be abused as well. The wastage of food, the over-indulgence during breaking of fast – all these can mask the true benefits of fasting during Ramadan. The choice is ours, really. But remember, it potentially can save Malaysia from its public health woes.
Dr. Helmy Hazmi is a community medicine specialist with a major in Epidemiology and Biostatistics. He is currently working in his hometown, Kuching, as a medical lecturer. Find out more in The Team page.
- Safdie, F. M., Dorff, T., Quinn, D., Fontana, L., Wei, M., Lee, C., … Longo, V. D. (2009). Fasting and cancer treatment in humans: A case series report. Aging (Albany NY), 1(12), 988–1007.