Last month my Muslim friends and I were talking about our different faiths. Over a few cups of cardamom coffee, sweet tea and dried dates, I accepted an invitation to join them in a single day of Ramadanic fasting. I accepted, not for religious reasons, but because I want to understand Ramadan better, and what my friends experience physically.
Can I last the pace? Well today’s the day to find out! Live blog feeds from the start (2:30 am) ’til the end (10 pm)! Or until I pass out!
The updates are split into two parts: as the day unfolds I’ll both blog my fast experiences and what I’ve come to understand about Ramadan (in italics). I will say up front that my understanding of Islam and Ramadan is limited and simplistic, but a more comprehensive discussion of Ramadan can be found on Wikipedia.
2 am – Monday morning, 30th June. I set the alarm, got up and now I’m taking a light meal of toast, porridge (hopefully the oats will give some slow burn carbs!) and a pint or so of water. I’m using slightly salted water to try and make sure I get enough electrolytes to last the day. My body needs about 6 grams of salt a day, so with no food (or water) it’s going to run out. I’m curious about the day ahead: no food should be fine, no liquid is going to be harder. On a working day I’d normally go through about 2 litres of water alone and 3 or 4 hot drinks….not today!
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the name of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and during that month Muslims will abstain from drinking and eating during daylight hours. The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, so Ramadan starts with the first sighting of the new moon and ends as the waning crescent vanishes 30 days later. The start and finishing time are set by local sunrise and sunset (although there are allowances for those who live at very high latitudes): but in Glasgow, today, sunrise is at 2:30 am and sunset at 10pm! Ramadan 2014 started on the 29th June, so today is day 2 (although there can be some slight differences depending on the geographical location used to make the new moon observations).
7 am – It took me a while to get back to sleep, but I’m up, making coffee, feeding cats – all the usual stuff – except without my nice strong fresh half-caf coffee. The lack of water will be one thing, the lack of caffeine (which I get from the 4 or 5 cups of coffee or tea I have a day) will be something else!
The Ramadan fast.
The month of Ramadan has special significance to Muslims in several ways: its a month of daylight fasting, with an emphasis on studying the Koran, praying and acts of charity. All Muslims who are able are expected to attempt the fast, with allowance made for those who are ill, young, or have some other physical conditions. Many of the worlds religions have fasting as some part of their faith culture. The terms ‘fast’ does seem to cover a variety of different types of food and drink abstinences, but I’ve heard it used in situations where someone gives up a habit for a period of time (like eating chocolate, or looking at Facebook). Some of the fasts, like the Daniel Fast (which I’ve done twice), seem to be more like detox diets.
11 am – That’s the first two hours of work passed. I have a dull headache – which I suspect is caused by lack of caffeine – and my senses of hearing and seeing seem to be slight enhanced. My typing speeds don’t seem to be as fast and I’ve lost the ability to touch-type.
What’s really interesting, to me at least, is that the hunger and discomfort is making me think about those populations suffering in Syria right now….
Ramadan yearly shift
Since the Islamic month is lunar based, the Islamic year has a 355 day cycle: about 10 or 11 days sorter than the normal Western (Gregorian) year. This means events fixed in the Islamic calendar, like Ramadan, move to earlier UK dates every year: this year Ramadan started on June 28. For an equatorial country, where the days and nights are fairly evenly spaced the time of year doesn’t make a huge difference, but in at high latitudes (like Scotland) the daylight in summer lasts for nearly 20 hours! Ramadan missed the UK midsummer by a week this year, but will co-incide with mid-summer for 2015-17. Interestingly enough for schools and University’s, Ramadan will run right through the summer exam session (usually May and early June) for the next few years…
2 pm – Lunchtime. Or just ‘time for me! The hunger’s building and the headache’s not shifting. Just sitting at my computer and focusing on the screen seems to have ratcheted it up a notch. It’s a nice warm summer’s day in Glasgow so I walked around the campus at lunchtime and past a group of builders eating roll’n’sausage…with fried onions. Arghhh, I can actually still smell them as I type!!
It’s interesting that an activity I started as an ‘experiment’ to understand a bit better what my friends and colleagues go through, is breaking through into something else: the discomfort turns into thoughts of own faith. It’s like when your training hard, you get to the point where the fatigue no longer counts and you find a different groove.
Health risks and benefits of fasting – part 1.
One question that someone might ask is – “Is fasting safe?” And its a good question too! Since this is a science blog, I did what any self-respecting scientist would do and looked up whats been published on it!
In general the health effects seem to be neutral: a big 2010 review in the Nutritional Journal came up the the conclusion “the majority of health-specific findings related to Ramadan fasting are mixed.” When I forward-cited this review and looked at the papers published between 2010 -14 I couldn’t see any other papers which would overturn that conclusion. A paper in 2013 (Effect of fasting in ramadan on body composition and nutritional intake: a prospective study) observed that only young males lost body fat and the rest of us (me included) lost protein! Other fasting schemes (like the Daniel fast) seemed to be associated with measurable physical improvements.
But remember, science can only study the effects of Ramadan fasting on large populations during Ramadan itself, and so the scientists haven’t been able to study the effects of the extended ‘northern latitude fast’ for nearly 30 years!
7 pm – It’s all beginning to settle nicely now. I’m not feeling hungry or thirsty and the headache’s shifted. I wasn’t even too phased by coming in the front door to the kids munching on chocolate! I don’t seem to be too dehydrated. The feeling of ‘enhanced vision’ seems to be wearing off, but I can still smell food!! I’m feeling cooler (almost cold at times), but I guess that might be my metabolism taking a wee dip. Just a few hours left…I think I’ll see food and drink a different way after this.
Health risks and benefits of fasting – part 2.
The Ramadan fast is also an abstinence from drinking during daylight hours, and the effects of this have also been studied. The 2003 paper “Effects of health on fluid restriction during fasting in Ramadan” notes examples of German manual labours who were suffering heat stress due to dehydration, the increase in Muslims attending accident and emergency centres during Ramadan in the UK (but interestingly enough not the UAE), and negative psychosomatic effects (low mood, headaches etc). The overall conclusions were that there was no detrimental health effects directly attributed to dehydration, but clearly some groups of people find it tough going. Interestingly enough the paper also quotes a study that shows the fluid balance of the body remaining relatively constant: it appears that the body conserves water by reducing the amount of water lost through ‘non-renal’ mechanisms (sweat and breathing).
One final point, and probably the most important – religious fasts aren’t done for the health benefits, but for the religious benefits…and I couldn’t find any scientific papers measuring those. (And I did look!)
10 pm – إفطار pronounce as iftAr , meaning “breakfast”.
Finished. All done. Time for something to drink and eat. My wife’s delayed her dinner so we can eat together, but I’m going to start with (what I’m told is) the traditional food for iftar – some dates. I’m back to a normal diet tomorrow but my Muslim friends and colleagues have another 28 days to go!
Ramadan and charity.
I’m told that during the hungry and thirsty hours of Ramadan it’s a time to think about those whose lives are a long series of deprivations (food, water, safety, security) forced upon them, not voluntarily temporary choices like my efforts today. The offshoot of this time of fasting and reflection for me is to donate to Tearfund’s Syria Appeal.
Why put your body through the trials of fasting?
I can’t answer this question properly for anyone else except me: this experience has been about putting my body through stress to understand what my Muslim friends and colleagues are going thorough. This may seem bizarre to some, but to me it’s no different on a physical level from training hard at the gym, kickboxing sparring or running up mountains: its tough, hard and sore, but you do it because at the end you have something you didn’t at the start. It’s reminded me of those that are victims of conflict, it reminded me of my own faith, and of how easily I forget the food and drink that falls out my fridge or runs from my tap.
The day after….
I’m grateful for a meal, several pints of water, a good nights sleep and my morning coffee! At the time of writing this paragraph the Ramadan post has over 225 views (which is about twice any other posts) and I’m grateful to those who’ve taken the time to to look at the blog, follow my journey, support me and help me out. Even those who’ve had questions have forced me to think about how I represent myself, my beliefs and those of others. This ‘experiment’ has started unexpected conversations about religion and ironically it seems easier to talk about some one else’s beliefs than it does one’s own!
While I don’t like to admit it, I doubt I could keep up a fasting and working schedule where I crammed all my daily food, water and sleep into a 3 1/2 hour window which was diametrically opposite my normal 9-5 working hours.
My Muslim friends are in my prayers….