What happens when you fast?

Make sure you take care of your body when fasting this year


It’s going to be a particularly tough month for fasters in 2011 – temperatures are set to soar and the hours of sunlight during August are, of course, the longest of the year. That’s why this year it’s more important than ever to be aware of what you are going through physically as well as mentally, and take extra care to fast safely. This means being informed of how your body responds to abstaining from food, making the right choices at mealtimes and, of course, reading expert medical advice on fasting.

What happens to the body during fasting?
Of course everyone knows how fasting makes you feel – and for most of us sluggish, cranky and headachy just about covers it. But it’s helpful to know what’s actually going on inside your body when you skip meals, and what you should expect to happen over an extended period of fasting.

It takes eight hours from your last meal for the body to enter a fasting state, as this is roughly how long it takes for your gut to finish absorbing all the food’s nutrients. Usually body glucose, which is stored in the liver and muscles, is your main source of energy. During a fast, this glucose is used up first to provide energy, but once the stores run out fat is the source of energy the body turns to. After this point (only if you have not eaten for days on end) the body starts to use protein for energy. This is actually considered the beginning of starvation and is deeply unhealthy – the protein is released from the breakdown of muscle, which is why people who starve become very weak.

Of course this final stage does not occur during a Ramadan fast, which can be undertaken without damaging your health. Since you don’t have to go longer than a day without eating, your body gets refuelled at Iftar and Suhoor. These regular meals mean your body can gradually transition from using glucose to fat as its main source of energy, and never needs to break down muscle for protein energy.

Fasting can be good for you
• When your body burns fat instead of glucose for energy, you lose weight, which is healthy for some, although of course not for everyone.

• Weight loss can help with controlling diabetes, reducing your cholesterol levels and lowering your blood pressure.

• A detoxification process occurs when the toxins stored in fat are dissolved and removed from the body.

• As seasoned fasters know, after a few days of the fast you might experience feelings of extra alertness and, because your body produces more endorphins (hormones that lift your mood), you’ll experience an overall, temporary feeling of well-being

What should I eat when I break the fast?
The temptation to grab the richest, heaviest dish you can reach at sundown everyday can be overwhelming. But try to take your meal slowly – fasters in the know often start off with a light soup and ease into larger meals – and if you’re eating at a buffet, make sure you include all the food groups you would normally include in your diet. To prevent muscle breakdown, your meal should contain plenty of ‘energy food’, such as complex carbohydrates (these release energy more slowly than refined carbs) and a moderate amount of unsaturated fat. Lots of salt can be lost through sweating during the day, so a few salty dishes are fine to include at each meal. Finally, carry on drinking water all through the evening to replenish what you lost during the day – you’ll feel hungrier if you’re dehydrated. Try not to guzzle syrupy fruit juices as they are very high in sugar.

Five tempting foods to avoid:
Oily curries
Caffeinated drinks

Five healthy options to fill up on:
Grilled meat and fish
Dried fruits

Doctor's say

Dr Richard Stangier, internal medicine consultant and diabetoligist at Al Rawdah German Medical Center answers our questions.

What are the major health issues those fasting might experience?
Fasting can lead to dehydration and dizziness in some people. For people who usually take medication, there are some risks involved. Muslims considering fasting while on medication should seek medical advice, and people with impaired kidney function will need to be mindful that fasting could lead to the reduced processing of their medication, which subsequently could lead to toxic effect.

Should diabetics take extra precautions during the Holy Month?
Those with diabetes do need to take extra care while fasting. Hypoglycaemia, a condition characterised by an abnormal drop of sugar levels, can lead to health problems and monitoring of blood sugar levels may be required. Symptoms of abnormally low levels of blood sugar levels to watch out for are tiredness, sweating and headaches. Additionally, eating rich food when breaking the fast can lead to hyperglycaemia (the reverse of hypoglycaemia), which is characterised by the increase of blood sugar levels. Diabetics taking the oral anti-diabetic drug Metformin while fasting could also suffer from the reduced processing of their medication.

What general tips can you give for fasting safely during Ramadan?
Keep fluid intake up after the fast has been broken. Avoid excessive physical exertion and exposure to the heat. People with chronic diseases and those having to take medication may want to consider being exempt from fasting. If you are considering stopping medication during Ramadan or taking medication while fasting, you should seek medical advice.

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