The Ramadan fast incorporates the health benefits of a detoxification program at the level of the body, and includes an element of ridding toxicity from the mind and spirit. These holistic benefits have an incredible transforming ability.
Greed, bitterness, arrogance, and all the vile attributes of which sages throughout the ages have warned people inevitably and discretely creep into all our hearts as we remain absorbed and distracted by our go-go lifestyles. It is as if we don’t get a chance to reflect over why we’re working so hard. For most people there is no end until illness finally catches up with them, or they find themselves caught off guard in a life crisis of a sort.
A yearly fast is a brisk way to put perspective back into our mindless, day-in-day-out routine. Think of fasting as a stripping away of everything extra, a period of deep inner reflection and a breaking away that rekindles our sense of compassion, humility, and thankfulness. It is a time when the world suddenly starts going in slow motion, and everything familiar starts becoming distant and strange, and matters that seemed urgent are now less so.
True, work becomes less productive; it is just not possible to keep up the high pace during a time when the body is healing and resting. But it all seems okay. Fasting causes an altered consciousness conducive to spirituality; forcing it back into ritual behavior would be like defying our very nature.
Taking the time to turn inward and reassess what is valuable to us is the key to the healing process during Ramadan. Anyone who recognizes that the mind is not just a separate entity locked upstairs somewhere in the attic—detached from the body—will see the implication of a spiritual outlook on health.
The difference between an attitude of contentment with one’s affairs and bitterness with what was destined, for example, could be the simple difference between wellbeing and illness. That being the case, a fast that can help rid toxic thoughts—thoughts that make people sick and keep them there—would be a fast far superior to the one that merely restricts what one ingests for a few hours.
As far as Ramadan goes, it could be argued that the later is preordained only as a means to the prior.
What happens during a fast?
Fasting is actually routine for the body: aside from the controlled fasts in which some people take part, the body goes into a state of fasting every night while we sleep—that is also why the morning meal is appropriately called “break-fast”. We commonly find that on waking the tongue is coated, breath foul, skin puffy, and the mind foggy; all early signs of detoxification. The night fast is just a small break from a lifetime of excess intake of rich, salty, and sweetened foods.
People have different experiences when fasting. Those with high metabolisms find fasting quite difficult, especially near the beginning before their body has made the metabolic adjustments. Those of slower metabolisms accustomed to few meals a day usually report feeling better while fasting and often even have more energy to perform their usual duties.
Both groups, however, experience a period of physiological rest for the body starting at the digestive tract and its mucosal lining and affecting all the other organs as well. The process causes a cleansing away of waste products—a normal and regular process, but without the burden of further intake. The body is thus able to clear toxins better, quicker and more efficiently. This clearing process is most critical when it comes to the digestive tract because it is the barrier that regulates how material from the outside world enters the body. An unhealthy intestinal mucosal lining offers poor protection to the blood and inner organs against a variety of environmental and metabolic toxins.
What happens during a fast is quite predictable. Some people worry that they find their blood cholesterol levels and uric acid levels rise during the fast, but this temporary rise returns back to normal, or lower, shortly after the completion of the fast. ESR levels, a marker for inflammation in the body, tends to decrease during the course of a fast.
All of these changes indicate that the body is functioning at a cleaner level. Some other symptoms during a fast also be expected: nausea, foul breath, dizziness, headaches, tiredness and a need for more sleep, skin rashes, dandruff, dark circles under the eyes, and other symptoms indicating that the body is working through a healing crisis.
The Ramadan fast can be extremely effective at cleaning out our bodies and restoring vitality. This is not accomplished very well by eating huge iftar meals (the meal at sundown to break the fast) or eating unhealthy, processed, or fried foods; and then sleeping without any physical activity. It is no wonder that most people actually report a gain of weight during Ramadan rather than a loss! The metabolism of the body slows down when the body is not provided much energy for long periods of time and then given an excess amount in a single sitting. It is as if the body realizes what’s going on and counsels itself during the meal by saying, “well, I don’t know when the next time I’m going to get more food will be, so I better store as much energy as I can!”
As a result, the body begins to store the energy from the food we have eaten at night—something are we encourage it to do by sleeping on full stomachs with little energy expenditure. Then we feel lethargic throughout the day when we need energy but the body is not readily distributing it.
To make the most of Ramadan for the body, curbing one’s intake during the iftar is pivotal. Eating smaller meals will encourage the body to make use of the incoming energy and adjust to this stress on its digestive organs gradually after such a long period without food.
Smaller portions will also allow us to benefit from the energy within the food and feel energetic, as opposed to the debilitating lethargy that comes from from stuffing ourselves silly.
Naturally, more food will be required by the body since one small meal for a day’s worth of expenditure is insufficient. Another one or two similarly size meals will be able to compensate for the shortage. Spacing these meals out and keeping them small will promote metabolism and ease the burden on the digestive tract while discouraging storage and weight gain. We may even find that we actually lost weight in Ramadan for a change!
Another pearl of wisdom to encourage detoxification during the Ramadan fast is to focus on detoxifying foods. Most raw, unprocessed and whole food diets will work wonderfully, but to make the fast just that much more effective, concentrate specifically on green leafy vegetables, increasing water intake, and being very particular about one’s oil intake. Omega-3 oils, oils that are commonly lacking in our diets—found in fish and certain vegetable sources—are a good choice during any fast as the fat in our body burns away and is replaced by the healthier oil.
Foods to avoid would be anything with refined carbohydrates (soda, sweets, white bread, potatoes without the skin), which will only push the body into overload and storage of energy, along with poor quality oils (fried, hydrogenated and trans-fats), and foods devoid of nutrients—that’s most processed food in general.
Finally, a little bit of exercise after the break of the fast is highly recommended. Going for a light walk, doing some housework, or standing for the tarawih prayer will all fulfill this minimum requirement. The body will be looking to go into storage mode, since it has finally had food after a long period of no energy coming into it, but by keeping up some activity, you can lessen the contrast by showing the body that the energy is to be used, not stored.
Breaking out of the rut of poor health, addiction, or any other unhealthy lifestyle pattern, be it at the mind, body, or spiritual level, can be quite daunting when all else remains the same. Ramadan’s radical shift in routine sets the terrain for change. May Allah make it easy for us to take control of our health, get rid of our excesses, and experience all of the other secrets hidden in this blessed month.