Fasting Ramadan with a Naturopathic Doctor
Ramadan is a holy month in the Islamic religion practiced annually by over one billion people around the world. During this month, the practice is to fast (no food, no water) from sunrise to sundown; to abstain from “practices that may harm you physically or emotionally” such as smoking, using negative language, entertaining negative thoughts…etc.; to consciously practice compassion; and to pray/meditate with intent. Interestingly, the health benefits of this holy month are countless. In recent years, scientific research has begun to shed light on some of these benefits.
This article will discuss some of the physiological benefits of fasting as well as the top nutritional practices recommended by a naturopathic doctor during Ramadan.
Do you want to keep your energy high and prevent your muscles from wasting, all while losing unwanted fat?
Then read on!
What do we know about the benefits of fasting?
Current research indicates a strong relationship between intermittent fasting and an improved immune system function. One study found that fasting is beneficial in the prevention and improvement of autoimmune diseases such as Systemic Lupus Erythematous (SLE). Another study found that fasting triggers immune system regeneration, shifting stem cells from a dormant state to a state of self-renewal. Optimizing and balancing our body’s natural immune system function is key to overall health and longevity. This may also be of clinical importance, especially with patients undergoing chemotherapy, since such treatment often results in lower immune system cell numbers.
Routine fasting has been shown to have dramatic effects on Human Growth Hormone (HGH). Increased HGH improves endurance, results in faster muscle repair, and even slows down the aging process. Moreover, with the reduction of the constant raising and lowering of blood sugar when eating, fasting also results in the regulation of insulin sensitivity. This means better weight AND mood regulation through improved insulin management.
Other hormones that are also normalized by fasting include Ghrelin and Leptin.
Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates your appetite and tells you that you should eat.
Leptin is the hormone that turns off your hunger signal, indicating you are full.
Fasting allows the brain to become more sensitive to Leptin so that you feel full faster.
A 2015 study found that fasting “is associated with elevations in high density lipoprotein (HDL-c), and reductions in low-density lipoprotein (LDL-c) and total cholesterol (T-chol).” HDL-c is what we generally think of as the “good” cholesterol to have, while LDL-c is the “bad” cholesterol. Individuals can use the practice of fasting to improve their lipid profile and therefore their cardiovascular health. In this study, the lipid profile of diabetic patients deteriorated significantly during the fasting period. As a result, and due to the high risk of hypoglycemia, it is not recommended for diabetic patients to participate in fasting.
Gut Health Fasting has been found to enrich the gut with bacteria associated with reduced inflammation and a longer lifespan. It is not yet fully understood how these changes to the gut flora affect lifespan. One theory suggests that fasting actually changes the gut microbiota to include more of the beneficial bacteria. This in turn results in less inflammation as the beneficial bacteria modulates the immune system in the gut.
Moreover, the reduced frequency of food matter passing through the gastrointestinal system also lessens the physical and digestive burden on the walls of the gut. This allows more time for the tissue to heal and repair. It is important to mention that this is only the case with a healthy diet during feeding periods. A diet high in processed foods will lead to inflammation and hence possible worsening of gut health during the fasting periods.
As previously mentioned, fasting combined with a nutrient dense diet during the feeding phase lessens the toxic burden on the body, since less processed foods are consumed. The liver is naturally working around the clock to detoxify the blood of waste products generated by our metabolic processes. By removing the extra toxins we normally ingest through processed foods, we allow time and energy for the liver to focus on the toxins already present within our bodies, reducing its overall detoxification load. Moreover, fasting for an extended time generally causes the body to start using fat as a form of energy. This is called ketosis. We also know the body generally stores toxins that were not eliminated in fat tissue. When we enter ketosis, the toxins that were stored in the fat cells are released. The liver is then in charge of processing them to be eliminated through one of the emunctories.
In today’s society, overeating is common practice. Consistent overeating combined with poor food choices is the perfect equation for the slow weight gain that creeps up on you over the years. Gaining as little as 2-3 lbs of fat per year can result in 20-30lbs of extra fat in just 10 years! Fasting not only helps to restrict the amount of food you eat, but also helps reduce cravings and resets your “appetite thermostat” because of its hormonal balancing effects. Furthermore, long term fasting may actually reduce the stomach’s ability to accommodate the same amounts of food as it did before the fasting, acting like a natural form of bariatric surgery.
It is crucial to seek professional advice in this area because “over-fasting” may actually have the opposite effect of causing the body to resist weight loss even harder.
So far I’ve listed a few of the many benefits to fasting. Let us now explore some lifestyle and nutritional hacks to optimize the fasting experience during the month of Ramadan.
One of the most important aspects of fasting is actually what you eat and drink during the feeding phase! Having a diet low in nutrition but high in calories will only increase cravings and subcutaneous fat deposition. This also often leads to binge eating since the body isn’t getting what it needs and simply keeps asking for more food. As formerly established, overeating is a bad habit to keep if you want to achieve optimal health! Providing the body with nutrient dense foods will satisfy the cravings for the specific vitamins and minerals it needs to function optimally, and will result in high energy.
When breaking fast, it is easy to eat quickly, which may lead to over eating. In this case, thoroughly chewing the food will allow for better digestion and slow you down, giving time for the stomach to signal satiety to the brain as it expands.
A diet high in dietary fibre (LOTS of Vegetables) will provide bulk for the stool and food for the good gut bacteria. Vegetables are packed with powerful energizing nutrients and antioxidants your body craves.
High intake of healthy fats (such as nuts/seeds, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, fish oil from fish) will provide enough calories for the body so that it does not resist weight loss due to severe calorie restriction.
Adequate intake of protein (generally, one gram of protein per kg of body weight per day) is essential for high energy, a healthy immune system, and less food cravings. Protein is the building block of muscle. Animal protein (meats, poultry, fish) is absorbed more effectively than plant protein, however animal protein tends to be more inflammatory. A balanced diet in animal protein and plant-based protein is often best for general health. Protein powders are a great source of protein intake during Ramadan because it can be difficult to eat enough protein during the small feeding window. Quality of the protein powders depends on the source and the purity. Additives are commonly added for taste and shelf life. Finding a good quality protein powder is important and individuals sensitive to dairy should stay away from whey protein since it is derived from dairy.
By adding protein to the diet, you provide your metabolic system with the amino acids it needs to build necessary hormones, to build up a healthy immune system, to stabilize blood sugar, and to spare your muscles from being metabolised. A common myth is that too much protein will harm your kidneys. This is not true. High protein intake may worsen kidney health if there is already poor kidney health, otherwise there is no evidence of a high protein diet harming the kidneys. Moreover, if I supplement with protein powder, it is usually a vegan blend, while I also consume animal proteins in my general diet. This is because of the aforementioned point about animal protein being more inflammatory than vegetarian protein.
For the purpose of fasting during Ramadan, it is best to take 1 shake during iftar (post-sundown meal) and another shake during suhur (Pre-sunrise meal)
Please NOTE: Please consult your naturopathic doctor if you suffer from poor kidney health and are looking to increase your protein intake.
Hydration is another important factor to consider. Our bodies are about 65% water. Dehydration can manifest as fatigue, so it is important to have an adequate intake of water while feeding. This will mean refraining from drinking soft drinks or other processed beverages so that there is space for the 7-8 cups of water during the feeding phase. Juicing greens may be beneficial but only after an adequate intake of water, since you will not be drinking during the day!
A high-quality multivitamin will provide your metabolic system with the specific vitamins and minerals needed for optimal mitochondrial health. Vitamins and minerals function to help catalyze specific enzymatic reactions throughout our cells, such as the case of magnesium in the mitochondria. In this case, they are called co-enzymes or co-factors. They also function as structural building blocks, such as the case of iron in red blood cells. A high-quality multivitamin will have proper dosage of the right forms of vitamins and minerals. Some forms are better absorbed than others, and taking too low of a dose won’t generate sufficient results.
The dose of the multivitamin will depend on the brand, and should be taken during suhur. Be careful of "one-a-day" multivitamins as they often don't contain adequate vitamin dosage to be of good value.
Creatine is wildly known as the body builder supplement. It is actually a safe and cost-effective way to prevent muscle wasting while fasting. Muscle tissue requires energy to stay alive. This energy is provided by the metabolic system when it metabolizes carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Keeping a healthy amount of muscle forces the metabolic system to continue working, and thus keeps the metabolic rate higher. It is also worth mentioning that the main source of energy of muscles, while we are at rest, is fat. Hence, more muscle equals better fat burning.
For the purpose of fasting during Ramadan, it is best to take 3mg creatine during suhur. Drinking a lot of water with Creatine is important.
Glutamine (supplemented in the form of L-Glutamine) is one of the most abundant amino acids in the body. Amino acids are building blocks of protein, which are used as building blocks for muscle. Glutamine has many uses throughout the body, but is mainly seen as food for the cells that make up the inside walls of the small intestine (enterocytes). By providing the body with this supplement, you help accelerate the repair processes of the small intestine while you fast. A healthy small intestine improves nutrient absorption and helps regulate the immune system. Improving gastrointestinal function is one of the basic foundations in optimal well being.
For the purpose of fasting during Ramadan, it is best to take 5g of L-Glutamine with water during suhur.
Omega-3 fish oil refers to a type of fat that promotes anti-inflammatory effects in the body. These are also essential fatty acids that the body cannot produce on its own, and so we must obtain them from food. Essential fatty acids play a vital role in general health and are used by the body for a host of different functions. This includes immune regulation, brain health, mood, energy, and even longevity. Omega-3 supplements need to be of high quality (Come from small cold-water-fish) and need to provide adequate EPA and DHA.
Fish oil daily dosage depends on the health effect you are trying to achieve. I typically recommend about 1200mg EPA and 600mg DHA- namely EPA:DHA ratio is 2:1. Total dose should be around 3-6g/day.
Please NOTE: Fish oil is a blood thinner and should not be taken with blood thinning medications. If you are taking ANY medications, please consult with your naturopathic doctor before supplementing with natural health product.
- Don’t binge eat! Chew food slowly and thoroughly.
- Stay away from processed foods or foods high in simple carbohydrates as much as possible
- Having a diet high in fibre, protein, and good fat is the way to go!
- Hydrate well
- 1g protein/kg body weight for high energy
- Quality matters
- 3mg/day should suffice
- 5g/day for optimal gut health
Omega-3 Fish oil
- 3g/day for optimal brain function, immune function, and mood
In conclusion, fasting carries many health benefits that recent scientific research is only beginning to discover. It is as important to practice healthy eating habits during the feeding phase as it is to fast. Having a diet rich in vegetables, healthy fats, good quality protein, and adequate water intake, is an essential part of helping the body detoxify and heal from inside out! Supplementing may help optimize the body's metabolic system and keep you energized with very little cravings if done properly. It is always important to take precautions when starting a new "natural" supplement.
To avoid any possible complications from supplements or dietary changes, it is highly recommended to consult with a qualified naturopathic doctor in preparation for Ramadan. Naturopathic doctors consider your specific health concerns in their nutritional and supplement recommendations. They also have a variety of other treatment modalities at their disposal, including botanical medicine, homeopathy, hydrotherapy, and traditional Chinese medicine. This means you receive a holistic and personal treatment plan customized to your needs!
"The philosophy of fasting calls upon us to know ourselves, to master ourselves, and to discipline ourselves the better to free ourselves. To fast is to identify our dependencies, and free ourselves from them."
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