Ramadan 2023: How does fasting during the holy month affect your mental health?

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During the holy month of Ramadan, millions of Muslims around the world fast from dawn until sunset as an act of devotion and spiritual reflection.

While the benefits of fasting for physical health are well documented, the effects of this practice can also be advantageous to Muslims’ mental health, experts in the United Arab Emirates have said.

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Fasting can help anxiety, depression

Dr Nada Omer Mohamed Elbashir, a consultant psychiatrist at Burjeel Hospital, Abu Dhabi, said there is growing confidence today about the positive effects of fasting on mental health.

“Individuals that fast have experienced improvements in their symptoms of depression, anxiety and even stress,” she told Al Arabiya English. “They also reported decreased fatigue within the second week of fasting. This could be attributed to inducing ketone metabolism and its anti-inflammatory effects that contribute to lower stress levels.’

“Neurotransmitters are essential chemical components of the brain. They send signals that not only affects how we function, speak, and think but also how we feel. Many studies have shown that fasting can increase the level of serotonin in the blood, a neurotransmitter that has been strongly linked to depression and anxiety once it is depleted. Dopamine, another neurotransmitter that has been strongly linked to depression and psychosis, seems unchanged by fasting. However, further studies are taking place in the future that can perhaps prove otherwise.”

A girl prays during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in Amman September 24, 2006.
A girl prays during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in Amman September 24, 2006.

However, the doctor said is important to note that fasting during Ramadan is not recommended for individuals who are at risk for medical complications or those who have pre-existing mental health conditions. For those who are fasting, it is essential to monitor physical and mental health closely and seek professional help if necessary.

Those who need medication to maintain their mental health should also consult a physician before the holy month.

“Medication intake and timings are essential, especially when therapeutic levels in the blood are desired,” she said. People with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia should be maintained with their medications as recommended.”

“Many people struggle with adjusting their medications during the daytime in Ramadan. It is recommended that the medication is taken in full prescribed dosage if fasting is chosen, but timings can be adjusted to Iftar or Suhoor. However, it is strongly advised to take your specialist’s opinion about medications if you choose to fast and alter the time.”

A reduction in stress

Dr Farinaz Aghajan Nashtaei, a specialist psychiatrist at International Modern Hospital Dubai, told Al Arabiya English that several studies have shown that fasting can have positive effects on mental health, such as reducing stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms.

“For example, one study found that fasting during Ramadan led to significant reductions in stress and anxiety levels among participants. Another study found that fasting can enhance neuroplasticity, which may contribute to the reduction of depressive symptoms.”

Residents enjoy the sunrise after starting their fast during the holy month of Ramadan at Ramlet al-Baida beach on Tarout Island, Saudi Arabia, April 23, 2021. (Reuters)
Residents enjoy the sunrise after starting their fast during the holy month of Ramadan at Ramlet al-Baida beach on Tarout Island, Saudi Arabia, April 23, 2021. (Reuters)

In addition to these mental health benefits, fasting has been shown to improve cognitive function and prevent age-related cognitive decline, said Dr Nashtaei, pointing out that research has also demonstrated that fasting can slow neurodegeneration and enhance functional recovery after a stroke.

“These effects are thought to be mediated by various psych neuroendocrine mechanisms, such as increased levels of plasma ghrelin and serotonin, which can improve mood and cognitive function.”

However, fasting during Ramadan can also have negative effects on mental health, said the doctor.

Dehydration and fatigue can cause irritability, mood swings, and difficulties in concentration. In addition, changes in sleep patterns and diet can lead to anxiety, depression, and stress. Some individuals may also experience a sense of isolation and loneliness due to altered social interactions during the month.

Practice self-care

Dr Nashtaei suggests that individuals who plan to fast during Ramadan should take measures to protect their mental health.

Adequate hydration and nutrition during non-fasting hours can help prevent physical symptoms that may impact mental health. Additionally, engaging in physical activity and maintaining social connections can help reduce feelings of isolation and depression.

“To maintain good physical and mental health during Ramadan, it is essential to practice self-care,” she said.

“This includes eating a balanced and healthy diet during non-fasting hours, staying hydrated, getting enough rest, engaging in regular physical activity, and practising relaxation techniques to manage stress.”

“It is also crucial for individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions or chronic illnesses to consult with their healthcare providers before making any changes to their medication or treatment plans.”

A traditional crescent moon decorates a street in front of the Future Museum in Dubai on April 2, 2022, during the first day of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. (AFP)
A traditional crescent moon decorates a street in front of the Future Museum in Dubai on April 2, 2022, during the first day of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. (AFP)

“With proper care and attention to one’s physical and mental health needs, Ramadan can be a meaningful and rewarding experience that promotes both spiritual and physical well-being. By prioritizing self-care during Ramadan, individuals can ensure that they are taking care of themselves while engaging in this important religious practice.”

Dr Sushil Garg, Consultant Neurologist, NMC Royal Hospital, told Al Arabiya English that during the holy month of Ramadan, those who are fasting will undergo changes in their eating habits, sleep patterns and daily routine, which can affect their physical and mental health.

He said, by taking appropriate measures to care for their physical and emotional well-being, individuals can ensure that they have a healthy and spiritually fulfilling Ramadan experience.

Dr Bobby Baby Panikulam, a specialist neurologist at Abu Dhabi’s LLH Hospital, told Al Arabiya English that the holy month of Ramadan carries immense significance as it is a period of mental, physical, spiritual detoxification, and rejuvenation.

“But there are certain precautions that patients with chronic illnesses must take to combat neurological problems like headaches, migraine, and seizures,” he cautioned.

“Some mental health issues may get worse during Ramadan due to dehydration, altered sleep-wake cycle, caffeine withdrawal and low blood glucose levels that occur during fasting hours.”

“Patients with chronic neurological problems such as multiple sclerosis and stroke who are fasting need to closely monitor for any new symptoms and seek medical attention urgently if symptoms do occur. During Ramadan, migraine patients should avoid migraine-triggering factors like bright lighting, loud sounds, and physical and psychological stress. Also, reduce caffeine intake and avoid excessive smoking during and after Iftar.”

The doctor advised hydrating well from Iftar to Suhoor and consuming a well-balanced, healthy diet that is low in sodium and does not include processed or fried foods.

“Aim for multiple meals at intervals to improve the symptoms and increase the energy levels needed during fasting hours.,” he said.

“Try to rest for a couple of hours before breaking fast. Neurology patients must also make sure to get plenty of sleep. Adhering to meditation and prayers during Ramadan can help you stay calm and grounded, enabling you to cope with stress and negative emotions.”

Read more:

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