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Fasting for mental wellbeing

Islam sees wellbeing as much more than just bodily health. True wellbeing requires a strong relationship with one’s spirituality, good physical health, mental happiness, a sense of purpose and good character and relationships. 


Eating and drinking is an essential part of daily life and an expression of our lifestyle. Since Islam plays a pivotal part in most parts of a Muslim’s life, what we eat and drink, how often and how much has been regulated to some extent during a period in the year. This is because Islam makes a strong connection between food and worship. Fasting in essence is a form of worship has a deeper purpose and impact and contribute in some way to individual and social wellbeing. We know what and how much we eat affects our health directly, and the process of refraining from food can help improve self-discipline and restraint if done appropriately. 


It is important to see Ramadan as an annual event beyond the celebration theme of it but as an opportunity to make healthy lifestyle choices and give up some of those unhealthy habits. For instance, drinking caffeinated drinks is widespread, this often becomes difficult in Ramadan. However, after a few days of fasting, certain hormones appear in the blood at higher concentrations i.e. endorphins, resulting in an improved state of alertness and overall better feeling of general mental wellbeing without caffeine.


Ultimately, what benefits our physical health often will affect our mental health too. For instance, eating excessively when breaking your fast, which is what often happens when the night is short and the day is long, results in feeling lethargic and bloated, which makes is difficult to perform post-iftar prayers/activities comfortably and mindfully.  With that said, here are some tips on pacing your food intake when breaking your fast and feeling fuller for longer in preparation for fasting the following day.


Have a light iftar


Having a ‘light’ iftar does not necessarily mean eating less but opting for foods that are more nutrient- instead of energy-dense. 


Break your fast with dates, as they are a quick source of the sugar your body needs. Then, go for a small portion of soup, such as a vegetable or lentil soup – helps to hydrate you. If you want to lose weight then avoid cream based soups. Alternatively, if you are struggling to take in enough calories during Ramadan opt for a more energy-dense soup; follow it with a mixed vegetable salad. 


When you are done with your starter, it is important to take a break, you do not want to overwhelm your digestive system. Complete your prayers. When you are ready to resume your meal, choose one main dish. Although you need carbohydrates such as rice, bread and pasta for energy, try to make them as nutrient-dense as possible. So have more of a vegetable-, beans-, pulses- or meat-based stew with less rice than usual, because the vegetables and meat are more nutrient-dense than rice.


Have a slow-energy releasing Suhoor


Choose what to eat wisely. Make your suhoor more complex carbohydrates based with a good source of protein such as yoghurt and eggs. Complex carbohydrates are foods that help release energy slowly during the long hours of fasting, such as barley, oats, millet, semolina, beans, lentils, wholemeal flour and brown rice. Fibre-rich foods are also digested slowly and include bran, cereals, whole wheat, grains and seeds, potatoes with the skin on, vegetables such as green beans, and almost all fruit. This combination will ensure you have a stable level of glucose in your blood so you get less hungry the next day.


Sleep well 


Fasting hours are just not compatible with our daily lifestyle. If you are staying up late in prayer, seeing family, having suhoor, and then waking up early to go to work, this means you are sleeping less, by the time you get back from work, you are typically exhausted. There are three options to consider in order to gain more sleep and conserve your energy: 


  1. Ask your work if you can start a few hours later than usual and work late into the evening 

  2. Try to nap at work during lunchtime or straight after getting back from work 

  3. Work fewer days during Ramadan (explained further below). 


Take time off work 


Since the day is long during Ramadan, consider taking time off work. This is an opportunity to focus on yourself spiritually and mentally. Maybe even to gain the rest you’ve needed all year. Increasingly I hear of people taking time off during Ramadan to both cope better but also make the most of it. It is a time to focus our priorities, perhaps take up doing a few hours of charity work or helping out at your local mosque. 


Ultimately, being mindful of how you fast and how you break your fast can help to improve your overall health – both physical and mental.


Remember as often happens, the day may seem long and the minutes move so slowly as iftar approaches but before we know it the month passes so quickly that we wish we had done more, so start Ramadan with an action plan and follow through in this blessed month.

Kawther Hashem, Registered Nutritionist