Ramadan—A Moveable Fast

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This weekend begins Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, when the Islamic faithful fast from sunrise to sunset each day. This year religious devotion promises to be more challenging than usual, at least for those in the northern hemisphere. Because the Muslim calendar follows the lunar cycle, it occurs about 11 days earlier in the Gregorian calendar each year. When it falls during the summer, as it does this year, the days are longer and hotter, increasing the risk of dehydration (Ramadan fasting requires abstention from drinking as well as eating during daylight hours).

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that the threat of dehydration is most acute for people who labor outdoors. In Italy, Muslim agriculture workers have been told they face suspension if they refuse to drink liquids during the hotter part of the day. In many Muslim-majority countries, people often work shorter hours during Ramadan.

The variability of Ramadan conditions also makes it difficult for researchers to study the physical effects of this sort of fasting, although a number of studies have been conducted on how circadian rhythms are disrupted, according to The Boston Globe. "During Ramadan, Muslims eat and get more active just when their bodies are used to winding down, creating sleep disruptions, hormonal changes, and sometimes mood impacts," the article states. "Research has shown that motor skills, such as reaction times, muscle, and learning performance decrease significantly during the holiday and that sleepiness and traffic accidents increase." Interestingly, the article continues, despite the changes in the schedule of the release of leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite and weight, Ramadan rarely causes significant changes in body weight.

Of course, Ramadan fasting is undertaken for spiritual, not health reasons—it teaches restraint and self-discipline, as well as empathy with those who are less fortunate. People who are ill or have conditions that could be worsened by fasting are specifically exempted from taking part. And health professionals offer advice for fasting Muslims on how to minimize any ill effects. In a recent forum on Islamonline, naturopath Karima Burns recommended eliminating or reducing consumption of sugar, caffeine and processed foods, and eating smaller, lighter meals in the weeks leading up to Ramadan to prepare the body for the fast.

The traditional food for breaking the fast is dates, which offer a quick burst of energy before the evening meal, called Iftar. But, as the Los Angeles Times reports, the timing of this year's Ramadan is also proving challenging to Southern California date growers, who provide most of the United States' (and many other countries') medjool dates (the variety most popular among Middle Easterners). The usual medjool harvest is in September, but grocers wanting a supply of fresh produce in time for the holiday are putting on the pressure to harvest early. "The funny part is when they argue with you, 'Why aren't they ready?' " said a salesperson for one date grower. "Because every year they're ready in September."

Luckily, the article points out, dates freeze quite well. So, as long as people can still get their hands on last year's leftover fruits, no one will have to go without—except during daylight, of course.

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