As mankind has evolved over time, as we have brought in structure and community into our societies, traditions in different religions have been one way of structure. In the Muslim tradition, Ramzan is a wonderful opportunity to reassess your diet and lifestyle, and support your body in a process of recovery, provided that it is followed in a way that is beneficial rather than detrimental. I spoke to some women who happily shared their thoughts with me, and I was pleasantly surprised that they shared a few beliefs. What did come across was that Ramzan can be a wonderful health reboot and emotional healing.
With intermittent fasting becoming so popular today as a seemingly ideal diet, Ramzan is a time where Muslims have been practicing intermittent fasting throughout the month, which gives their body time for deeper healing to take place. For eons, Muslims have observed the holy period of Ramzan, and I’ve contemplated the physiological and psychological benefits for some time. It’s also the reason I asked so many questions to two of my dear Muslim friends, one from the previous generation to me, and one who is my generation, as I also wanted to see if anything has changed over time.
Ancestral Memories of Ramzan
Zohara is a mom to two young kids. She is my generation, and is one of the most polite people I have ever met. She was always told by her Mom that fasting through the day during Ramzan, was a detox or a reset. It’s what we call in the Functional Nutrition world as a cleanse, which is an opportunity to restore your body’s efficiency. It is a time for people to reset systems within their body as well as train their mind to not think about food all the time. Women are more sensitive to blood sugar imbalances, and while it can be challenging to fast when you have cravings, if you plan your meals in a way that they are more grounding and rooting, it can actually help you with blood sugar balance by the end of this phase.
Asma is a grandmom to four little kids, and has been a part of Ramzan practices for close to 60 years! She feels that Ramzan is a time to downshift from worldly life and heighten your spiritual senses. It’s also a time where you are more conscious of empathy to the less fortunate, by feeding the poor and giving charity. Combined with a lot of time spent in internal prayer, there comes with a deep sense of calm and detachment. In Functional Medicine and Functional Nutrition, the mind body piece is crucial to health and healing. Having any practice which soothes your mind is what takes you from just diet change to very deep healing, one that is reflected in your body, mind and emotions.
Diet and times of eating during Ramzan
Ramzan is typically a time where you eat before sunrise and after sunset. No food or drink is consumed throughout the day. Asma recalls those around her family eating anything from simple egg and toast to heavier kheema and paratha. Zohara on the other hand now eats some overnight oats or millet cereal topped with fruit and nuts. While breaking the fast in the evening, the custom is to start with a date. While many frown upon dates, the fact is that they are loaded with fibre and nutrients, and one of the best times to consume them are at times like this, when you are breaking the fast and following it up with dinner. It provides your body which much needed sugar at that time, yet does not lead to a blood sugar crash, since dinner follows soon. Fasting has been proven to increase levels of BDNF, or Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which is like growth hormone for your brain, helping with deep brain healing. It has also been proven to reduce levels of the stress hormone Cortisol, regulating your moods much better, and supporting overall healing. But what really matters, is how fasting is used in tandem with the right balanced meal.
Zohara in fact follows the dates, with fruits and veggies and then eats some millet Upma, rice kanji and eggs. She also has balanced meals like eggs, sweet potato and avocados, which optimise blood sugar balance and support your ability to fast well, without struggle. She is conscious of all the fried foods that can appear during Ramzan, and indulges in a dahi vada, which is lentil fried and soaked in yoghurt, and probably one of the much healthier fried foods to indulge in, as compared to samosas which can be refined flour and more inflammatory. Sherbet makes its appearance as well during Ramzan, which is a drink made of milk, pistachios, almonds and saffron. Ancestral connections are very rooting and grounding. When we connect with ancestral traditions and memories, they allow us to stay with a feeling of community, belonging and safety. Ancestral foods are a big part of this picture! During Ramzan, foods like Sherbet with rose water and basil seeds are ancestral memories, and they are also cooling and cleansing, as the seeds soak up the water and are soluble fibre, easing your digestive system, and helping with deeper cleansing. So based on what you are eating, Ramzan can be a great time for improving health and detoxifying your body. Further, when you do not eat all day long, if you do eat nutrient dense food in the evening, your body will be much more efficient in absorbing nutrients and digesting your food.
Changes from generation to generation
Ramzan is typically a time where there are frameworks for eating. Yet there have been changes from the previous generation to now. There are families who used to sit in a circle on the floor and eat. Eating while sitting on the floor, has been proven to boost the digestive powers. You might end up eating much less, and sitting on the floor is again, very grounding and rooting! In fact, I actually encourage my clients to eat atleast one meal a week sitting on the floor! Just the movement of bending slightly to take food from your plate and move it up into your mouth can be supportive to good digestion.
Since many sweets and fried foods appear on a daily basis during Ramzan, like phirni, double ka meetha, samosas and kebabs, many people of the younger generation, who are more health conscious, avoid them. Asma said that in most Muslim homes, ancestral foods are passed down generation to generation. They might not be forgotten, but the younger generation has started to intentionally avoid them. Zohara on the other hand, feels that benefits of specific foods are spoken about more today than when she was a child, and that people are more conscious of the qualtiy of nutrition they consume.
Physiological changes post Ramzan
I wanted to go deeper into what they felt about Ramzan as a time for changes in weight, health, appearance and any symptoms. Asma shared that there is a definite sense of well being that sets in after a month of fasting. Your body and mind are both rested. With so much time devoted to internal contemplation, withdrawal from the world, and prayer, there is no time to dwelve on worldly things or petty emotions. It can be a wonderful opportunity to also withdraw from social media, and reconnect with your inner spirit.
Zohara said she feels lighter immediately after Ramzan! She ends up losing a lot of weight, but that’s also because she is so conscious of what she eats during Ramzan, where she is very mindful of taking what feels healthy and avoiding too much of what can be taxing on her body. She does know people who end up gaining weight in Ramzan instead, because they’ve indulged in excessive fried foods and sweets.
Soulful connections with Ramzan
All in all, Ramzan is a wonderful time with structure and frameworks that is built into Muslim culture for people to experience a health reset. It is very much a cleanse, or rather it can be, based on what is eaten. It’s also a time to connect with your Spirit! All ancient texts refer to a greater divine presence. It is a time for people to come together as a community. It also brings out fond memories in people, which is deeply nurturing and healing.
Asma has fond memories of Ramzan, where she remembers camaraderie, praying together, fasting together and breaking fast together, especially with all the goodies to look forward to! The joy of searching the night sky, the mehendi on the palms and the tinkle of new bangles on the wrist, bring the women together in joy and celebration. There comes with a feeling of sisterhood, which is integral to how we heal as women. Meeting other families and friends connects them to the bigger community, and the entire month resonates of sharing, giving and caring!
Zohara feels that Ramzan is a lovely time where families come together to eat and to pray. Especially as there are fixed times for prayers and eating, everyone does it together, bringing with it such a joy of togetherness. Even if people in a family end up eating at different times during the rest of the year, Ramzan is a time where they come together. It is a time for physical cleansing and spiritual cleansing as well. The two main things Zohara feels they learn during Ramzan are “sabr” which is patience as you wait that long duration before you eat, and “shukr” which is gratitude for all that you have. It is also a time of “zakat” or charity. To Zohara, Ramzan is a time for connecting with the have nots, your loved ones and with the higher power, making you have deep healing of gratitude, the deep grounding of community and the deep connect to your inner Spirit! When it comes to a choice between eating the healthiest food alone, and eating perhaps not the absolute healthiest meal but in the company of a loving and nurturing community, I would say the spirit of a community is much more powerful. Now, just imagine if you combined all the benefits of that nurturing community with the healthies plate you could eat? That’s is a guarantee of moving forward on your path to healing!