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My First Ramadan

01 Aug

On my first (ever) day of Ramadan, I woke with dry lips – probably due to the expectation of what my body was to be subjected to. I reached over to the glass of water beside my bed… and gave it to the plant that shares my room. It was 9am, some four hours after sunrise here in the UK and so no glass of water to cure my morning mouth. My brain calling out to me, reminding me of my morning routine: “cereal, cup of tea…” I licked my lips, not through expectation but due to the dryness, they felt shrivelled like the plant’s leaves I had noticed the day before, but I was happy it was drinking my water – I have been without for all of 9 hours, it has been without for far longer. After getting out of bed I toddled off to the bathroom where I washed my face, something I was looking forward to already, to soothe my lips. I rinsed my face as normal but my senses were heightened by the cool water wetting my lips, but I didn’t let the sensation linger, I dabbed my face dry with the towel and carried on my way. The next stop would be the kitchen. My step dad had prepared a cup of tea for me, the milk, sugar, and teaspoon in my large stripy blue mug, waiting patiently for me to pour in the tea, stir, and enjoy. I glanced back to see my step dad proceeding to the now vacant bathroom and I tipped the milk down the sink and rinsed out the mug. No questions asked. I next avoided my morning bowl of cereal and told myself to forget the thought of making sandwiches for work. How much time have I saved!?

“Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic [lunar] calendar, Muslims worldwide observe this month of fasting.” [1] I am not a Muslim but I decided to take part in the daily fasting, from sunrise to sunset, with one small variation: I would have my evening meal when parents make it. I thought it would be a “fun” experiment and a personal challenge, really just to see what it would be like – a bit of further endurance training on top of my usual cycling and jogging efforts. It also felt like when I participated in Earth Day earlier this year and last year. [2]

My Ramadan routine:

Wake up and not drink or eat anything all day (unless I happened to wake up before sunrise around 5:30am so I can participate in sehri).

I would have my evening meal when my parents made it but then not eat anything more (or continue not to drink anything) until sunset (around 9:30pm) aka iftar.

The challenge:

Many people around the world take part in Ramadan – therefore I didn’t consider the fasting to be a huge challenge or a health risk (if one is careful). However, because I’m not a Muslim I suppose I could claim I have no faith to assist me, and certainly no family members taking part to provide the support many benefit from. While not eating or drinking for over 20 hours is achievable, I did have some hurdles to overcome: the first one being that my BMI (body mass index) states that I am borderline underweight so I didn’t want to lose any weight over the course of the month, I cycle over 300 miles in a typical month and do some jogging too, so to maintain this I would have to eat what I would normally consume during a whole day between the hours of 9:30pm and when I go to bed at around 11pm or 12 o’clock. I didn’t want to reduce my activities to help me through the month.

While I have stated here that sunrise is at around 5:30am and sunset at around 9:30, the time of sunrise gradually got later and sunset gradually got earlier over the course of the month. Also, Ramadan happens at a different time each year. While this year it’s actually summer here in the UK, which I was mindful of with regards to exercise and dehydration, the weather has not been too warm.

Breakfast (cereal), lunch (sandwiches), afternoon snack (typically toast), supper (typically porridge) and a day’s worth of fluids to be consumed within the space of two hours! I actually didn’t think this through before I started the challenge!

I was so used to my routine of eating and drinking whenever I first felt the signs of hunger – fasting really went against the grain. I would normally take a couple of swigs of water every 4-5 miles on my bike and usually eat something upon my return. I would eat nuts as a snack to keep my protein levels up and I would have a couple of cups of tea in a day, plus a cup of coffee. I always felt like I would somehow suffer the effects of dehydration, exhaustion or even malnourishment if I didn’t consume like this.

I think it was last year when I tried to give up coffee and that didn’t go so well. I was only in the habit of having one cup of coffee a day, sometimes two, but I had noticed its effects on me when I drank too much (I’d be agitated for no apparent reason and I’d feel generally quite stressed). So I tried to go without. I went cold-turkey for a couple of weeks, and that resulted in a couple of weeks of headaches and my mood changed also. I think because I was battling with headaches it made me quite moody, and also the lack of caffeine and sugar to perk me up played a part too. In the end I returned to drinking coffee, but more moderately. Taking part in Ramadan meant I returned to that cold-turkey state of headaches because one thing I was not used to doing was drinking coffee in the evenings before bed – I would usually only drink coffee for my “elevenses” (at 11am) because I didn’t want to be kept awake when I wanted to go to bed. As it turned out, it wasn’t so much of a problem as I thought it would be: not only does a lack of caffeine cause me headaches, but a lack of fluids in general do too and also going without food seems to also. By the time the sun had set I had a headache but couldn’t pinpoint the reason – I wasn’t craving any one thing but had to consume everything I needed to – I would go with the important things first: water and food and because the hunger and thirst was cured I was happy so I could then do without coffee.

Consuming so much food in one go, and it was in one go because it was basically a two hour scoffing session, was found to be quite tough. First I’d guzzle down a glass of much-needed water and then eat, drink, eat, drink until my stomach was so full… yet it wasn’t a day’s worth and I knew it, so I still felt hungry!

As well as the headaches I also noticed that my usual afternoon low spot where the body has a tendency to want to nap (although I’ve never done that) got more severe, and I couldn’t consume food or drink to help perk me up. That was a tough challenge and I just had to keep myself busy.

While I wouldn’t be reading the Koran during my Ramadan experience, I have been reading about Ramadan and I have recently read about how the brain “produces pleasure by releasing the neurochemical dopamine during essential activities, such as eating or having sex…” those activities that Ramadan prohibits during the hours of daylight. “Pleasure acts as an incentive.” Therefore Ramadan removes that incentive and perhaps puts a greater emphasis on the faith. Interestingly, a personality test in the book Use Your Head [3] revealed that I am high in Extroversion (I always considered myself an introvert), and the book went on to state that “there’s some evidence to suggest that people high in extroversion possess relatively insensitive physiologies… more recently [it has] been suggested that the brains of people who score highly on extroversion are especially sensitive to the neurotransmitter dopamine…” So it’s perhaps not a lack of caffeine that causes my headaches (since I get them also when I haven’t eaten all day) but my brain’s lack of pleasure!

A TV series in the UK called Bang Goes the Theory revealed to me that our peaks and troughs of hunger and then eating are not actually reflected in our overall energy levels, which actually stay constant throughout the day. [4]

When we’re hungry we crave sugar and this makes us perceive our energy levels are like this:

“[However,] it’s not the [low] levels of sugar in your blood that make [me] feel weak and grumpy… Our blood-sugar is maintained through very tight levels and really doesn’t change. [The] body is very good at keeping the sugar in your blood at a constant level. If you’re healthy then the levels never really run low, instead the levels are constantly topped up from fuel reserves big enough to get you through any day (even without snacking)… Part of what you may be feeling may be the body’s response to stopping the blood sugar falling… What actually goes up and down are your hormone levels which are controlled by things like how full you are, how busy you are and your daily routine. Insulin [5] is released after eating and it’s the hormone that makes sure the excess energy is stored away in your muscles and liver.” While blood-sugar levels stay pretty constant, it’s hormone levels (in black) that peak and trough as illustrated here:

Your body comes to expect you to eat at the times you usually eat. Physiology and psychology: the body will prepare itself for what it thinks are going to happen. [6] If I ignored the signs of thirst and hunger then my body would likely decide that “if you’re not going to drink or eat then, if all things remain equal, you cant go on like this” so it shuts down and makes you feel sleepy so as to conserve energy. The body’s primary objective is to survive and anything that seems to threaten it can make weird things happen – it takes some strong will-power to continue as normal and keep a rational mind instead of giving in to instinct.

The British Olympic organisers got it in the neck for the London 2012 event coinciding with Ramadan, potentially putting Muslim athletes who participate in Ramadan at a disadvantage. [7] It’s perhaps unfair to blame the organisers and it’s not the first time Ramadan has coincided with a sporting event. Some people act like this is no big deal: “They’re athletes, they can cope” and others say “they should just treat it like a test”, but when you consider how much some athletes have to consume throughout a day to maintain their fitness levels (more than me to maintain my casual cycling efforts!), you realise how naïve this claim is. Abdul Buhari is one of the UK’s top discus throwers and will be representing Team GB in the men’s discus event at London 2012. He weighs 20 stone and eats six meals and drinks six litres of water on a normal day. Buhari, along with the three other Muslim athletes in Team GB decided not to fast during Ramadan. However there are more than 3,000 Muslim athletes expected to take part in London 2012 and organisers say it’s impossible to know how many will be fasting or not. [8] I also remember watching Mark Beaumont cycle around the world and a big part of the challenge for him to achieve that in world-record time was to ensure he ate enough – he estimated that he was burning about 6000kcal each day. In some places he struggled to consume that much and in particular he travelled through the Muslim world from Turkey, Iran and Pakistan during the month of Ramadan and found that to be the hardest area to find food. [9] Incidentally, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for an average male on a normal day would be in the region on 3000kcal. [10]

Tips:

I found a little work-around for the dry mouth issue that I experienced on the very first morning, and that is to brush my teeth! I’ve never been in the routine of brushing my teeth first thing in the morning because I don’t like minty corn flakes, but it certainly does freshen things up… not that I will be abusing this tactic by brushing my teeth whenever I feel thirsty!

One has to be careful when brushing their teeth whist fasting so as not to swallow any water. Cycling in the rain, while very refreshing when your lips are dry, is again a call for care to be taken: no purposely cycling along with one’s mouth open, even if it does seem like the gods are enticing/encouraging/pleading with you to drink!

Filling my stomach up from sunset until bed time has been a challenge as mentioned. Making sure I consume enough protein is important. Eggs = protein, but eggs before bed = bad. I had a very unsettled night’s sleep with nightmares I don’t recall and I put that down to having three egg, cheese and mayonnaise baps (batches, bread rolls) before bed.

By preparing food at the usual times (and my body would remind me of these times by telling me I was hungry), I found it seemed to distract me – I would prepare the food and then put it away to one side until sunset and that seemed to fool my senses enough and I would forget I was hugry!

Conclusion and results:

Probably about a week into Ramadan, the act of not eating or drinking became routine. I had become accustomed to ignoring the signs of hunger and thirst. Ensuring I eat as much as I’m used to so as not to lose weight or become less active was always a challenge, short of waking up in the night to eat more I saw no way around this. My morning routine of eating cereal and preparing my lunch for work seemed to make the start of my day more relaxed and less structured – the routines of eating and preparing food like this don’t always feel like a natural flow.

While fasting for Ramadan I’ve not had the urge to become (any more of!) a Muslim – there is more to being a Muslim than simply fasting for Ramadan:

The annual observance of Ramadan is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. [11] These five pillars are five basic acts in Sunni Islam (considered obligatory by believers) and they are:

  1. the shahada (Islamic creed) – The shahada means “to know and believe without suspicion, as if witnessed, testification”
  2. daily prayers (salah) – This is the practice of formal worship.
  3. almsgiving (zakāt) – This is the giving of a fixed portion of one’s wealth to charity, it is an act of purification which is what zakāt means.
  4. fasting during Ramadan (sawm)
  5. the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) at least once in a lifetime.

Observing the eating habits of others who were not participating in Ramadan made me a little more aware of the obesity epidemic that has gripped America where one in three adults are overweight and here in the UK where that figure is one in four. Seeing overweight people constantly snacking on pointless foods makes you totally aware of the problem. This epidemic is surely sweeping the world as all countries gradually become westernised with American fast-food and beverage suppliers moving in and milking consumers – providing them with sugar-rich foods and drinks that are easy to over-consume. It was startling to hear on a TV program about eating habits that “more people [around the world] are now overweight than undernourished.” [12] This is quite horrific when we all have mental images of those who are barely surviving in some parts of the world like some developing countries [13] and we are often faced with advertising from charities urging us to help provide food or the means to grow food to those far less fortunate than ourselves. A couple of blunt figures on this topic are that every year 15 million children die of hunger and for the price of one missile, a school of hungry children could eat lunch every day for 5 years. [14] It’s all about priorities I guess. Another of the four Muslim Team GB athletes who will not be fasting for Ramadan that I mentioned before, rower Moe Sbihi, “has instead decided to provide sixty meals a day for the poor for every day of fasting he misses.” [15]

I have also considered that perhaps to some, a non-Muslim taking part in Ramadan (the fasting of which may have its roots further back in history before Muslims [16]) might be seen to be making a mockery of the faith. However, the UK is a vast population, the majority of whom celebrate Christmas (and Easter) in a non-religious context, and if anything Christmas is about doing the opposite of what Ramadan is about and drinking and eating to a vast excess with no abstinence involved, in fact in many cases being blind and oblivious to the effects this has on the world, or how, again, some in the world are poor and starving. Sure, Muslims generally celebrate the breaking of the fast during each day of Ramadan with food and drink, but I think having some self-control is commendable. Perhaps, regardless of faith or no faith, we can all be more mindful of our world and our less fortunate brothers and sisters we share it with.

Notes and Links:

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramadan

[2] http://bmhonline.wordpress.com/2012/04/23/earth-day-2012

[3] Use Your Head – The inside track on the way with think, by Dr. Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman. It’s sort of a introduction to psychology, talking about the way we think, and all explained so that the layperson can understand.

[4] BBC’s Bang Goes the Theory Episode 6, Series 6. The presenter Jen talking to Prof. Stephanie Amiel of Kings College Hospital – www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01gyfts

[5] Ghrelin is a newly discovered hormone that is also involved: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghrelin

[6] BBC’s Bang Goes the Theory Episode 6, Series 6.

[7] www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-410439/Muslims-anger-London-Olympics-clash-Ramadan.html

[8] www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jul/22/ramadan-olympics-fasting?

[9] http://dailycycle.co.uk/blogs/articles/5921231-mark-beaumont-interview

[10] www.livestrong.com/article/267211-recommended-daily-allowance-for-calories Interestingly, food packaging in the UK states a RDA for an average person to be 2000kcal.

[11] “This annual observance is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramadan. For shahada see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shahada. For salah see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salah. For zakāt see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zak%C4%81t.

[12] BBC’s The Men Who Made Us Fat – www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01k0fs0

[13] United Nations World Food Programme – Who are the hungry? – www.wfp.org/hunger/who-are

[14] The world hunger problem: Facts, figures and statistics – http://library.thinkquest.org/C002291/high/present/stats.htm

[15] www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jul/22/ramadan-olympics-fasting?

[16] “One such example of those who observed fasting before Muslims were the Jews who had migrated to Medinah awaiting the foretold unlettered Prophet…Abdel Allah ibn Zakwan Abi al-Zanad claims that Ramadan originally had roots in India and the Middle East. He said that it is evident from Abu Zanadwritings, that Ramadan was a pagan ceremony practiced by the Sabians, whether they were Mandaeans or Harranians.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramadan

 
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Posted by on 1 August, 2012 in Books, Cycling, Religion

 

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