Fasting in Ramadan in times of COVID-19: A health perspective

Ghada Abdel-Kader , Monday 11 May 2020

Fasting in Ramadan and your health: What experts need you to know during the COVID-19 pandemic

An Egyptian woman checks traditional Ramadan lantern called "fanous" at a shop stall ahead of the Mu
An Egyptian woman checks traditional Ramadan lantern called "fanous" at a shop stall ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, amid concerns over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cairo, Egypt, April 12, 2020. Picture taken April 12, 2020. (Reuters)

Fasting in its many forms has been linked with health benefits for ages, but in these dire times of the novel coronavirus pandemic, new challenges emerge, and Ahram Online listened to what experts had to say.

Fasting and immunity: How it works

Dr. Magdy Badran, a member of the Egyptian Society of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology, told Ahram Online that fasting has multiple health benefits for both the immune system and the body in general.

“Fasting strengthens the immune system, thus protecting the human body against various infections and diseases,” he says. 

Badran stressed that from a medical perspective, fasting has no negative side effects on the immune system except for those who suffer from malnutrition, lack of treatment of chronic diseases, or ailments related to the liver, kidney or heart. 

“Fasting lets the body rid itself of toxins. It improves health and boosts human immunity, especially phagocytes,” Badran explained. 

Phagocytes (meaning ‘eating cells’) are the maestro cells of the immune system. They are natural killer cells constituting of 70 percent of white blood cells. They protect the body from microbes and have an important role in cleaning the lungs from pollutants, and they protect the brain from damage.

“Fasting also enhances autophagy, or self-devouring, which is one of the immune system’s mechanisms,” Badran says. 

During fasting and the absence of food, the body begins removing the dysfunctional cells and recycles its own damaged parts, so new, healthy versions can be built.

“Any failure or shortage in autophagy can lead to the accumulation of toxins and inflammations in our cells. These harmful components cause cell damage and aging which reduces the cells’ functional efficiency,” he says. 

Nevertheless, Badran does not recommend fasting for the elderly and patients with diseases like cancer, anemia, and fever if their health and physical conditions are unstable. 

Badran also highlighted the bad habits that harm the immune system during fasting in Ramadan, like eating too much sugary and high calorie food, sleep deprivation, smoking and physical inactivity.

Real food is what matters

The idea of taking food supplements and multivitamins to boost the immune system has been in high demand due to the spread of the coronavirus.

However, clinical and public health nutritionist Dr. Shady Labib discourages the concept. “Don't overwhelm yourself by chasing specific nutrients with magical powers. This does not exist.” 

“Supplements do not replace healthy food. On the contrary, they are useless if a person doesn’t eat healthy balanced meals,” Labib explained, adding that tablets of multivitamins should only be taken with full balanced meals. 

He explains that daily meals should contain colorful vegetables, fruits, healthy fats (like avocado nuts, seeds and olive oil) and proteins (lean meat, chicken), as well as fatty fish (as tuna, sardine, salmon). Also, whole grains and beans like lentils, ferik, oats, five and beans are very important to a healthy diet.

The importance of zinc

Zinc has recently emerged as a vital element in boosting immunity against the coronavirus.

“Mineral zinc helps in strengthening the immune system to fight COVID-19.

“The consumption of up to 50mg of zinc per day can play a protective role against COVID-19, likely by improving the host's resistance against viral infection. 

“However, the studies that recommended this did not account for the underlying zinc status in the studied participants. So, we cannot say for certain,” he added.

Labib says that high zinc content is found in meat, seafood, nuts, seeds (pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds), legumes (lentils and beans) and dairy (rayeb milk and cottage cheese). Vitamins D, A, C, and selenium also help fight COVID-19. 

Stay balanced and hydrated 

Because the body loses liquids during long hours of fasting and to avoid dehydration during the summer, Labib advises that one should stay indoors as much as possible and avoid exposure to sunlight. 

Also, it is recommended to avoid spices and caffeinated drinks during the iftar and suhoor meals. Consuming hydrating (high water-content) food during the suhoor meal such as cucumber, lettuce, bell pepper, tomatoes, watermelon, oranges, pineapple, apples and pears is highly recommended.

“For an average person who fasts daily, the average recommended amount of fluids is one standard glass of water per hour starting from iftar till suhoor,” he says.

There are numerous different healthy drinks and juices that will keep the body hydrated during fasting hours and boost the human immune system, and are at the same time low in calories, but Labib gives the following recommendations.

“During Iftar, we can have lemon mint smoothies or we can add flavours to water like ginger, cucumber or lemon. For suhoor time, drinking rayeb milk is an excellent choice due to its probiotic contents.”

Labib gave some tips on keeping the immune system strong during Ramadan to combat the coronavirus:  

“Each meal, whether iftar or suhoor, must include at least two different types of vegetables and probiotic foods such as yogurt, rayeb milk and fresh mozzarella cheese.”

Whole grains and proteins (like eggs, meat, fish, chicken, Greek yogurt and cottage cheese) are vital. Practicing any physical activity for 20 to 30 minutes each day is recommended as well as maintaining an adequate amount of six to eight hours of sleep per day. 

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