Once again Ramadan coincides with the country’s most suffocating season. As temperatures, accompanied by wilting levels of humidity, bob in the high 30s, the very real danger of dehydration confronts the many people who will refrain from drink from sunup to sundown for the duration of the holy month.
Midsummer’s 15 hours of daylight leave lots of room for sun exposure, sweating and a potentially dangerous loss of fluids as fasters resist the urge to compensate with a refreshing drink for as long as the sun stays up.
Dehydration, which results from the loss of a large amount of water from the body, brings about a range of negative health effects – muscle cramps, fatigue, lightheadedness, dry mouth and nausea as well a lack of sweat among them. In mild cases dehydration can be uncomfortable, in severe ones it can be life threatening.
But health specialists and mosque leaders say that by following the proper diet and taking precautionary steps during Ramadan one can avoid the dangers of dehydration. Choosing the right foods and drinking the right amount of water during the month’s iftar and suhour meals can lead to a safer month overall, they say.
The first step is drinking enough water. Between sunset and sunrise fasters are advised to drink a large amount of water, around 1.5 to two liters, but do it slowly so as not to feel sick, experts say. After that it’s the kind of liquids you drink that’s important.
“Stick to the water, some people don’t like drinking plain water, so, if they want to, have it with some lemon or rose water or fruit water,” said Farah Naja, a nutritionist at the American University of Beirut.
The drinks to avoid are carbonated and sugary beverages, such as soda and juice, as well as drinks that cause water loss like coffee and tea.
Drinking a lot of coffee early in the morning for a buzz to get you through the day can seem like a good idea, but dieticians say it’s unadvisable. Coffee, like tea, is a diuretic and can cause the body to lose water. Also the first hours of an energy rush can turn into a major energy crash after the caffeine wears off.
“Caffeine will give you a rush of energy, and then you will get very tired after that,” Naja says.
Naja says regular coffee drinkers should also watch out for how the fasting will affect their caffeine intake. Immediately cutting caffeine out of a diet can be very uncomfortable.
“Cutting down on caffeine will give them severe headaches. For these people I advise starting to shift the time of drinking their coffee, either backward to be drank at dawn or forward at sunset,” she says.
The foods you eat can also play a role in staving off dehydration during the day. Nutritionists advise eating lots of fruit and vegetables that contain plenty of water – they also help with digestion. They also recommend avoiding salt as much as possible.
The fruits in particular help fight the constipation that many suffer during the first days of Ramadan as a result of limited water intake, an altered eating schedule and reduced physical activity.
In addition to paying close attention to their diet, people fasting are advised to limit their activity outdoors, especially during peak sun hours (11a.m. until 4 p.m.).
But for some, it is simply impossible to remain indoors. If you have to be outside, some clever home solutions can help fight dehydration.
“They have to minimize exposure outside,” said Lana Fayed a nutritionist from Low Cal Diet Clinic in Beirut.
“But what can you tell someone who is fasting and is a policeman in the street?” Fayed asked, then answered her own question: “You should wear light clothes and you should be covering your head.”
She says placing a water-soaked towel on the head can go a long way toward helping a person stay cool.
While fielding questions from mosque-goers about Ramadan, Gassan al-Rayes, the imam at Abi Bakr al-Sadik mosque in Downtown Beirut, advised that fasters should take care of themselves during Ramadan, but not lose sight of the importance of fasting to a Muslim’s faith.
“If an individual prays this is useful to the health of the person,” he said.
He said eating in moderation and not indulging in large feasts every night leads not only to a better nutritional balance but also to an enhanced understanding of the hardship that is central to fasting.
Rayes advises mosque-goers to drink lots of water slowly at night, and echoes the advice of nutritionists by recommending fruits and vegetables.
He says the traditional eating of three dates to break the fast, as the prophet did, helps suppress the appetite and creates dietary balance.
Rayes says fasting when done appropriately can be healthier than the usual dietary habits of most people, but he also doesn’t want people to lose sight of the spiritual importance of the month. “Fasting in Ramadan is as sacred as praying,” he said.