Dubai: With only 12 days left before Ramadan begins, many Muslims around the world are wondering whether fasting can pose an increased risk of catching the COVID-19 virus, due to dehydration. It is a logical question as the coronavirus pandemic is continuing to sweep its way across the world, where people are advised to keep up fluid intake to keep mucus membranes moist.
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and Muslims are required to fast during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Ramadan is derived from the Arabic word “Al Ramad”, which means intense heat and drought. This reflects the hardship felt by Muslims who fast every day from dawn to sunset, during which they cannot eat or drink anything the whole day.
The question about fasting is also asked by non-Muslims who resort to “intermittent fasting” – an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. It is also known as an intermittent energy restriction- an umbrella term for various meal timing schedules that cycle between voluntary fasting and non-fasting over a given period. Three methods of intermittent fasting are: alternate-day fasting, periodic fasting, and daily time-restricted feeding.
As Ramadan is around the corner, Muslims worldwide wonder if they would be excused from fasting. Ramadan is expected to fall on April 23, depending on the crescent moon sighting and the Hijri calendar. In fact, Muslims cannot suspend one of the main worships and a key pillar of Islam unless a Sharia fatwa is issued by one of the Muslim world’s highest Islamic institute.
As the novel coronavirus continues to spread globally and people go on to self-isolate in their homes and stockpile groceries, is this the right time to fast? Does fasting inadvertently weaken immune system? Does fasting cause dehydration? These are a few questions raised by many Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide at such a turbulent phase of human history.
What health experts say?
According to recommendations by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and health experts, people are advised to drink plenty of fluids, particularly gargling with warm water and drinking liquids to keep their throat and respiratory tract moist.
Health experts say drinking water prevents dehydration, but it will not prevent anyone from catching the new coronavirus.
Doctors caution against believing homegrown advice and what social media users are spreading online as ways of preventing the virus. Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, said while medical professionals typically recommend keeping up fluid intake when sick, drinking more water will not keep anyone from catching the virus.
"We always caution anyone healthy and people who are sick to keep up fluid intake and keep mucus membranes moist. It makes one feel better; but there is no clear indication that it directly protects against complications,” Dr. Schaffner confirmed.
Well, now, in the time of COVID-19 pandemic, staying hydrated becomes even more imperative.
Why? Well, we are about 70+ per cent water, which is used by our cells to move important factors such as oxygen, trace elements around the body through blood. It is also used to flush out enemies - be it waste or pathogens.
So, when our bodies get dehydrated, or face lack of water, the cells come under immense pressure. Some of them start shrinking such as bone cells, because their water is borrowed to keep the blood moving. Things become slushy and sluggish. Waste can build up, including pathogens.
We drink when we are thirsty, but by then, it is already late. And, if you have hiccups, then it is a bad sign.
But, do not suddenly consume vast quantities of water, it has to be in a controlled manner. Sudden over consumption can cause other issues. We have to stay hydrated through the day. Because, exces-sive dehydration releases the stress hormone cortisol in your body, decreases immunoglobulins in your saliva as it gets thicker, thereby impacting your frontline immunological response to an invading alien pathogen. This is as per a study on marathon runners by the Korey Stringer Institute and Univer-sity of Connecticut, USA.
Another study observed that dehydration, as expected, reduces the overall volume of blood and lym-phatic fluids, which are an integral part of the body's immune system. This impairment of response will lead to disease.
So, how do you stay ahead?
As per Scotland's National Health Information Service, watch out for these early warning signs of dehydration:
*feeling thirsty, even mildly, and lightheadedness
*a dry mouth
*having dark coloured, strong-smelling urine (ideally should be light, straw-coloured)
*passing urine less often than usual (normal is about 4+ times in a day)
*even feeling unnaturally hungry could be an indicator the body needs water, as we get nearly 80 per cent of our fluid component from food.
Additionally, an article by the pharmaceutical company Abbott stated: "Healthy hydration levels can help your nose by maintaining the mucous membrane and decreasing irritation when coughing, sneez-ing and even just breathing."
So, stay hydrated, stay healthy, stay safe.
What science says?
Recent scientific studies show that fasting is the secret to a healthier and longer life. According to a UK-based National Institute on Aging, evidence from decades of animal and human research shows wide-ranging health benefits of intermittent fasting.
The institute conducted a review of the research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which pointed that hundreds of animal studies and scores of human clinical trials have shown that intermittent fasting can lead to improvements in health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancers and neurological disorders.
The review said still more research is needed to determine whether intermittent fasting yields benefits or is even feasible for humans when practiced over the long term, such as for years.
In a Horizon Documentary titled “Eat, Fast and Live Longer”, Dr. Michael Mosley sets for himself a truly ambitious goal: he wants to live longer, stay younger and lose weight in the bargain. He discovers the powerful new science behind the ancient idea of fasting. Mosley tests out the science of fasting on himself – with life-changing results.
In his journey, he explores the secrets to good health and the secrets to longevity. He does not stop there but goes on to discover what is called, “intermittent fasting” –What is very interesting is that he discovers the effects of fasting on the aging of the brain. Although the trials were conducted on mice, they suggest that human beings have a good chance of reducing brain diseases by fasting intermittently.
What Islam and Muftis say?
Dr Ali Ahmad Masha’el, Grand Mufti at the Dubai Department of Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities, said: “Fasting is the fourth pillar of Islam, and nothing can excuse one from not fasting except for ailing people who are on medication and fasting may complicate their health condition.
He said there are legitimate reasons for which one may be excused from fasting as mentioned in the holy Quran, which are sickness and travelling. “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that possibly you would be pious,” [Al Baqarah 2: 183]. “Fasting for a limited number of days. So, whoever among you is ill or on a journey - then an equal number of days [are to be made up]-And upon those who are able [to fast, but with hardship] - a ransom [as substitute] of feeding a poor person [each day]. And whoever volunteers excess - it is better for him-But to fast is best for you, if you only knew” [Al Baqarah: 2:184].
Dr. Masha’el said: “Nothing can be preferred over the pillars of Islam, including fasting, which is a duty by every Muslim. A fear of getting sick is not an excuse for a Muslim to not fast. Islam permits sick people, whose health condition makes them unable to fast, and are advised by their [Muslim] doctors, who know the virtues of fasting, not to fast because it may risk their lives.”
Islam permits sick people - if fasting can risk their lives or cause harm to their health - not to fast. “The sick person, who fears that fasting may make his sickness worse or slow down his recovery or damage a part of his body, upon his doctor’s opinion, has the option of not fasting, “ the Mufti said.
He said: “If the sick person is very ill, it is permissible for him not to fast. But if a healthy person fears difficulty and tiredness or afraid of getting sick it is not permissible for him to break his fast.”
The grand mufti said fasting is a reflection and purification of both body and soul. Fasting is also good for human health, as it has been proven by modern medicine and scientific studies. “Fasting was found to have beneficial effects on health, backed by recent scientific studies,” he emphasised.
Regarding COVID-19 infected patients, Dr. Masha’el said: “It is permissible not to fast if the health condition of a coronavirus-infected patient is critical and is advised by his doctor not to fast because he/or she needs to keep drinking water and taking medicine.”
What Al Azhar Al Sharif says?
Al Azhar Al Sharif, the Muslim world’s top Sunni Islamic institution issued a statement that Muslims are required to fast this year, and fasting has nothing to do with the possibility of an increased risk of catching coronavirus.
“Not fasting during Ramadan is not permissible due to coronavirus, and fasting is a duty and a must for Muslims,” Al Azhar said in a statement.
Al Azhar’s Fatwa is based on the feedback they received from the World Health Organisation, which says that drinking and gargling with water does not protect a person from catching COVID-19 virus.
“We have asked WHO if drinking water or gargling with water would protect people from being infected with coronavirus. The answer was: Although water is important for the moisture of human body, it does not protect against the virus and has not been proven that gargling with water can protect anyone from catching the virus.”