It’s Ramadan right now, which means many Muslims across the world are observing the holy month by fasting every day from sunrise to sunset. Because Ramadan falls according to the lunar calendar,  the month comes at different times during the calendar year, so the actual duration of that daily fast will vary from month to month (depending on the timing of sunrise and sunset). This year, people who observe the religious custom will fast for about 12 hours a day.

Religious customs aside, we’ve talked a lot about the health implications of fasting — albeit in the context of intermittent fasting — recently. Some people swear by the practice’s health benefits, while others question them. But when it comes to fasting during Ramadan, there’s not much discussion of how it relates to health. 

There’s much more focus on the spiritual or customary aspects of fasting during the month. The actual effects on the body and the best ways to nourish yourself before and after the fast are rarely discussed, at least in a mainstream way.

We asked Sadaf Lodhi, DO, an OB/GYN-turned-sexual-health-turned-online-intimacy-coach, to share her insights on how fasting affects people — especially women — during the month of Ramadan. She shared her thoughts on this, how women can nourish their bodies, how this approach changes based on your cycle, and more.

There are health benefits to fasting during Ramadan

According to Dr. Lodhi, benefits of fasting include reduction of bad cholesterol levels, which can in turn reduce a person’s risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Fasting may also induce your body to use its fat reserves, naturally reduce appetite, and alleviate the work of your digestive system. 

“As your body adapts to eating less, your stomach will gradually shrink, along with your appetite. Your ghrelin levels are also adjusted during the fasting period, which is the hormone that regulates the sensation of hunger,” says Dr. Lodhi.

Fasting during Ramadan may also enhance brain function and stimulate the autophagy process, which, according to Dr. Lodhi “enables cells to renew itself by digesting or recycling its damaged parts”.

But fasting is not right for everyone

Dr. Lodhi adds that certain groups are exempt from fasting and should abstain. This includes young children, women who are menstruating, people with acute or chronic illnesses (for example, diabetes), and anyone who is frail or elderly. People who are traveling long distances are also exempt, as well as anyone who is mentally unable to understand why they’re fasting, according to Dr. Lodhi.

What about pregnant or breastfeeding people?

According to Dr, Lodhi, someone who is pregnant or breastfeeding is religiously exempt from fasting, but can fast if they choose to do so. 

“I let women decide for themselves what they feel is best, however, if the fasts become a hardship and their health is suffering or that of the fetus, then I advise the pregnant or lactating women to not fast,” says Dr. Lodhi.

Women are not to fast during their periods

“Muslims believe that God is compassionate and merciful and that fasting could be burdensome and difficult for menstruating women,” says Dr. Lodhi. “For some women that have heavy periods or debilitating pain with periods, fasting would be an added burden. Blood loss during a period can sometimes also cause fatigue and anemia adding to the difficulty of fasting from dawn to sunset.”

How can people with histories of disordered eating approach Ramadan?

Right now, many of us have embraced a more intuitive approach to eating. For people who have tendencies toward disordered eating, this can be a much healthier approach. But while fasting is done for spiritual rather than dietary reasons, it could potentially be triggering for people with histories of disordered eating or body image issues. 

According to Dr. Lodhi, there’s no single way to approach the month if you fall under this category. 

“If a person has a history of disordered eating I would get clearance from a doctor before fasting,” she says.

Is exercise safe for people who are fasting?

Be the expert in you.

Take the Quiz

As always, listening to your body is so important. If you’re feeling particularly low-energy or weak, avoiding exercise may be the way to go. But if you feel great and would like to move your body? You don’t have to take the entire month off from exercise, at least if you take precautions.

“People can exercise right before the fast breaks so that they can hydrate and eat when the fast breaks,” says Dr. Lodhi.  “I like to do stretching and yoga. Things that are low impact. People could do weights as well if they felt comfortable. Short easy walks or a few stretches [are also good].”

Of course, clearance from your doctor before exercising, especially while fasting, is always a good idea.

What can people eat before and after their fast in order to set themselves up for success?

“The components of a balanced meal help your blood sugar remain most stable,” says Dr. Lodhi. Focusing on eating whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy fats, and lots of protein is the way to go.

People who fast during Ramadan do not even drink water throughout the day, so focusing on hydration before and after the fast is really important.

“Try drinking fluid several times throughout the night,” she adds. “Choose fluids that don't contain caffeine, because caffeinated drinks can be dehydrating. I also encourage people to  drink electrolytes to help replace those lost through fasting and to stay hydrated.”

Zara Hanawalt is a freelance journalist and mom of twins. She's written for outlets like Parents, MarieClaire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Motherly, and many others. In her (admittedly limited!) free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, trying new restaurants, and traveling with her family.