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The Fast and the Not Necessarily Furious Ramadan Mood and Circadian Rhythms

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The Islamic holy month of Ramadan is currently in full swing and observing it requires adapting to a certain rhythm of fasting, feasting and festivities. But the rhythm of Ramadan might also impact another sort of rhythm–circadian. Researchers have been exploring whether circadian rhythms are out of sync with Ramadan’s.

Full Moon and Full Belly: Ramadan is based off a lunar calendar--when the sun goes down, it’s time to eat up! Photo by JJ San, on Flickr

Photo: Full Moon and Full Belly: Ramadan is based off a lunar calendar–when the sun goes down, it’s time to eat up!

For the majority of the year, Muslims begin the morning with a call to prayer followed by breakfast, a meal to break the previous night’s fast. This, along with exposure to the light, sets the body’s internal clock according to the solar day. During Ramadan, the Islamic lunar calendar’s ninth month, observers abstain from food, liquid, and tobacco during daylight hours. Instead of the morning, fast is broken at sunset with iftar, following the evening call to prayer. Items prohibited during the day are permissible throughout the evening, and then the final meal, suhoor, is eaten before dawn. As a result, the normal order is reversed through the holy month; at night, when the body is normally ready to wind down, the month’s late night festivities wind up the circadian clock.

Body temperature and melatonin, a hormone that induces heat loss, normally follow a circadian rhythm. Throughout the day, the rise of body temperature and the inhibition of melatonin prompt wakefulness. Then, in the evening, body temperature falls while melatonin is secreted to induce sleepiness.

Both melatonin and core body temperatures have been used as reliable indicators of changes to circadian rhythms, making them useful in examining levels of tiredness throughout Ramadan. Research has suggested the nocturnal peak of melatonin is diminished and delayed throughout the holy month, as well as a change in the onset of the secretion of the stress hormone, cortisol. In addition, studies have shown changes to both the circadian rhythm for body temperature and sleep architecture, resulting in difficulty falling asleep, shorter sleep periods, and alterations in Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep.

Spiritual Awakening: A man catches up on rest at Al Azhar Mosque.

Spiritual Awakening: A man catches up on rest at Al Azhar Mosque.

With all of these bodily changes, there might be an expectation to encounter some seriously grumpy people. This may or may not be the case; not only is it unclear how to interpret the disruption of circadian rhythms, the findings aren’t universal. Various studies specifically examining moods during Ramadan have resulted in mixed findings.

Some only found increased levels of fatigue at the end of Ramadan with no significant changes to mood. However, other studies have found negative moods may result from sleep patterns. There may also be increased levels of irritability; in a study of smokers and non-smokers, irritability was higher in both groups during the Ramadan month but increased more in smokers than in nonsmokers.

This study highlights one of the many things that makes studies of Ramadan so tricky. In addition to smoking status, there are a whole slew of variables that exist during the holy month. Other variations exist due to factors such as socioeconomic status and culture, both of which shape choices in foods prepared. Because Ramadan is observed throughout countries worldwide, the special dishes reflect regional cuisine. Depending on the country, there may be changes in the levels of fat, protein and sugar consumed. For example, nutritional intake during Ramadan has been reported to decrease, increase, and even stay the same!

Complicating studies further, the Islamic calendar is lunar, meaning the first day of Ramadan advances 11 days every year in relation to the Gregorian calendar. Consequently, the month of Ramadan falls on different parts of the year throughout its 33 year cycle. This not only shifts the amount of fasting time within the same location in different years but also changes the amount of time for different locations within the same year. This year, fasting within Argentina will be only around 9 hours but will be over 21 hours in Iceland, although recommendations for modifications have been made.

All of these factors contribute to how Ramadan is studied and experienced. However, there may be one consensus regarding Ramadan–although there might be increased sleepiness, Ramadan certainly isn’t a snoozefest. In cities worldwide such as Cairo, it’s a vibrant time of year filled with celebrations.

This gentleman needs to wake up. Photo by vidaboa73, on Flickr

Photo: This gentleman needs to wake up.

So he is not late for his date. Many people break their fast with the sugary fruit; it’s believed the prophet Mohammed also broke his fast in this same way, making the practice a way of supplying energy and honoring tradition.

So he is not late for his date. Many people break their fast with the sugary fruit; it’s believed the prophet Mohammed also broke his fast in this same way, making the practice a way of supplying energy and honoring tradition.

Festivities with friends and family take place within the home, parks, restaurants, and spill out onto side streets.

Festivities with friends and family take place within the home, parks, restaurants, and spill out onto side streets.

The nights are also filled with dance and musical performances like this one by Al-Ghouri Tannoura.

The nights are also filled with dance and musical performances like this one by Al-Ghouri Tannoura.

During Ramadan, there is an <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7048891" target="_blank" title="">increased consumption</a> of sugary foods like kunafa; this specialty of the Levant varies according to region but, in general, usually consists of thin, angel hair like noodles that are soaked in sugar syrup and layered with cheese.

During Ramadan, there is an increased consumption of sugary foods like kunafa; this specialty of the Levant varies according to region but, in general, usually consists of thin, angel hair like noodles that are soaked in sugar syrup and layered with cheese.

And if the desserts don’t sweeten the mood, then you can stuff it! Really. In Arabic, mahshi means “stuffed.” This dish of vegetables stuffed with rice and meat is served throughout the year and during Ramadan it provides a tasty mixture of protein and carbohydrates.

MAHSHI

Manshi

And if the desserts don’t sweeten the mood, then you can stuff it! Really. In Arabic, mahshi means “stuffed.” This dish of vegetables stuffed with rice and meat is served throughout the year and during Ramadan it provides a tasty mixture of protein and carbohydrates.

Stuffing:

2 cups short grain rice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 lb ground lamb or beef

1 teaspoon cumin

½ cup each, chopped parsley and dill

1 large onion, chopped

Tomato Sauce:

1 cup tomato puree

3 cups water

2 tablespoons tomato paste

3 garlic cloves, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

Assorted Vegetables to Fill (Zucchini, Eggplant, Bell Peppers, Tomatoes, Etc)

To Make The Stuffing:

Soak rice in warm water for half an hour.

While rice is soaking, heat oil in a frying pan, add onions and saute until they are brownish.

Add the ground lamb. When the meat is cooked thoroughly, combine the mixture with rice, 1 cup water, herbs and cumin.

Continue to simmer until the liquid is absorbed. The rice will not be cooked through, that will happen when it is baked.

Core the assorted vegetables and stuff them with the rice and meat mixture, leaving enough room to allow the rice to expand while cooking.

To Make The Tomato Sauce:

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and mix thoroughly.

Then:

Place the stuffed vegetables in a baking dish and pour in the tomato sauce. Bake at 350 degrees, adding water if needed and continue to bake until the rice is cooked thoroughly and the vegetables are soft.

Images: All photos take by Permission of the artists: JJ San, Tom Spender, Damon Farry, Layla Eplett, Rick Wilhelmsen, Marwa Morgan, Greg J, yelayat.

Layla Eplett About the Author: Layla Eplett writes about the anthropology of food. She has a Masters in Social Anthropology of Development from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and loves getting a taste of all kinds of culture--gastronomic, traditional, and sometimes accidentally, bacterial. Find her at Fare Trade. Follow on Twitter @LaylaEplett.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 2 Comments

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  1. 1. Eggnogstic 11:59 am 08/5/2013

    This article belongs in National Geographic. Curious that there’s no women depicted in the photographs. Too bad Ramadan doesn’t fatigue those who set off bombs in public.

    Link to this
  2. 2. amiteshpandey_sunny 8:51 am 08/8/2013

    i don’t find the article a completely coherent one. From a serious discussion on how the body reacts to the change , a sudden jump on how to prepare “mahshi”.

    Link to this

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