For tens of thousands of Muslims in Central Florida, the next 30 days are a bit holier than the rest of the year. Ramadan, which starts today, is a religious holiday and a time for Muslims worldwide to reinvent themselves.
A daily fast accompanies the heightened spirituality, each day opening with a meal at dawn and no food or drink until sunset. The practice can bring a host of challenges -- and some benefits.
This year, the challenges will be compounded by temperatures in the 90s and long days that average about 13 hours of sunlight.
"The long days make it difficult, but if you plan your life accordingly, it's a very spiritual month," said Atif Fareed, an airline pilot and president of the American Muslim Community Center in Longwood.
To avoid straining himself while fasting, Fareed schedules a few weeks of vacation during Ramadan.
Early morning prayers and long, evening festivities cut his sleep time down to four or five hours a night, he said. To make up for it, he tries to take afternoon naps.
With the hot temperatures, dehydration can worsen headaches and could trigger migraines and tiredness as the hours wear on, said Dr. Asif Mohiuddin, a gastroenterologist at Orlando Health System who observes Ramadan. Drinking larger amounts of water in the morning can help curb these side effects, he said.
Heartburn also can occur from fasting because food helps neutralize the stomach's acid, he said.
Depending on a person's diet and daily routine, it might be possible to lose fat during a 13-hour fast, Mohiuddin said. It takes the liver on average 12 to 15 hours to completely deplete glycogen, the body's primary energy source. The body then turns to burning fat to keep itself going, he said.
The lack of food for prolonged periods of time can lead to lower blood-sugar levels that induce sleepiness, Mohiuddin said. Low blood sugar also reduces the pancreas' insulin production. With careful monitoring, fasting may be able to help regulate high insulin in some type 2 diabetics, he said.
But "it's not absolutely necessary to fast if your health does not allow it," he said. The religion advises the chronically ill and women who are pregnant or nursing against fasting.
Muslims in Central Florida represent more than 50 different countries, said Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida. So when it's finally time to eat, families bring different traditions to the table.
Shazia Erum, who came to Orlando from Pakistan last year, said large dinners with festive foods after fasting are common in her family.
Some families "end up cooking elaborate meals every day," Erum said.
Mohiuddin, of Indian and Pakistani descent, said he takes it easy during dinner because over-indulging could reduce weight loss.
While the fast is important, most Muslims look toward the spiritual aspects of Ramadan and the ability to spend more time with their families.
"It gives this overall cover for people to ... improve themselves in whichever area of their life they need to work on," said Musri.
"Generally people become much more courteous and forgiving," during Ramadan, Musri said, drawing on his experiences and observations at the local mosques.
"Of course, they share their experiences, it's hard and hot," he said, "but they refrain from expressing frustration and feelings of anger because they feel that it violates their fast."
He added that getting families to eat at the same table every night can be "a goal in itself."
"It helps the community as a whole when everyone is trying to be positive," Musri said.
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