Religious Fasting and Mental Health: What You Need to Know

If you have an active eating disorder or have recovered from one, it’s wise not to fast, experts say. Here’s why.

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If you're not able to fast on a religious holiday, experts say there are alternative ways to observe tradition.

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People of various faiths, such as Judaism, Islam, Christianity, or Hinduism, participate in fasts — temporarily abstaining from eating and sometimes drinking — as part of their religious practice as a means of repentance, purification, or self-discipline.

In addition to the religious and cultural significance of fasting, some people experience mental health benefits from it, too. “Some observational studies have suggested fasting to improve mood and reduce?stress levels,” says?Ketan Parmar, MD, a psychiatrist based in Mumbai, India, who identifies as Hindu.

For example, a?study published in the Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research showed that fasting during Ramadan, a monthlong Muslim holiday that happens each spring, was associated with a drop in?depressive symptoms and stress levels afterward among nurses.

Although religious fasting is safe for most people, there are exceptions. For example, during Ramadan, Muslim people who are sick, pregnant, or breastfeeding are advised not to fast, according to another?article in the Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research. And even though fasting may have mental health benefits for some, it can be detrimental to the mental health of others. That’s why some experts believe there should be mental health-related exceptions for religious fasting.

In fact, many religious practices emphasize the importance of personal well-being. As Shira Rosenbluth, LCSW, who is Jewish and in recovery from an eating disorder,?posted on Twitter in September 2021, “Let’s remember that the Torah [Jewish religious texts] tells us we need to put our health first, [and] that includes mental [and] physical health.”

Here, experts offer three reasons why it may be important to abstain from religious fasting to protect your mental health.

1. You Have a History of an Eating Disorder

An estimated 20 million American women and 10 million American men have an?eating disorder, according to the?National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). What’s more, eating disorders appear to be more common in certain religious communities, such as among Jewish women, than in the general population,?NEDA experts say.

As with other chronic health conditions, people with eating disorders may never completely reach remission, or they may need to undergo treatment more than once, per?NEDA. For people in recovery from anorexia nervosa and similar conditions, religious fasting may trigger disordered thoughts about food or even a relapse, which can be dangerous and even life-threatening. Eating disorders are the second most fatal type of mental illness, surpassed only by opioid addiction, according to?NEDA.

For these reasons, it’s typically not safe for religious people with eating disorders to fast, says?Renee Solomon, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and the CEO of Forward Recovery in Los Angeles, who identifies as Jewish. “This reinforces the idea that it is a good thing for them not to feed themselves. They work so hard to force their minds to accept the idea that they need to eat and that they deserve to eat. Fasting for the day completely goes against all the work they have done,” Dr. Solomon warns.

Dr. Parmar agrees. It is generally advisable for people in recovery to avoid fasting, as it can trigger unhealthy behaviors and thoughts,” he says.

2. You Have Another Mental Health Condition

While not all people with mental health conditions have a hard time with religious fasting, many others find it more challenging to manage their condition while fasting. For example, a?small study published in World Psychiatry found that among Muslim patients with?bipolar disorder, fasting during Ramadan was associated with relapses (meaning they had a manic or depressive episode) for 33 percent of patients who fasted, whereas only 15 percent of those who did not fast had a relapse.

It’s also not uncommon for people with?obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?to struggle while fasting. One reason? For some with this condition, fasting may exacerbate their OCD symptoms. According to experts at?OCD Massachusetts, a mental health clinic in Belmont, the obsessions and compulsions that happen among people with this condition can sometimes “center on food and meals,” and as with many eating disorders, they may “involve recurring ritualistic behaviors.”

For instance, some people have a form of OCD called “scrupulosity,” meaning their obsessions are related to religion or morality and their compulsions may involve repeated cleansing and purifying rituals (such as fasting), according to the International OCD Foundation.

3. In General, You Feel Very Negative When You Fast

Some people who participate in religious fasting have a harder time than others, and fasting for longer periods, such as during Ramadan, may be too much for them. During Ramadan, many Muslim people who follow traditional practices do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset.

A small preliminary?study published in May 2021 in Frontiers in Psychology found that people with no fasting experience who fasted for the first time had a more negative mood and were more stressed than people who did have experience fasting.

Alternatives to Fasting if You Can’t Participate

Religious fasting is not the only way to express your faith on holidays. If you decide not to fast for mental health reasons, this does not make you any less a part of your religious community. For instance, “Even though [a Jewish person with an eating disorder] should not fast on Yom Kippur, they are still part of the Jewish community,” Solomon said.

Both Parmar and Solomon recommend that you talk to your doctor or another mental health professional about whether fasting might be helpful or harmful to your mental health. If you decide fasting isn’t a healthy option for you right now, you might ask a religious leader in your community about other ways to participate in religious holidays without putting your well-being at risk. Some potential options to consider:

  • Focus during the holiday on prayer or reflection at home or at your place of worship.
  • Attend religious services either virtually or in-person.
  • Watch movies, documentaries, or other forms of media to learn more about the history behind the religious holiday you’re celebrating or your faith in general.
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