Groundbreaking Ramadan sleep study to offer fasting insight

Researchers from the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology share their findings about how sleep is affected by fasting.

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ABU DHABI // Every year, a huge portion of the UAE embarks on 30 days of fasting from sunrise until sunset.

The practice is part of the Holy Month of Ramadan, where the faithful use fasting to improve the condition of their souls. But how that fasting affects their detailed sleep, along with health and activities, has never been studied before. Until now, that is.

Masdar Institute has launched a research project called FIRST@Masdar, which stands for Fasting In Ramadan Sleep Study. The overall objective of this study is to help people identify the proper and healthy way to fast, harvesting the benefits of fasting rather than suffering the negative consequences of bad fasting habits. Recognising that sleep is the foundation of good health, this project has the goal of exploring how it is affected by fasting. Sleep not only contributes to better mood and alertness but it can also help keep disease at bay. Given the UAE's epidemic levels of diabetes and heart disease, understanding the impact of poor sleep patterns - and mitigating them - could be of significant benefit to the country.

As part of the study, Masdar Institute student volunteers wore a device known as Zeo Inc, starting one week before Ramadan and extending into the month. The device captured the electrical signals of the brain during various sleep phases. The study also captured daily survey information through individuals' mobile phones and computers.

The data was then automatically uploaded and saved through Masdar's in-house database system. Participants wore the monitoring device not only as they slept at night but also during daytime naps. This data can show the impact of napping during Ramadan so we can better understand the sleep variation during a night and over a number of days.

It will also help us understand what impact waking up for suhoor has on sleep by comparing those that do wake up and those that do not. This is the first Masdar Institute experiment to be run in the "wild" - capturing data from individuals living their lives outside the lab.

The collection of data has now been completed and the processing of that data is ongoing. We are exploring the links between sleep, eating habits/hunger and sociability. We are also studying these variables and the individuals' living environment (living alone, living with family and so on). The impact of fasting on an individual's perception of their sleep quality is also being studied.

The complex and multivariate nature of the collected data requires us to use sophisticated data mining procedures to understand the relationships between these factors and build predictive models. With these models, we can help see how activities such as fasting and how it is done can impact issues like how regularly fasting heart patients take their medication, how often diabetics check in with their doctors, how sociability is impacted, which in turn can impact depression, etc.

This study allows for future exploration of eating habits, sleep and sociability for specific health conditions such as diabetes and may aid physicians in customising the patient's health plan.

We look forward to pursuing these research efforts with individuals from governmental agencies to look into how fasting is performed and how it impacts on people's lives.

Research projects such as this can contribute to Abu Dhabi's overall health standards by providing medical and public-health authorities with knowledge about how health is being affected by fasting patterns and how it can be improved. Safeguarding public health is part of Abu Dhabi's strategy for progress and sustainability.

The emirate's goal of sustainable living includes provision of the highest quality of life that meets Abu Dhabi's ecological, societal and economic needs. Additionally, having an unhealthy population is a huge drain on the emirate's resources, whether that's money, energy or human capital-productivity.

This project is also contributing to Abu Dhabi's knowledge economy transformation through the training and experience of Masdar Institute's graduate students working on all stages of this study, from designing the experiment to acquiring ethics approval, carrying out the study, gathering the results and analysing the data. These students will be the professionals of tomorrow, working to help bring the best in health management and research analytics to the emirate.

- Dr Inas Khayal is assistant professor of Engineering Systems and Management and Dr Taha B M J Ouarda is professor of Water and Environmental Engineering at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.