How to stop smoking. Bam. Huge topic. But actually, a friend of mine who’s a smoker told me that he didn’t feel the same urge to smoke when fasting. On a daily basis with intermittent fasting or moreover when fasting for a few days. He also told me the taste wasn’t quite the same.
So, I asked myself: could fasting help you quit smoking? Fasting alone is not a sure way to make you quit smoking, no. But fasting requires discipline, which can improve your willpower. Not eating can avoid triggering certain cues (a cigarette after lunch for example) linked to the habit and smoking when fasting can actually feel like quite a discomfort even for an experienced smoker.
Should you try fasting to stop smoking? For this sole purpose, you shouldn’t. But as a side effect, it could be a great deal of help to get rid of this bad habit. Let’s discover how!
What effect can fasting have on a bad habit like smoking
First, let’s break down how a habit actually forms itself. Your brain is a marvelous machine, trying to save energy expenditure for every action you do.
That’s why when you do something regularly, it’ll actually record the series of actions you did to complete a task. So that the next time you do it, it’ll require less energy for your brain to complete the same task.
Let’s take a simple example: you’re hungry. You go searching for food, find it, eat it, you’re not hungry anymore. Your brain now knows how and where to find food. The cue here is: you’re hungry. The pattern is: getting and eating food. The reward is some endorphin from the food and no more hunger.
Basically, that’s how we survived for thousands of years. But this habit-forming is very powerful and, in our modern world, can turn against us.
Let’s say you feel depressed. And you eat a piece of cake that just made you feel better. Your brain will record this too. And the next time you’re depressed, the cue, you’ll eat a piece of cake, the pattern, and feel better, the reward.
It’s the same thing with a cigarette. You’re a smoker, you just ate (there’s your cue), you smoke a cigarette (pattern), and feel better (reward).
So, if you actually stop eating for a day, you’re getting rid of some, of these cues. Not eating could actually, from a habit standpoint, help you smoke less.
Digging deeper into this, another aspect of habits is willpower. Willpower could be seen as a muscle you can train.
A study on money management was conducted for 4 months on several subjects. They had to log every expense they did, they were living on a tight budget and they couldn’t go eating out or to the movies or whatever.
During these four months, these patients improved their finance, but willpower actually spilled on some other aspects of their life: they drank less coffee and alcohol, started exercising more and… smoked less.
When you fast, the discipline required to not eat when you’re hungry, not indulge in soda, etc. actually help train your willpower, which in turn can help reduce bad habits, like smoking.
There are other aspects to take into account to reduce smoking when being on a fast:
- Spirituality: fasting can be seen as a spiritual thing. And it is a spiritual thing for many religions. For example, many Muslims reported that Ramadan actually helped them reduce or quit smoking.
- Taste: fasting can have strange effects on your taste. After a few days fast, food tends to have a stronger, more clear taste. And from what I heard, it’s the same thing with smoking. It tastes even more like shit.
- Feeling: inhaling smoke on a fast could mean your body would use the chemicals as nutrients. You might not feel too good after this!
What happens to your willpower when fasting
I said earlier that willpower is kind of like a muscle. But how do we know that exactly? How can we measure willpower?
The best indicator of willpower is a thing called heart rate variability. The heart rate is the number of times your heart beats in a minute. If you plug yourself to a machine, calculate the time between each ping to know your heart rate variability (HRV for short).
If your heart pings every second, there’s no HRV. But if it pings after 0.85 seconds, then 0.9, then 0.95, then 0.9 again, etc. You have some HRV, which is actually a good thing.
Studies have shown that higher HRV actually help you:
- Deal with stress
- Ignore distraction
- Delay gratification
- Not give up on a difficult task
In short: higher HRV, shows higher willpower. How to reach higher HRV? There are lots of factors to it, breathing exercise or meditation are known to help tremendously.
Feeling anger, anxiety, loneliness, having poor sleep or even poor air quality can actually affect HRV. The same way a good diet, mindfulness, regular exercise, and quality sleep can help achieve a greater HRV.
There’s also a physiological aspect to this: when you drink a coffee, your heart rate goes up and it messes with your HRV, which could alter your mood, performance and your willpower.
Fasting as a regular diet, by extension, could actually relieve some stress on the body and, as well as exercise or good sleep, help increase HRV, meaning increase overall willpower.
Is willpower a limited resource
So, willpower is a muscle you can train, but in that case, isn’t willpower finite? In the same way, a muscle can get tired and sore after exercise, willpower can decrease when pushed too hard.
An experiment was done with two bowls: one containing cookies, the other radishes. Two groups of students came in, one group could eat all the cookies they wanted, the other could only eat the radishes.
After this, they gave them puzzles to solve. The group allowed to eat cookies worked hard on solving the puzzle, while the other group gave up quickly. Tired of the experiment and the puzzle itself.
The study concluded the following:
For now, however, two final implications of the present evidence about ego depletion patterns deserve reiterating. On the negative side, these results point to a potentially serious constraint on the human capacity for control (including self-control) and deliberate decision making. On the positive side, they point toward a valuable and powerful feature of human self hood.
Meaning action taken at a certain time is directly influenced by what we did before that. So, if you already used a lot of willpower to discipline yourself about something, let’s say fasting, maybe you won’t have that much left to prevent a bad habit, like smoking.
Yep, this goes against most of what I said in this article, but willpower seems to be finite and, in some cases, people could actually indulge in smoking to cope with the discipline needed to fast.
But it’s only finite based on your actual willpower. If you never workout, your arms could maybe handle 10 push-ups. If trained regularly, you could go up to 50 or even a hundred. A muscle is only as powerful as the training it endured.
If willpower is a muscle then, as I said before, the discipline required by fasting is a fine way to train it.
In conclusion, if you take up intermittent fasting and you’re a smoker, you might not see any improvement right away. But in the long term, well, that could help a great deal to get rid of this bad habit!
How to improve willpower on the spot? Okay, you’re fasting, you’re fighting the hunger and you want a cigarette. To immediately improve willpower, you can try breathing in for 10 seconds then out for 10 seconds. Do that for 5 to 10 minutes. When you do that, high rate variability will increase it’ll go up with the inhale, down with the exhale.
Should I smoke when fasting anyway? No, of course not. If you’re an intermittent faster, it’s not too dangerous. But on prolonged fast that could become a real problem, leading to severe health consequences and even death. I talk about it more in-depth in this article, check it out.