10 years ago, the scientific and journalistic world was telling you your self-esteem was the most important thing for your success and happiness. All you needed to do was feel good about yourself and it didn’t really matter how sabotaging your behaviors were.
However, the science has shifted over the past decade, bringing to light the bogus-ness of the self-esteem movement. In its place, today, self-control — or more popularly “willpower” — has taken center stage. And unlike self-esteem, increased self-control has no drawbacks.
Like muscles, your willpower increases when you exercise it. If you don’t get regular and intensive fitness, your self-control muscles become flabby. The opposite of willpower is addiction — the complete loss of self-control.
And today, human beings are more addicted than we’ve ever been in the history of our species. Our addiction is distraction, another reflection of a lacking self-control. We are, quite literally, pulled in thousands of cognitive directions daily. The internet provides a blunting and painful blow to our brains, which are clearly not evolved and ready for such a stark and unique responsibility.
The result of our frequently shifting cognitive resources is a cultural ADHD (i.e., utter distraction and no self-control) and wildly inflated levels of depression.
The underlying process of evolution is repetition. Anything repeated overtime structurally and chemically alters your brain. And science confirms that internet addiction affects the brain the same way alcohol and drug addictions morph our beautiful brains. Interestingly, addiction to one thing can lead to other addictions.
Without question, toned self-control muscles are needed more now than any other time in the history of our planet for at least three reasons:
1. There has never been more choices or distractions available
2. There has never been more opportunity for colossal freedom, success, and influence
3. And the cost of failure has never been so great — going backwards after evolving so far as a species would be a shame
As Humans, We Evolve by Choice
The human brain is surprisingly malleable. We can purposefully create triggers causing automatic responses — like the second you hear the alarm clock you feel pleasure at jumping out of bed, making that bed, and then immediately taking a cold-shower. We can train our brains to associate pain and pleasure to anything. Unfortunately, in the case of the previous example, most of us have trained our brains to associate pleasure to staying in bed, just a little longer.
Although most of humanity has been trained to experience pleasure in ease and pain in difficulty, those on the quest for self-actualization, leadership, influence, or even simply living a better life embrace difficulty and discomfort — the doorway, not destination, to growth.
Yes, you can actually enjoy difficulty and risk. You can embrace it because you know it’s taking you somewhere higher and better. And being in-control of the direction of your life is a satisfaction immeasurably different than indulgence.
Fasting: Your New Willpower Workout
There are a number of ways to increase your willpower, so as to determine the direction of your life. However, one method that is inexcusably ignored is the practice of regular fasting from food and caloric beverage ingestion.
From a biblical perspective, it’s interesting to note that Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights before undergoing intensive “temptations.”
Although little discussed, the purpose of this article is to convince you of the utility of this powerful practice. I will first describe the benefits of fasting, followed by strategies to make your fasting experience invigorating and enlightening.
15 Superhuman Benefits of Fasting
1. Superhuman Willpower
Fasting, by its very nature, is the putting-off of the physical in order to tap into higher realms of meaning.
Destructive addictions and other sabotaging behaviors are the opposite of willpower. And they slowly but surely ruin your life.
Every decision you make is important. If you justify poor decisions from time-to-time, you’re stunting the development of quality habits. More accurately, consistent poor behavior is in actuality the reflection of bad habits.
And bad habits are a fast-track to a crappy life — the root of which is a lack of self-control.
If you can’t control even yourself, what can you control?
But while you’re fasting, you are consciously choosing not to eat — even if you feel hungry — for something else. And there’s nothing more fundamental to survival than food. Consequently, when you learn to control your own eating, you develop the ability to control less fundamental and often destructive addictions.
Fasting is by far the most sophisticated willpower workout available. If you get good at fasting, you can learn to control every other aspect of your life. If you get good at fasting, you can overcome any addiction, not matter how deeply imbedded. Medically, fasting has been found to rapidly dissipate the craving for nicotine, alcohol, caffeine and other drugs.
2. Superhuman Confidence
Neuro-chemically, fasting increases levels of catecholamines — such as dopamine — which elevates your happiness and confidence while reducing your anxiety.
But it’s simpler than that.
Without self-control, you can’t have confidence. Indeed, confidence reflects your view of your own capability. And if you constantly self-sabotage, rather than confidence you’ll experience internal-conflict.
Internal-conflict corrodes your willpower. It’s exhausting and leaves you constantly on the defensive — both to other people and yourself.
But when you see yourself act in ways you intended on acted, your confidence in yourself increases. You develop greater trust in your own capabilities, and this prompts you to take on bigger goals, risks, and challenges in the future. Eventually, you develop the self-efficacy that allows you to control your destiny and future. Complete power and confidence.
3. Superhuman Brain Functioning
Fasting actually increases your number of brain cells. Here is a short list of some of the scientifically backed cognitive benefits of fasting:
- Short-term fasting induces profound neuronal autophagy (e.g., “self-eating,”), which is how cells recycle waste material, down-regulate wasteful processes, and repair themselves. Brain health is dependent on neuronal autophagy. Another study shows that interference of neuronal autophagy prompts neuro-degeneration. Simply put, without the process of autophagy, brains neither develop properly nor function optimally.
- Fasting increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that interacts with neurons in the hippocampus, cortex, and basal forebrain (the parts of the brain that regulate memory, learning, and higher cognitive function — uniquely human stuff). BDNF helps existing neurons survive while stimulating the growth of new neurons and the development of neuro-synaptic connectivity. Low levels of BDNF are linked to Alzheimer’s,memory loss, and cognitive impairment.
- Evidence suggests that low BDNF is related to depression. Indeed, antidepressants increase BDNF levels. Thus, many doctors believe fasting can reduce depression.
- Fasting reduces the likelihood of having a stroke.
- Fasting reduces the oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, and cognitive decline that normally results from brain trauma. Research has found that a 24 hour (but not a 48 hour) fast was neuro-protective against trauma to the brain like a concussion.
- Fasting reduces cognitive stressors that bring about aging, cognitive decline, and chronic diseases.
- Fasting reduces your risk of cancer.
- Fasting increases your longevity and lifespan.
- Fasting enhances learning and memory.
- Fasting elevates your ability to focus and concentrate.
If you’ve fasted before, you can attest to the radical mental benefits of fasting. If you haven’t, please start a regular practice of fasting. Over a period of time, you’ll be startled by the cognitive results.
4. Superhuman Clarity & Direction
With the increased clarity and cognitive functioning brought on by fasting, it is easier to analyze your poor habits and make critical decisions about the direction of your life.
When you remove yourself from the noise of addiction — even food addiction temporarily — you clear space for the subtle signal of your guiding truth.
While fasting, you will quickly become aware of the incongruencies in your life. Your poor habits, lack of organization and intention, and misdirected path get put under a cognitive and spiritual microscope.
With increased perspective and willpower, you can use fasting as a vehicle to “let go” of addictions, behaviors, relationships, the past — whatever you want — restart, and move forward. Physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually, fasting is quite literally a reset. It allows your body to catch up on needed digestive functions it generally delays due to our constant eating. But it also helps you reset in other ways.
Fasting can become your trigger to keeping proper perspective on what matters most in your life, and it helps ensure you remain on the path you desire to be on.
5. Superhuman Health
As a society, our brains have been miss-trained about the true nature of hunger, chemically tricking us into feeling hungry every 2–4 hours. But this is actually ludicrous. Naturally, our bodies shouldn’t experience hunger for 12–24 hours after eating.
Research has shown that obese individuals do not receive correct signals letting them know they are full due to excessive eating patterns. Their neuro-chemicals and hormones are all out of whack due to improper eating.
As you fast, your body regulates the release the correct hormones, so that you can experience what real hunger is. Further, with the proper flow of hormones, you get full quicker.
Other scientifically backed health benefits of fasting including:
- Fasting can reverse binge eating disorders, and help those who find it difficult to establish a correct eating pattern due to work and other priorities.
- Fasting can clear your skin from acne, allowing you to have a healthy vibrant glow.
- Fasting “reboots” your immune system from free radical damage, regulating inflammatory conditions in the body and killing-off cancer cell formation.
- Fasting improves blood pressure levels.
- Fasting improves cholesterol levels.
- Type 2 diabetes has become commonplace in our unhealthy culture. Fasting has been shown to strongly support insulin resistance and lead to an impressive reduction in blood sugar levels.
- Similarly, blood levels of insulin drop significantly, which facilitates fat burning.
- The blood levels of growth hormone may increase as much as 5X. Higher levels of growth hormone assist fat burning and muscle gain, and have numerous other benefits.
Not only will your body functioning improve as you fast, but your decision-making regarding your health and fitness will improve.
6. Superhuman Motor Skills & Precision
Research has found that age-related declines in cognitive and motor abilities (such as physical balance) can be reduced by fasting.
My 93 year old grandfather, Rex, is an incredible example of this. As a Mormon, he has had the regular practice of doing a 24 hour fast, monthly, his entire life. He attributes his longevity and healthy brain and motor functioning in large part to his regular practice of fasting.
It’s fun to watch him. In the past five years, he’s written three books. He lives with his son (my father) and takes responsibility over mowing the lawn weekly and making sure the yard work is done. He has an amazing daily routine of going to bed at 8 P.M. and waking up at 4:30 A.M. every day. He spends the first 2.5 hours of his day reading or listening to instructional/inspiring content. He eats a bowl of oatmeal at 7 o’clock sharp, then he works until about 2 P.M. every day. He even sets timers every hour to allow him a 10 minute Solitaire break (which is also timed). The second the timer goes off, he gets back to work.
All those incredible habits and he attributes fasting to be a crucial needle, threading them all together and making them all possible.
7. Superhuman Sleep
If you travel a lot or have a lackluster sleeping cycle, research has found that a 16-hour fast can reset your sleep cycle. Other research has found that fasting can improve the overall quality of your sleep.
8. Superhuman Productivity
“If you want to get more done in life, eat less food.” — Robin Sharma, best-selling author
Human beings are holistic. When your body is over-full, particularly on processed foods, your energy levels are low and your mind becomes dull. Conversely, research at Yale has found that being on an empty stomach helps you think and focus better.
While you’re fasting, if you want to take it to a higher level, chew gum. Research has found that chewing gum can increase your concentration and mental accuracy. It also stops you from eating out of boredom — which is the primary reason for most eating.
In a fasted state, your mind can narrow in on your work. I believe this is because the cognitive and sensual amplification of fasting forces you into the moment. In other words, fasting helps you live in the present. It’s powerful and beautiful. High focus and psychological flow are commonplace for me while I fast.
9. Superhuman Emotions
Fasting stabilizes your emotions. This happens by detaching from the emotional dependence on food, in addition to removing over-stimulating foods like caffeine, processed sugars, recreational drugs, tobacco and trans-fatty acids — all of which negatively effect our emotions.
Fasting can also reset your negative emotional patterns. We all get locked-up in weird emotional cycles, and fasting can break us free of them — allowing us to experience the world in a healthier way. It’s also important to note that our emotions are heavily influenced by our environments — and fasting allows us to perceive the incongruencies of our life more clearly — thus challenging us to reshape our environments.
10. Superhuman Energy
Fasting gives you a feeling a physical “lightness,” which provides a boost of energy. Another reason for this energy-surge is because, in a normal diet, our body generally converts foods through carbs and sugars. But fasting retrains our body to convert energy from fats, thus boosting our natural energy levels.
11. Superhuman Weight Loss
Fasting has facilitate weight-loss of 3–8 percent of total body mass in just 3–24 weeks! During that same time-frame, you could lose 4–7 percent of your waist circumference (e.g., harmful belly fat that causes disease).
Fasting decreases insulin levels, while boosting growth hormone levels and increased quantities of norepinephrine (noradrenaline) — a hormonal coctail that breaks down body fat and enables its use for energy.
Consequently, fasting actually increases your metabolic rate by 4–14 percent, helping you burn more calories.
12. Superhuman Inspiration
Fasting taps into higher realms than merely increased consciousness. My experience with fasting is physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual. And I leverage fasting for all it’s worth. I openly pray while fasting for miracles and blessings to come into my life and the into the lives of people I care for.
And I genuinely believe it works.
Regardless of the source of my inspiration, I keep my journal and pen constantly at my side while I’m fasting. The majority of my ideas for writing come while I’m fasting. It’s like drinking from a firehose. “My cup runneth over.”
If you’re looking for mental and spiritual breakthroughs — or simply an increased free-flow of intelligence — regular fasting will aid you in this.
13. Superhuman Appearance
Fasting clears the skin and whitens the eyes. It is common to see acne clear while fasting; and the whites of the eyes never look so piercingly clear and bright as they do after fasting.
The reason for this is the release of human growth hormone, which has been found to make your skin look younger and more vibrant.
But it’s even simpler than that. When you’re living a life of self-control, your health and confidence shine through. You smile more, laugh more, and are more perceptive and discerning of others. Human beings are holistic. When we’re out of alignment, it’s actually quite apparent to others. When we are in alignment, it couldn’t be more obvious. You will simply look more attractive by resonating on a higher physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual plane.
14. Superhuman Learning
Research confirms that being in a fasted state improves focus, memory, and ability to comprehend information. Put most simply, fasting improves brain efficiency and effectiveness.
15. Superhuman Senses
It’s easy to get addicted to sugary foods. When we do, we stop craving healthy, earthy, and wholesome foods. But fasting restores our appreciation for these delicious flavors. Your taste-buds become electric after fasting, and eating healthy foods never tasted so good.
Beyond taste, fasting increases the acuity of all your other senses as well, including hearing and smell, and sometimes even vision.
Actually, it can be a startling experience when your brain functioning radically elevates during a fast. Your listening skills sharpen, and you focus in on every word the other person is saying. Your thinking is honed and your ability to quickly and accurately respond is dynamite.
You can hear the slightest sounds in your natural environment which you are usually unaware of.
Time slows down.
Everything is heightened. The colors you see, the sounds you hear, the thoughts bouncing around in your head, your connection to your physical body and external environment.
It’s like the drug in the movie Limitless, but the most natural, healthy, and sustainable version.
13 Strategies to Amplify Your Fasting Experience
1. Fast for a Specific Purpose
Fasting without a purpose is nothing more than starving yourself. However, fasting for a specific purpose transforms your physical into a spiritual experience.
You can fast for literally anything. It is simply a form of prayer or meditation — but intensified. Thus, if prayer and/or meditation is a part of your regular practice, coupling these with fasting is like injecting them with steroids.
Before I begin a fast, I ponder on something meaningful to put my elevated energy toward. Sometimes I fast for other people, like a family member or friend who is sick. Other times I’ll fast to do well on a project I’m working on. You can fast for anything, but have it be something immediately relevant to you or someone you care about.
2. Make Fasting a Ritual
Ritualizing activities enhances their enjoy-ability and deepens their meaning. The definition of a ritual is, “a solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” You can revamp and ritualize any activity.
I try to ritualize as much of my life as possible to create anticipation, excitement, flow, and intense presence during the activity.
For example, my running partner, Tyler, and I have made our runs into rituals. We meet each other at the same place before our run begins. While we run, we talk about deep philosophy and science. We’ve even created rituals around the food we eat during our run. Every 45 minutes, we walk for one minute and eat. At the conclusion of the run, we get chocolate milks, turn on the hot air, and zone out while on an endorphin high.
The whole activity is a sequence of events, designed for the purpose of intensifying the experience. Repetition and pattern create depth.
I have rituals around my writing, reading, eating, exercise, and other activities. When I used to live in Salt Lake City, a friend of mine and I would always order the same breakfast sandwich from Einstein Bagels and listen to the same playlists while driving up the canyon to go snowboarding.
To make fasting a ritual, I always begin and end with mediation and prayer. Before I start, I visualize and think about the things I’m fasting for — my specific purpose for fasting. I open my journal and write down the thing(s) I’m fasting for.
When my fast is complete, I write down the insights I’ve gained from my fast. Once you become accustomed to fasting, you’ll get used to the rapid inflow of ideas, insights, inspirations, and deep learning that is an integral part of fasting.
Making fasting into a ritual creates anticipation between your fasts. This anticipation will elevate your experience.
3. Make a Fast-Offering by Giving Food You Would Have Eaten to Someone in Need
To elevate the experience even further, take the money you would have spent on food (or its approximate equivalent), and give that money to someone in need or a cause you believe in.
Personally, I enjoy giving what I call my “Fast Offering” to someone who is hungry and without food. Thus, not only am I not eating for a higher purpose, but I’m giving that food to someone who needs it more than I do.
Giving a fast-offering is what makes your fast truly complete.
4. When You Think About Food, Re-Focus on Your Purpose
The first few times you fast, you can expect head aches and feelings of hunger throughout. If you’re a fortunate person, you’ve probably only experienced real hunger a few times in your entire life. It’s interesting to think that millions of people on this planet live hungry every single day.
But the more you fast, the better you’ll get at controlling your mind. You’re not really starving, you’re addicted (probably to sugar).
So whenever your mind fixates on food, take a few moments to refresh yourself on why you’re fasting. What’s that specific purpose you’re fasting for?
Open your journal and re-read what you wrote at the opening of your fast. Write down some thoughts or ideas you’ve had about the person or thing you’re fasting for. If the purpose is compelling enough, your momentary lack of food should be placed back in proper context.
5. Ease Into Fasting & Don’t Fast for too Long
But in order to work your way up, practice fasting at first for just one meal. Then after you’ve gotten accustomed to that, move up to two meals and then 24 hours.
It’s common for people who experience the radical benefits of fasting to take the practice to extremes. This isn’t smart. One day is more than sufficient for a specific fast. The blessings and benefits you seek will come.
6. Associate Pleasure with Fasting
You can create mental triggers for anything. For most people, the feeling of hunger triggers negative emotions. However, you can trigger feelings of pleasure and joy when you feel hungry during a fast. All you have to do is think about your purpose for that specific fast.
The moment you feel hunger, remember how marvelous it is to be tapping into higher realms of conscious and deeper wellsprings of health. It feels amazing to be fasting.
Creating a pleasure trigger for hunger turns fasting from an arduous experience into a combination of Zen and ecstasy.
7. Snowball Effect: Practice Self-Control in Other Ways While Fasting
Your mental acuity will never be sharper than while you’re fasting. Similarly, your self-control will also be peaked. Take advantage of this by double-dipping the willpower workout.
While I’m fasting, I take cold showers and make sure to work with intensive focus during the hours I’ve planned on working. I also give my full attention and joy to the people I’m with. I play like a crazy-man with my foster kids. I don’t check my social media and I turn my phone on airplane mode. The more things you can do to increase your self-control while fasting, the more optimal the experience.
Self-control, at its heart, is extreme implementation of those things you already know you should be doing. So, implement those things you’ve been procrastinating. During a fast is the best time to improve all your habits and daily behaviors.
Just like working out in the gym, your willpower will likely be exhausted after a fast. The rest between fasts — like the rest between workouts — is just as essential as the fasting itself.
8. Transition In & Out of Fasting with Small Meals
It’s funny, but at the end of a willpower workout, people often make the idiotic decision of gorging themselves after their fast. Don’t lose control after having just practiced self-control! If you gorge out on a bunch of junk food right after a fast, you’ll destroy your willpower progress and personal confidence. Without self-control, you can’t have confidence.
Novice fasters gorge themselves directly before and after a fast. They think that by eating a ton of food, they’ll have enough food in them to not get hungry during the fast. Ironically, when you eat large portions of food, your body creates an overabundance of insulin which lowers your blood sugar. When this happens, you feel hungry — generally craving sugar — even when you’re really not hungry.
Eating big meals before a fast makes the experience hell. Don’t do it. Instead, eat something really light to transition into your fasted state. Similarly, when you complete your fast, eat a small portion to zone-out.
I’ve had success lately starting my fast around lunchtime. I’ll eat a normal sized breakfast, and for lunch I’ll have a light protein shake or maybe a salad to transition into my fast. I’ll close my fast at lunchtime the next day with a bowl of fruit or a light protein shake and lots of water.
9. Fast With Other People For a Joint-Cause
Getting a group of people together to fast for a singular person or thing is powerful. It knits the group tightly together in unity and love. It also leads to miracles and radical breakthroughs.
Fast as a family for something relevant and important to your family. Fast as a company to meet your business objectives.
Fast in whatever group you want — so long as the purpose for the fast is relevant to each member of the group.
10. Learn Your Body & Fast in a Way that Best Suites You
There are tons of ways to fast. The purpose of this article is not to tout any specific type of fasting, but rather, the practice of fasting in general.
If fasting is something you want to incorporate into your life, experiment with different approaches.
Intermittent fasting is very popular right now. Juice fasting is also awesome. I’ve tried both of these in different forms and for varying lengths of time.
For me, the form of fasting that works for my body is doing a 24 hour fast from both food and water once per month. However, lately, I’ve been doing a 24 hour fast from both food and water weekly or bi-weekly.
Experiment with it and figure out what works best for you. Most fasting practices don’t exclude water. But for me, that’s part of my practice.
Lastly, some people physically can’t fast for medical reasons. You can get many of the psychological, relational, and spiritual benefits of fasting by abstaining from anything you perceive as a need. For example, I often do 24 hour fasts from the internet and my cell phone. You could fast from caffeine, or sugar, or alcohol.
11. Stay Hydrated throughout the Week
If you’re not properly hydrated, fasting for an extended period of time can cause dehydration. You can avoid this by drinking healthy amounts of water throughout the week — 64 plus ounces per day.
12. If You Slip-Up, “Lock it Up!”
Our self-control is super fickle! Usually, when I “give in” to one even small conflicted choice, the flood gates open up! The best example for me is food. I could be eating awesome all morning, then justify even a little bit of junk food. The problem is, that one justification weakens my resolve against future justifications, and I quickly find myself sugar-binging.
But just because you feel like you’re “losing the battle,” doesn’t mean you need to give up and lose the war.
LOCK IT UP!
Finish! Done is better than perfect.
I spent months studying for a test called the G.R.E. to get into graduate school. I needed to get a specific score in order to be competitive for strong PhD programs. Half way through the math section of the test, I felt like throwing in the towel. I was sure I had missed several questions and felt, in the moment, that there was no chance I’d get the score I needed.
But then this thought popped into my head: Finish strong! The past is out of your control. But you’re still in this. Don’t quit before you finish. This will be over soon, so take control and crush this.
I closed my eyes, took a few breathes, visualized the score I wanted, prayed for strength, and sprinted with confidence to the end of the test. Do what is right, let the consequence follow — come what may, and love it!
I got the score I needed.
The worst thing you can do for your willpower is throw in the towel after one slip-up. The same is true of fasting. There are no rules. There is no “perfect” fast. Just finish strong.
13. Don’t Make it a Big Deal
When you’re fasting, it may be tempting to talk about it. There’s nothing wrong with talking about the fact that you’re fasting. However, you’ll get deeper meaning and insight out of your fast by keeping it private and personal.
If you’re fasting for someone else, like someone who is sick or going through difficulty, keep it anonymous. They will feel the power of your fast without you having to tell them you’re doing it.
If you start to feel drained, splash cold water on your face. Don’t look weighed down, sad, and tired. Stay upbeat and vibrant.
– Benjamin Hardy
…is a Saiva Tantrika, Gyana Yogi and founder of Uma Maheshwara Yoga & Ayurveda. David has an MA in Semiotics, lives in Japan with his family and works as a coach in L & D, devoting his time to developing science-based tools and programs that help people reach the fullest potential of the human condition.