Dopamine Fasting: What Is It & How Does It Work?
Effort and patience can go a long way.
Dopamine fasting is a trend that originated in Silicon Valley. It describes an attempt to counteract ingrained habits that can become addictive. It’s a practice of avoiding stimulation for a certain period of time, to avoid any spikes in dopamine.
The question is, is this a trend worth trying? This article will explain the details of dopamine fasting, the science behind it, and a number of steps you can take to try for yourself.
What is dopamine?
In simple terms, dopamine makes us feel good. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in the brain and body, linked with reward, pleasure, learning, and motivation. Dopamine encourages us to seek out pleasurable activities, like a bridge between craving and the fulfillment of craving, boosting energy levels and motivation.
Its precise role is still not fully understood, though, and often misinterpreted. Dopamine is active with the body’s fight or flight system and recent studies have found that dopamine is involved in unpleasurable activities, too, such as touching something hot. This is likely because it teaches us not only what to seek to find pleasure, but what not to seek to avoid pain.
Humans are hardwired to seek reward. If you take a cynical view of human nature, you could argue that we are driven by chemical highs and hormonal responses to our environment — in particular the dopamine hit of falling in love, receiving likes and shares on social media, emotional eating, drinking a strong cup of coffee.
Fortunately, humans are more than biology. We have the ability to self-regulate and make decisions based on rationality. We learn delayed gratification. We can choose not to ignore impulses in favor of future fulfillment. But this isn’t easy when living in a world full of triggers; from social media, mobile technology, binge consumption, and the normalization of numbing emotions with the temporary relief of addictive behaviors.
Why dopamine is important to understand
Because dopamine is released when eating food, during sex, and when taking recreational drugs such as cocaine, it’s earned the label of a feel-good chemical.
In recent times there’s growing evidence for its role in mobile phone use and social media.
Pioneers of this technology have spoken out about the “feedback loops” that keep us hooked to our screens. Chamath Palihapitiya, the former Vice President of Facebook’ User Growth, went as far to say these technologies were “destroying society.” He believes that reducing impulsive behavior caused by these feedback loops is essential.
The words “destroying society” are strong words, but not entirely misguided. “The brain responds to this increase by decreasing dopamine transmission — not just back down to its natural baseline rate, but below that baseline,” Anne Lembke, author of Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, told Stanford. “Repeated exposure to the same or similar stimuli ultimately creates a chronic dopamine-deficit state, wherein we’re less able to experience pleasure.”
This need for more stimulation, to become sensitive to the reward circuit, leads to addictive behavior. Our brain’s reward system is sensitive, and must be treated with care. An imbalance of dopamine is linked to various mental illnesses, from schizophrenia to Parkinson’s. Because dopamine is involved in motivation, a lack of the chemical is linked to anhedonia, a symptom of depression where people lose interest in enjoyable activities. With this chemical, balance is everything, and promoting values-aligned health behaviors is key.
What is a dopamine detox?
Because dopamine acts as a reward center, a dopamine detox is just a mechanism that encourages a deliberate practice of avoiding activities that stimulate the release of the chemical.
The Silicon Valley trend of dopamine fasting takes this to the extreme — participants are encouraged to avoid food and drink in a form of intermittent fasting, (apart from water), excessive internet usage, TV or mobile phone use, reading, and sex or masturbation. Some people avoid all human interaction and family demands, even eye contact. It’s essentially Digital Detox Plus for our dopamine receptors.
When reducing dopamine during your day, you’re still allowed to meditate, think, walk in nature, or write a diary entry. It’s a way of returning to baseline, or removing external “stimulants,” and allowing the brain’s sensitivity to dopamine return. In theory, this leads to more sensitivity and less addictive behavior.
Proponents of the wellness trend claim it can “reset the brain,” by returning to the baseline level Anne Lembke refers to. However, some experts have called the term itself misleading and prefer “stimulation fast” instead.
We can’t forget that dopamine is essential for healthy brain functioning, and it’s almost impossible to consciously regulate the release of the chemical itself. For example, studies have found that meditation can boost dopamine by up to 64 percent after one hour.
Is there science behind dopamine detoxing?
Feeling good is a complex process, especially when it comes to the biochemical components, and how they contribute. Practices that look to take time away from bad habits, turn off social media, take time to slow down and reflect, all have a positive impact on mood. Although a dopamine fast might not reduce dopamine levels or offer a genuine “fast” from their presence in the brain and body, the practice does remove triggers that stimulate the dopamine response. Experts agree that alone is healthy.
Taking time away from impulsive behavior is beneficial, too. Brain scans have found links between impulsive behaviors and dopamine; when the craving for a reward is strong, people tend to engage in risky behaviors in order to fulfill the craving. Learning to manage behaviors that can be overly addictivehelps weaken this process.
The unhealthy ways the world has changed, in contrast to the slow evolution of the human brain and body, is highlighted by dopamine. Gone are the days of foraging for food, only socializing IRL (away from Instagram, Facebook, or WhatsApp), and enjoying “natural” hits of the chemical. Lembke expands on this problem by offering a sobering view:
“Because we’ve transformed the world from a place of scarcity to a place of overwhelming abundance: Drugs, food, news, gambling, shopping, gaming, texting, sexting, Facebooking, Instagramming, YouTubing, tweeting… the increased numbers, variety, and potency of highly rewarding stimuli today is staggering. The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation.”
When an expert refers to the smartphone as a “modern-day hypodermic needle,” it’s worth paying attention.
4 ways to lower dopamine levels
Setting the intention to be aware of addictive sorts of behaviors, to break the loop of seeking constant stimulation, to take breaks to allow the brain’s pathways to recover, will all contribute to improved balance and regulation. The below steps provide a solid foundation to behaviors that, ultimately, help regular dopamine levels:
1. Understand addictive qualities apply to us all
Impulsive or addictive types of behaviors can be hard to detect, precisely because of the belief that addictions only operate in extremes, related to a select few substances. Instead, addiction is on a spectrum. In Eight Step Recovery, Valeria Mason-John uses the teachings of Buddhism to recover from addictive qualities. “Human nature has an inbuilt tendency toward addiction… Thinking itself can have an addictive quality to it… We live in a world where many of us self-medicate in response to hardship.”
Explore with honesty and compassion the areas of life where you have addictive tendencies. Start with awareness.
2. Get comfortable with uncomfortable feelings
We’ve all been there. You arrive somewhere, start to feel a little self-conscious, bored, or anxious, and before you know it, your phone’s in your hand, you’re scrolling on Instagram, or watching YouTube, and avoiding the uncomfortable feeling.
These behaviors are often ways of avoiding pain or suffering. If you can withstand difficulty, you can break the cycle of distraction and better manage addictive behaviors.
The most effective way of doing this is practicing mindfulness. Learn to sit with thoughts, feelings, sensations and emotions without judgment or resistance. Become curious.
3. Try to follow experience impulses, without acting upon them
Impulsivity and addiction go hand-in-hand. A craving arises, the desire to fulfil that craving follows, and without a second’s break, the movement to act out follows. It might seem that this is all one instinctive movement, but in truth, there’s always a possibility to slow down, to witness the impulse, feel the craving, and avoid behaving in a way that perpetuates the behavior.
It takes time and self-awareness, but with effort, your ability to control impulses will improve. In my experience, this operates across the board. It doesn’t discriminate. So if you’re looking to improve impulsivity with social media use, you’ll have to practice the same with food, sex, and other cravings.
4. Take time out
And, last but not least, something the trend of dopamine fasting gets right is the value of time taken away from the addictive technologies and apps we find ourselves surrounded in. Make detoxing part of your wellness plan, in whatever way that looks for you — perhaps one day per week in nature without your phone or laptop, or the occasional retreat.
Fads are fads, trends are trends. Although it’s tempting to prove or disprove their effectiveness, why not try to distill what works, let go of what doesn’t, and optimize its application in your own life? The science of dopamine fasting might be questionable, but the benefits of its application aren’t.
Unfortunately, we live in a world of over-stimulation and environments full of triggers for impulsive or addictive behavior. Working against this takes effort and patience. But the reward is a form of freedom away from the temporary relief of the occasional dopamine hit. And that’s a pleasure that doesn’t depend on anything outside of you.