When we’re feeling down, we tend to reach for things that will give us a quick hit of pleasure, if not long-term satisfaction. We choose mind-numbing TV in lieu of a good night’s sleep, pound beers instead of interrogating the sources of our stress, and doom scroll while ignoring the facets of our lives we can actually control. But what if — and stick with us here — we swore off these fleeting pleasures altogether? The latest wellness trend, called dopamine fasting, makes the argument for just that.
Candice Vanderford, a 37-year-old mother of four, was in the middle of a separation from her husband when she decided to do a 72-hour dopamine fast. For three days she didn’t use social media, text, work out, have sex, listen to music, or watch TV. On day three, she filed for divorce. Today, she maintains that the fast helped her gain self-control with her phone.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or chemical that sends messages in the brain, that’s critical to the brain’s reward system. One iteration of dopamine fasting involves abstaining from things that bring instant gratification, from social media to sex, gambling, food, shopping, music, sometimes even eye contact. There’s a Reddit group with 28,000 members who do dopamine detoxes every Sunday, connect with accountability partners, and debate the merits of limiting music and whether it’s okay to go for a run during a detox period. Some men swear off ejaculation entirely during the month of November in the name of improving focus and mental health (as well as boosting fertility, and decreasing the risk of prostate cancer, despite the dearth of evidence that this kind of abstinence has any benefits.) Whether it’s masturbation or Twitter, those fasting hope that in the absence of these crutches, they’ll lower their tolerance to dopamine, feel pleasure from simpler things, disrupt addictive behaviors, and feel greater pleasure from smaller doses of the activities when they return to them.
The idea of swearing off your phone for a few days and no longer feeling so tethered to it is obviously compelling. But those who go full monk in the name of dopamine regulation are swimming upstream for no reason. Cameron Sepah, a professor at the University of California San Francisco Medical School psychologist who popularized dopamine fasting 2.0, wrote in a Linkedin Post that “Dopamine Fasting 2.0 is not reducing dopamine (the focus is on reducing impulsive behavior), avoiding all stimulation (focuses only on specific behaviors that are problematic for you), [or] not talking/socializing/exercising (actually encourages values-aligned health behaviors).” Here’s how it works, and where its limits lie.
What Dopamine Is and How it Works
The neurotransmitter dopamine has famously been associated with pleasure and reward. Dr. Kent Berridge, a neuroscience at the University of Michigan, calls it “the most famous linchpin in the brain reward circuitry.” The addictive nature of everything from doing drugs to eating cheese and checking your phone has been attributed to dopamine. But more recent research suggests that it has less to do with pleasure itself, and instead controls the desire to reach for the thing associated with the reward. “It’s turned on by cues, the sight of food, the smell of food, the thought, vivid imagery of food. It’s causing the wanting of these things we like,” Berridge says. Dopamine is responsible for the sudden hunger you feel when you smell dinner cooking, which isn’t necessarily bad – we need to eat to stay alive. But dopamine can become a runaway train, turning behaviors compulsive and making us reach for quick fixes that don’t address the root of our problems.
Cocaine is the most extreme example of the train coming off the tracks. Cocaine is like a feel-good hand grenade. Use it, and you release a flood of dopamine in your brain. The problem is that use decreases the number of dopamine receptors in the brain, thereby increasing tolerance for the drug, and creating an environment where users need to take more and more of the drug to receive the same effects. This is why 15-30% of people who use cocaine become addicted. When cocaine use stops (for good), the brain is able to recover, rebuild the number of receptors, and lower its tolerance. Do fasting works for cocaine addiction, sure, but does a dopamine fast work for things that release smaller dopamine bursts, like scrolling on Twitter or doing a little online shopping? Berridge says that “there’s no real evidence” that this is the case when it comes to abstaining from other behaviors, like gambling or social media use. He suspects that while ditching your phone for a few days, and not receiving the cues that prime you to pick it up, like notifications, might reduce the temptation to go back to it, that doesn’t mean your tolerance or the rewards system related to the activity is changed in any long term way. As soon as you pick up the phone again, “The new pings would ‘prime’ dopamine systems again and rebuild the craving — a bit like eating a few peanuts at a party and then wanting to eat more,” Berridge says. Despite ardent supporters taking things a little too far, it’s unlikely that dopamine fasting will have the same effects on the brain’s reward system as coming off of a drug. But Sepah’s version, Dopamine Fasting 2.0, never relied on this pseudoscience anyway.
Dopamine Fasting for Everyday Life
Sepah popularized his method of dopamine fasting as a way to “manage addictive behaviors” like emotional eating, excessive internet usage, gambling, porn addiction, and drug use “by restricting them to specific periods of time.”
These behaviors aren’t all driven by dopamine. “Dopamine is just a mechanism that explains how addictions can become reinforced, and makes for a catchy title,” Sepah told the New York Times. Meaning? Dopamine fasting is not actually fasting from dopamine. The act of dopamine fasting actually has to do with the impulsive behaviors that reinforce the cycle of dopamine.
Think of Pavlov’s dog. Dogs naturally start salivating when food is near. Each day, right before it ate, Pavlov’s dogs heard the footsteps of someone walking over to give them food. Soon they started salivating at the sound of the footsteps before they even saw food. This is called a conditioned response. Sepah uses this theory to inform what he calls Dopamine Fasting 2.0, which involves removing the stimulus that encourages the behavior so that you don’t have to rely on willpower. Instead of relying on willpower to not check Twitter, you put your phone away or delete Twitter. Another technique he suggests is called exposure and response prevention. You practice exposing yourself to a trigger, but not following through with the behavior. So you might practice feeling bad and wanting to reach for your phone, but choose to do something else instead.
How to Dopamine Fast the Right Way
Signs You Might Need to Fast From a Certain Behavior:
- It bothers you how much you do it,
- It prevents you from doing your best work or showing up for loved ones
- You’ve tried and failed to cut down on the behavior before
How to Start
- Choosing a single behavior that you struggle with
- Abstain from it for one hour a day, eventually building up to four hours a day
- Eventually, abstain from it for one weekend day per week, one weekend per quarter, or one week per year.
- Add in a feasting schedule, with time allocated to engage in the behavior for 5-30 minutes, 1-3 times a day.