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Dopamine fasting: Would a hiatus from pleasure make us better at life?

By Juli Fraga
Updated:

“I’m newly sober and always looking to try new healthy activities,” says Jeremiah LaBrash, a computer programmer in Los Angeles. He wanted to stay sober, feel better, and be more productive. Like many of his peers, LaBrash turned to Reddit for inspiration, and found a thread serving up ways to rewire the reward centers of the brain. According to discussion threads, the concept of “dopamine fasting” works something like this: Avoid exciting stimulation, and by doing so, become a better version of yourself.

From juice cleanses and social media breaks to sugar fasts and the Keto diet, giving up vices to better your overall health is nothing new. But dopamine fasting has techies, yogis, and wellness enthusiasts intrigued, especially as the fad continues to receive more attention.

But like with any wellness craze, the first thought that bubbles up is: Does it work? Is dopamine fasting woo-woo fluff or have social scientists actually uncovered a novel secret about how this particular neurotransmitter works?

The concept of dopamine fasting is based on research by Cameron Sepah, a psychologist and assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco. In August 2019, Sepah published a standardized and science-based protocol on dopamine fasting that went viral and popularized the trend, which started in Silicon Valley. However, Sepah tells the Mic that recent media hype has misconstrued the meaning of the fast, as well as his research findings.

As a psychologist myself, dopamine fasting challenges what I know to be true about this neurotransmitter and its connection to our well-being. Take, for instance, that medical studies suggest low levels of dopamine — a ‘chemical messenger' — can lead to symptoms of depression, such as apathy, feelings of sadness and hopelessness, and low self-esteem. With that in mind, I was curious to learn about dopamine fasting and its claims to enhance, instead of damage, one’s psychological health.

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For starters, it’s helpful to scratch past the surface when it comes to dopamine’s role in our daily lives. The neurotransmitter is produced in the brain and elicits pleasurable feelings. Certain behaviors, such as eating chocolate, having sex, and playing video games, can trigger a dopamine rush. In addition, dopamine is also responsible for maintaining bodily functions, such as muscle movement and memory.

As humans, we’re wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. You might think this would lead us to want more, not less of the blissful feeling dopamine produces. But many dopamine fasters who’ve had positive experiences are now hung up on the idea that forgoing pleasurable activities can help curb bad habits, bolster happiness, and enhance self-reflection.

Certainly, there are instances where taking a break from outside stimulation could make you feel better. For instance, those who take part in silent meditation retreats find that sitting and meditating in silence can cultivate feelings of peace, quiet their self-judgement, and spark insight, all of which can further personal growth.

On the nutrition front, people who swear off sugar and processed foods often report enhanced energy and crisper cognitions, which often leads them to adopt healthier eating habits for good. But is dopamine fasting meant to bring about the same changes in and of itself? There's been very little scientific proof of that, but the anecdotal evidence persists.

Over several weeks, LaBrash completed three, 24-hour dopamine fasts. During each of his fasts, he avoided friends, swore off exercise, didn't listen to music, and made zero eye contact with strangers. He even curtailed interacting with his dogs. While he still took his furry friends out for walks, he did so at 4 a.m., when very few people were likely to be around. “I love playing with my dogs, but it gives me a dopamine rush,” he explains, and during the fast, LaBrash aimed to avoid stimulation to the best of his ability.

This all sounds pretty terrible — so why’d he do it? Because similar to low-carb dieters who believe eating bread brings on weight gain, dopamine fasters believe too much dopamine drives addictive behaviors. That, also, hasn't been proven.

The goal of the fast is to thwart the production of this “feel good” chemical, and by doing so, wipe out the desire to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as internet surfing, drinking, or overeating.

Like many fasts, taking a hiatus from pleasure-inducing activities might not come off as appealing, especially at first. However, the notion that fasting can curb a range of problematic behaviors makes the deprivation seem worthwhile. For instance, LaBrash took on the challenge to maintain his sobriety. Others may turn to dopamine fasting because of the claims that it could help them avoid overspending, overeating, or to curb smartphone addiction.

Because this practice is fairly new, it’s important to reflect on where you are in life — and perhaps talk to a mental health professional about how you’re going to go about it — if you want to try a dopamine fast. Of course, it could be a side-effect-free way to help you deal with a bad habit. But keep the placebo affect in mind: The reality that the attitude you approach a practice with has a very real impact on what that practice will yield for you.

If you’re managing depression or another type of mental illness, a therapist might suggest an adjusted fast or to avoid it altogether. Outside of that disclaimer, here are a few crucial aspects about it that Sepah says need to be clarified.

It’s actually not about avoiding dopamine or stimulation

Dopamine fasting may be a catchy name for consumers, but the fast isn’t really meant to reduce the production of dopamine, Sepah tells Mic. The true focus, he says, is on reducing impulsive behavior that's reinforced by dopamine.

As a therapist, I think of impulsive behavior as “mindless action.” It’s something we do without thinking too much, often as a way to keep upsetting emotions at bay. Hastily playing a game on one’s phone or scrolling through Amazon each time we feel sad, disappointed, or angry is an example of impulsive behavior that can turn sideways.

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What dopamine fasting is meant to do is help us manage those sometimes problematic behaviors, says Sepah. He says it’s not necessary to write off any or all actions that ignite stimulation or pleasure, though. In his recent article, he reiterates that “the goal is to fast from impulsive behaviors, in order to regain behavioral flexibility.”

It’s based on a tried-and-tested psychological treatment

While dopamine fasting may, on its surface, come across as pseudoscience, Sepah says it’s based on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which has been scientifically proven to treat addictive behaviors, such as gambling, smoking, and overspending.

Sepah explains that dopamine fasting uses a CBT technique called "stimulus control.” For example, if the problematic stimuli is your iPhone, you might make it less appealing by putting the screen on greyscale or placing the phone in a cupboard or locked drawer.

In order for stimulus control to be effective, it relies on scheduling to "fast" (abstain) and "feast" (engage). What this entails is scheduling time when you avoid the problematic behavior, as well as setting aside time when you consciously participate in a way that's not impulsive, he says.

During the dopamine fast, he encourages people to engage in what he calls “values-aligned” behaviors, which might mean eating a healthy diet, cultivating close relationships, or learning something new. He also recommends taking up an activity that’s incompatible with the stimulus. For example, it’s hard to check one’s phone and exercise at the same time.

In addition, dopamine fasting uses the CBT technique of "exposure & response prevention." When the impulse to reach for the problematic behavior arises, Sepah recommends paying attention to what thoughts and feelings arise at that moment, without judgment, and practicing resisting indulging in the behavior — a common CBT practice called “urge surfing.”

Dopamine fasting isn’t a replacement for therapy

Despite what people might believe — or the shortcuts they want to take to feeling better — the practice isn’t a replacement for professional help. “It’s a technique that’s used to address problematic behaviors that mildly impact one’s day to day life,” he clarifies.

If scrolling through Instagram, playing online games, or indulging in any other behavior disrupts your ability to work or relationships, it may be time to seek professional help, Sepah says. Studies suggest that a brief course of CBT therapy can help us identify and tolerate upsetting emotions, which often drive addictive behaviors. If you’re not one for sitting through a course, there are a lot of great texts out there about CBT, written by credible psychologists.

Life after fasting

After his dopamine fasts, LaBrash says he’s more aware of how stimulation impacts him. “I’m more mindful of how sound, food, and touch affect me,” he shares. He also says the most significant lesson was realizing what it takes to stay sober. "Connection is the key to sobriety, and I want my relationships with family and friends to give me dopamine hits,” he shares.

However, LaBrash recognizes that dopamine fasts aren’t a miracle cure for addiction or impulsivity. “At the end of the day, you’re still you,” he says. “If anything, dopamine fasting can make you more aware of what stimulates you, which can help you make healthier life choices.”

Juli Fraga is a San Francisco-based psychologist.

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