What is a dopamine detox or dopamine fast? This wellness trend has become very popular recently, and in this post we will discuss what is is, what is isn't, the potential benefits, and how to do it.
Table of Contents
- What is dopamine?
- What is a dopamine hit?
- High and low levels of dopamine
- What is a dopamine detox or dopamine fast?
- Who needs a dopamine detox?
- How to do a dopamine detox
- How not to do a dopamine detox
- What to expect during a dopamine fast
- In summary:
- Frequently asked questions:
- Other health information you will want to read:
What is dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. It is also sometimes referred to as a chemical messenger because your nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells. Dopamine plays a role in how we feel pleasure and it's often referred to as the feel good hormone. It's also helps us think and plan.
Dopamine is made in the brain through a two-step process. First, it changes the amino acid tyrosine into a substance called dopa, and then into dopamine.
Dopamine has many important functions and it impacts many parts of your behaviour and physical functions, including but not limited to:
- Heart rate
- Kidney function
- Blood vessel function
- Pain processing
- Control of nausea and vomiting
Too much or too little dopamine can lead to a number of health issues. Some are serious, like Parkinson’s disease (where there is too little dopamine), while other's are more mild.
Human brains naturally seek out things and behaviours that trigger the release of dopamine or a “dopamine hit”. Those actions release dopamine into your brain and make you feel good. You then associate those actions with that pleasure boost.
What is a dopamine hit?
A dopamine hit is anything that brings you pleasure. This leads to a release of dopamine in your brain, which is why it is referred to as a "dopamine hit." Now, everyone derives pleasure from different things but here are some examples of things that could bring on a dopamine hit:
- Drinking coffee
- Watching tv or a movie
- Receiving likes or comments on social media
- Playing video games
- Buying things
- Spending time outdoors
- Listening to music
- Eating food
- Taking a bath
- Sky diving
- Bungee jumping
- Going to am amusement park
- Spending time with friends or family
- Getting a manicure or pedicure
High stress scenarios can also increase dopamine, but chronic stress can actually decrease dopamine levels.
High and low levels of dopamine
When your dopamine levels are high, you might feel highly energized. When dopamine levels are high, some people experience trouble sleeping, poor impulse control, over eating, addictive behaviours, chest pain, headaches, anger or aggression.
Low dopamine levels in contrast, can make you feel fatigued, lethargic, unmotivated, unfocused, hopeless, and/or anxious. Low dopamine can also cause brain fog, muscle spasms, constipation, and general body aches and pains.
Balanced dopamine levels can lead to improved cognitive functions, an increase in attention-span and creativity, and a more balanced mood.
However, brain chemistry and physiology is complicated. Dopamine is not the only thing responsible for how we feel and it would be inaccurate to say that it is.
What is a dopamine detox or dopamine fast?
Dr. Cameron Sepah created the dopamine fast, or detox which he uses in his work with tech workers and venture capitalists. Dr. Sepah’s goal is to help his clients manage impulsive behaviors that lead to significant impairment, distress, or addictiveness and decrease their dependence on certain stimuli, such as phone notifications, texts, and social media alerts. The goal is to help reduce the frequency of impulsive behavior while restoring the flexibility of healthy, daily living.
Much of his research around the technique is based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). However, due to misinterpretation of its name, dopamine fasting has been widely misunderstood and inappropriately used.
- emotional eating
- gaming and excessive internet use
- gambling and shopping
- porn and masturbation
- thrill and novelty seeking
- recreational drugs
It is emphasized that abstaining from all pleasures is not the goal of dopamine fasting. Instead, individuals should specifically target behaviors that cause distress, impairment to daily work or life performance, or addictiveness. It is noted that dopamine fasting is not specifically altering one's state of health, but rather the act of restricting problematic habits by replacing them with health-promoting activities. Dopamine fasting emphasizes maintaining a healthy lifestyle where pleasure is still present, but is under control.
Since dopamine is an essential neurotransmitter, behavioral changes are a key for controlling addiction. Dr. Sepah applied two CBT-based techniques in his dopamine fasting guideline: stimulus control and exposure and response prevention.
In stimulus control, access to the object (or objects) that are implicated in the addiction is restricted either physically (i.e., by removing your phone from the room) or made impossible (i.e., by blocking it with a software).
In exposure and response prevention, the goal is to expose oneself to the stimulus without engaging in the conditioned response. Instead, the focus is on adjusting the user's attitude and feelings until temptation from the stimuli no longer impairs their day-to-day routine or functioning.
The ultimate goal is to weaken the conditioned association between the behavior and reward, also known as habituation. This reduces the impulsivity and allows the person to regain flexibility of behaviours, therefore gaining control over the addiction or unhealthy behaviours or habits.
By cutting out or decreasing the activities that trigger the brain’s release of neurotransmitters, the idea is that people become less dependent on the emotional “hits” that dopamine provides, which can sometimes lead to dependence or addiction.
A dopamine detox, or dopamine fast, involves identifying behaviours that you turn to for a quick boost such as things like social media, gaming, and watching TV—then taking a break from them or reducing them for a certain amount of time. This is meant to "recalibrate your brain’s reward pathways."
When we consume digital media it releases a lot of dopamine in a specific part of the brain called the reward pathway leading to a feel good feeling. Any rewarding stimulus, such as eating a piece of candy, getting a “like” on a post, or the start of your favourite television program can give you this little hit.
Our understanding of how the brain responds to constant stimulation from our devices comes mainly from research on addictions, which uses the same reward pathways. In order to compensate for this never ending stimulus, our brain starts to down-regulate dopamine production and transmission, to try and bring it back to baseline.
A dopamine deficit, which can result from the extremes of all forms of addiction, can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety. Then you need to keep engaging in those behaviours (ie. using social media) to not only feel good, but just to feel normal.
Now the word detox is a misnomer because your body needs dopamine to function, so you can't actually rid it from the body. A better term would be something like "taking a break from activities that lead to constant dopamine elevations" - but that doesn't have the same ring to it so you can see why people refer to it as a dopamine detox or fast instead.
Unfortunately, content creators and influencers have used this trend to make unfounded claims to promise outcomes like increased academic success, making lots of money, and having unmatched happiness. However, in reality, real change takes more work than just a few days away from social media and gaming.
As well, many people are doing the protocol wrong. For example, one reporter states that you should cut yourself off from almost all stimulation for 24 hours. An extensive list of things such as exercise, eating, music, and reading are prohibited in her proposed routine, and the only things that are “allowed” are walking, meditating, writing, and drinking water. Others claim that you need complete sensory deprivation to do the detox. Rather than reducing dopamine or avoiding all stimulation, the focus should be on reducing the impulsive behaviors that are problematic for individuals.
Who needs a dopamine detox?
If you have addictive behaviors, or impulsive behaviours toward a certain activity or device, you could benefit from a dopamine detox.
In reality, most of us spend too much time on our phones and in front of screens so most of us could benefit from a few days away from our devices and other stimuli. It’s only by stopping these activities for a period of time that we can really see how these devices are impacting our mental and physical health.
How to do a dopamine detox
Dopamine detoxes need to be individualized. The most effective detox will involve decreasing the technology or other stimuli you use most often. If there is a habit or device that you feel has a strong a hold over you (for example if you feel like you have to take your phone with you to the bathroom), a logical place to start would be to take a break from that device or activity.
How long you need to cut out or reduce a specific device or activity will differ from person to person. It could be as little as hours, or for up to days or even weeks.
How not to do a dopamine detox
It should be emphasized that many social media personalties and influencers, when attempting their own dopamine detoxes, are doing it wrong. It is important to note that a dopamine detox is not:
- Actually reducing dopamine (the focus is on reducing impulsive behaviour).
- A vacation.
- A challenge with specific rules.
- Avoiding all stimulation or pleasure - you instead focus on your own specific problematic behaviours.
- Avoidance of regular activities such as talking, socializing, exercising etc.
- Complete sensory deprivation.
- A checklist.
- A diet.
- A treatment for depression, anxiety or ADHD.
- An easy, quick fix for unwanted behaviours.
What to expect during a dopamine fast
Aside from the scientific studies on drug addiction and other addictions such as gaming addiction, there’s no clear research on what happens when you quit your brain’s favourite rewarding activities cold turkey. A dopamine detox is not a scientifically researched approach and so far the evidence for it is anecdotal, or extrapolated from studies on addictions.
When working with patients who have become addicted to digital media, they usually feel pretty awful for the first 10 to 14 days when they first cut it out. After that, it usually gets easier and patients begin to be able to focus again, to slow down and enjoy activities that may have seemed boring before. Gradually, because it’s not being used, the association between the problematic behaviour and the dopamine reward becomes weaker, making it easier for people to resume using their devices in a less problematic way. Ideally, by the end of the detox period, a person will feel more centered, balanced, and less affected by their dopamine triggers.
A dopamine detox or fast is supposed to be a way to help you reduce unhealthy impulsive behaviours. It involves restricting devices or behaviours to specific periods of time, and practicing fasting from impulsively engaging in them, in order to regain behavioral flexibility. To date, no studies have been done on the dopamine detox, and the evidence for it is extracted from research on addictions.
The protocol is based on cognitive behavioural therapy and was developed by Dr. Cameron Sepah. Unfortunately, social media influencers and personalities have misinterpreted not only what a dopamine detox is, but how it should be done. As such, be cautious when you see the detox discussed online, and don't believe the unfounded claims that this protocol can help make you wealthy, achieve academic success or magically transform your life.
Frequently asked questions:
The time frame is different for everyone. For some people it can take hours, for others it can take days to weeks.
The dopamine detox has not been studied as a treatment for ADHD so at this time it cannot be recommended as a therapy that would be beneficial.
To date, the dopamine fast or detox has not been scientifically studied so it is unknown if it really works or not.
Most people doing a dopamine detox will be able to listen to music. Unless listening to music is the impulsive, problematic you are hoping to change.
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- Cognitive–behavioral therapy for management of mental health and stress-related disorders: Recent advances in techniques and technologies
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- Maladaptive or misunderstood? Dopamine fasting as a potential intervention for behavioral addiction
- The Definitive Guide to Dopamine Fasting 2.0: The Hot Silicon Valley Trend