Dopamine fasting is a new wellness trend that started in Silicon Valley. The basic idea is that, for a set amount of time, you remove mindless, yet pleasurable activities from your daily life—social media, emotional eating, watching porn, recreational drugs, and so on.
Proponents of dopamine fasting claim that it can make you a happier, more focused person, and that it’s a good mental reset in an increasingly busy world.
Here’s a look at how dopamine fasting works, the science and theory behind it, and how you can try it for yourself.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter—one of the main chemicals your brain cells use to communicate with one another.
You may have heard dopamine called the “pleasure neurotransmitter.” That’s because it runs your reward pathway: if you experience something pleasurable, like social attention, sex, good food, or recreational drugs, you get a rush of dopamine and you feel good.
But dopamine also drives your behavior. It motivates you to seek out pleasurable things, then rewards you when you get them—and in today’s fast-paced world, there are pleasurable things everywhere, and it can be overwhelming when they’re all competing for your attention.
Everyday things that spike your dopamine include:
- Social mediahttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5362930/
- Video gameshttps://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9607763/
- Food, especially rewarding foodhttps://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12387683/
These small, yet pleasurable daily habits can influence your life and take up more of your time than you may realize. That’s why Dr. Cameron Sepah, a California psychiatrist, created dopamine fasting.
The Theory of Dopamine Fasting
A dopamine fast is a simple idea: for a set period of time, you remove from daily life unhealthy stimuli that activate your brain’s reward centers.
Dr. Sepah explains that when you’re constantly stringing together reward-inducing cues throughout your day, your brain never has a chance to relax. It gets used to a steady stream of rewarding input, which can make it hard for you to have quiet moments without stimulation.
The idea is that you avoid unproductive, yet pleasurable behaviors, and instead allow yourself to feel bored, sad, unstimulated, and so on. It may be hard at first—but over time, Dr. Sepah says, it can give you more control over compulsive pleasure-seeking behavior, help you appreciate the simple things in life more, and, ultimately, be happier.
Do Dopamine Fasts Really Work?
While there isn’t specific science on dopamine fasting, it is rooted in research on treating addictive behavior.
When you use a substance or do something rewarding on a regular basis, your brain becomes accustomed to it, and it feels less pleasurable, and you need more and more stimulation to get the same enjoyable effect—a phenomenon called tolerance.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3325655/
Patients dealing with addiction typically go through a period of abstinence to reset their brain’s reward centers. In the absence of the pleasurable stimulus, the brain gradually becomes more sensitive to reward—much like you might find more enjoyment in the little things in life if you stop hyper-stimulating behaviors.
That said, Dr. Sepah says that some people have taken dopamine fasting to an unnecessary extreme: avoiding eye contact with others, not socializing, eating only bland food, not using any technology at all, and so on.
Dr. Sepah says this isn’t necessary, and that you shouldn’t take the name “dopamine fast” literally. The idea is simply to remove highly rewarding, possibly unhealthy habits from your daily life—like gambling, compulsive eating, drugs, porn, and mindless scrolling.
How to Try Dopamine Fasting
Dr. Sepah identifies six categories of compulsive behavior to avoid during a dopamine fast:
- Excessive internet/technology use (including gaming, social media, TV)
- Emotional eating
- Gambling and shopping
- Recreational drugs
- Thrill-seeking activities
- Porn and masturbation
If you want to try dopamine fasting, avoid these six behaviors for a period of time that feels good to you. A week is a good place to start.
Dopamine fasting may be difficult at first. Your brain is adjusting to less stimulation, which can be uncomfortable. However, after a few days, you may find you enjoy the little things in life more, and that you’re actually happier overall.
Dopamine fasting is simple, free, and comes with no risks. If you’re curious about it, it’s worth a try. It could be a welcome mental reset in an increasingly stimulating world.