Whenever we look at attempts of improving our mental health, there seems to be no shortage of strange ideas and bold claims, propagated by people who are impatient to sell their books, advertise their YouTube channels, or secure several speaking gigs upfront. Not surprisingly, and as coincidence would have it, most of these modern prophets gravitate around the bay area of San Francisco, where levels of anxiety, addiction and unhealthy behavior are on the rise. In this article, we explore a new type of intermittent fasting, called a dopamine fast, which supposedly relates to mental health. But does dopamine fasting work, or is it just another fad? Well, let’s find out.
Before discussing the effectiveness of dopamine fasting, let’s us first familiarize ourselves with the ailment it is supposed to remedy. As they say, necessity is the mother of all invention, so what on Earth has motivated people to adopt such a radical lifestyle change? Answering this question gives us the idea behind dopamine fasting, which will help us discuss whether dopamine fasting is a fad, or perhaps a legitimate practice.
Dopamine fasting is, according to the words of Cameron Sepah, PhD, “the antidote to our overstimulated age”. Sepah is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. He has developed this idea that abstinence from stimulating activities, which trigger strong amounts of dopamine release, allows for better brain recovery and restoration.
However, as with everything else in the Bay area, legitimate ideas often fall in the hands of complete wackos. The initially proposed dopamine fast, therefore, is not descriptive of the practice that is widely adopted among young people.
So, does dopamine fasting work? Well, we have to answer this twice because there are two separate ideas shaping the rules of a dopamine fast. But first, let’s understand how dopamine works, and how it affects the brain’s reward system.
What is dopamine, and how does it affect mental health?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain. Its basic role is to act as a chemical messenger between neurons, thus affecting many psychological and even physical processes taking place in our mind and body.
People mistakenly label dopamine as the pleasure chemical, when in fact it covers a broader scope of psychological processes related to motivation, reward, anticipation and, yes, pleasure as well.
Dopamine production starts to spike after external triggers reveal the opportunity for a certain activity associated with pleasure. Anticipation of this activity raises dopamine levels, and rewards you for doing it by spiking highest the moment you engage with it. Then, dopamine levels gradually decline, as you go about your day looking for the next reward opportunity.
If you think that this cycle maps out the addiction pattern, you are not mistaken. In a way, dopamine fasting is a code name for cognitive behavioral therapy associated with the reduction of rewarding and pleasurable activities.
Is dopamine fasting legit?
Well, the concept described above does not negate the need for all pleasurable activities. Instead, it focuses on unproductive behaviors related to your diet, spending, and leisure activities, not the least of which is social media and smartphone use.
The idea behind a dopamine fast is simple – the more you reduce these unproductive habits, the more you condition your brain’s reward system.
After all, addictions can become reinforced through the same behavioral mechanism, so flipping it upside down seems relevant to addressing some of them.
Millennia ago, the stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote of a practice similar to the modern idea of a dopamine detox. Religious scripture also explored this area by introducing the orthodox fast, where abstention from sex, meat, dairy, added fats, unproductive behavior and impure thought were to last for month and a half. As with modern behavioral conditioning, the life of a devoted follower was instead filled with more productive endeavors as well as prayer (reading and self-examination as per the stoics).
Does dopamine fasting work as a cognitive behavioral therapy?
Cameron Sepah describes his dopamine fast as a way to reduce unproductive behavior. Restraining from things that activate the anticipation-reward system is just one way to do it.
In this regard, fighting off impulses does seem to work. In fact, the same framework governs the idea behind cognitive behavioral therapy for the most part.
However, when this concept gets blended together with the practice of intermittent fasting, all sorts of nonsense seems to break loose. Misunderstanding science creates all types of fad diets, and this just happens to be the one that is popular in Silicon Valley.
Dopamine fasting is a fad
Dopamine interacts with other neurotransmitters and hormones, making dopamine levels in the brain tightly connected to overall homeostasis. As one study notes, even sleep can affect dopamine production.
Deficiencies have been studied as well, and they may contribute to difficulties in concentrating, reduced alertness, lack of motivation and enthusiasm.
Too much dopamine, however, is known to play a role in obesity and addiction. Certain drugs affect the neurotransmitter cycle as well.
However, doing a digital detox, which is a popular form of dopamine fasting, or cutting off stimulation for 24 hours, can affect your dopamine production mechanism only temporarily.
Restraining yourself from doing anything pleasurable is not a healthy routine to adopt, albeit in short and far away intervals. Marcus Aurelius, the stoic who proposed such ideas, though revolutionary for his time, did not have the same understanding of neuroscience or psychology.
An alternative to dopamine detox
Behavioral changes take weeks or even months to establish, and this is indicative of how our brain chemistry works. Notable improvements in mental health cannot be related to a 24 hour dopamine fast, i.e. the overall reduction of stimuli. You cannot fast from a naturally occurring brain chemical.
A better approach, instead of a detox, would be to reduce unproductive yet pleasurable behavior over time; even better if the habits in question are replaced by something healthy, yet rewarding. Exercise is one example. it might feel unappealing at first, but you will quickly readjust your reward mechanism in the brain to anticipate the following workout with somewhat of an excitement. I have discussed this previously when reviewing online workout streaming services like Beachbody on Demand and Daily Burn.
This is the original idea behind dopamine fasting, proposed by Cameron Sepah. Adjusting yourself to a new schedule of delayed gratification would not rest, but alter levels of dopamine in the brain. And this is contrary to what is popular in Silicon Valley.
Remember, your goal is not to reset your brain’s reward system, because this is not something that exists within the purview of science. Your goal is to use this reward system as your ally, helping you establish new and productive behaviors.
Meditation practice, known as mindfulness, is a great daily habit that will allow you to become aware of triggers and impulses on which you would usually react by seeking a pleasurable activity. The skill of mindfulness would open numerous opportunities for redirecting your motivation and reward mechanism, thus reconditioning your habitual behaviors. This is much more preferable than doing a lengthy stimulation fast.
Well, let us conclude this topic by being blunt. Does dopamine fasting work? Apparently no – at least not in the way people subscribe to the practice. However, restraining from pleasurable activities that you know not to be healthy and productive, can be immensely beneficial. Remember, though, that fasting is not the preferred way of remedying addicting behavior that would persist after the detox window all the same. Instead, try reducing the activities in question, and replace them with something more productive.