What is a dopamine detox and does it actually work? This article discusses what a dopamine fast is and isn’t, and delves into how we can lead more meaningful and engaging lives.

Share

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on whatsapp
  • 17 June 2022

Do you feel like a slave to technology? Is your life driven by the constant buzz of incoming texts and emails? Do you sometimes wonder if you might be addicted to technology? Perhaps your phone, your laptop, your smartwatch, or all those notifications? If so, the term “dopamine detox” may ring a bell. It has been trending, with many people around the world hopping on the bandwagon. The international media has been all over it too. Despite its popularity, however, the concept of a dopamine fast has been largely misunderstood by the masses.

This article explains why a dopamine detox, when understood literally, does not work. It is not just illogical, but scientifically inaccurate. It then introduces the original intention behind the concept of a dopamine fast, as its creator intended. This is based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Lastly, the article discusses some ways in which you may lead a more meaningful and engaged life.

What is a Dopamine Detox?

Dopamine detox, understood literally, does not work. But taking intentional breaks from behaviours that may otherwise be compulsive can be potentially beneficial in the long run.

An Introduction to Dopamine

What is a dopamine detox? To address this, let’s begin by introducing what dopamine is. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is made in your brain, and neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in your body. Simply put, they transport messages across spaces (ie synapses), from a nerve cell to another nerve, muscle, or cell. Dopamine plays a role in various crucial bodily functions. Examples include cognition, memory, focus and attention, movement, behaviour, mood, thinking and planning, and reward and motivation. Dopamine is also a vasodilator, meaning that it helps blood vessels expand and constrict. On top of that, dopamine is associated with your body’s sodium and insulin levels, and lymphocyte activity. 

Links have been found between too high or too low levels of dopamine and both mental health and physical health conditions. Conditions associated with lower than usual levels of dopamine include depression, Parkinson’s Disease, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and restless leg syndrome. With low levels of dopamine, one might feel moody, tired, and unmotivated. Conditions tied to higher than usual levels of dopamine include obesity, mania, and addiction. Someone with high levels of dopamine might feel energised and euphoric. However, the downsides might be difficulty sleeping and poor impulse control. A person with a good level of dopamine might feel motivated, focused, and happy.

Dopamine is often associated with feelings of pleasure and wellbeing. You’ve probably heard that dopamine is a “happy hormone”. But what does that really mean? How does it work? Let’s dive a little deeper into this.

It’s all about rewards. This much is true. But this is also where misconceptions start.

The Role of Dopamine

Dopamine’s role is NOT to make you feel pleasure, as commonly believed. The ones truly responsible for you feeling pleasure are the brain’s opioids. The opioids in your brain work to increase pleasure and block pain. What dopamine actually does, is flag to you that the activity that you’re about to participate in, is going to make you feel pleasure. It helps you notice and remember such an activity. Why? So that you may rinse and repeat. This is how dopamine helps with rewards and learning. In other words, dopamine is about helping your brain to recognise that rewards are pleasurable. A key point to note, then, is that a lack of dopamine does not equate to an experience being less pleasurable.

It is clear that dopamine has a key role in seeking pleasure. It is thus no surprise that experts have contemplated dopamine’s role in explaining addiction. Specifically, some experts have suggested that dopamine conditions one’s brain to seek pleasurable experiences and avoid unpleasant ones.

Original Intent for Dopamine Detox

Unfortunately, people have taken the words “dopamine detox” literally. They then try to “fast” from activities associated with pleasure or dopamine. It was assumed that these were the “dopamine detox rules”. This was not what the creator of the term, Dr Cameron Sepah, had intended at all. The original intention was based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (commonly known as CBT), an evidence-based approach. 

The idea was NOT to fast from dopamine itself, but to practise fasting from addictive behaviours that are reinforced by dopamine. 

Specifically, Dr Sepah listed six compulsive behaviours as follows: 

  • emotional eating;
  • excessive internet use and gaming;
  • gambling and shopping;
  • pornography and masturbation;
  • thrill and novelty seeking; and 
  • the use of recreational drugs.

On top of these, dopamine fasting may be used to address any other behaviour that might be adversely impacting one’s life.

A Dopamine Fast

We can do a dopamine fast by taking breaks from such compulsive behaviours. This is where the term “fast” comes from. These breaks can be anywhere from one hour a day to one week a year. During a dopamine fast, we can partake in simpler and more natural activities. This includes allowing ourselves to experience boredom, for instance. Breaks should also be planned in a way that fits in with our lifestyle and causes minimal disruption.

It’s important for us to clarify what dopamine fasting is not. Again, it is NOT about fasting from dopamine. The point is to fast from addictive or compulsive behaviours. This is a crucial distinction. Dopamine fasting is not about avoiding all sources of stimulation or pleasure. Instead, the target should be behaviours that you think are problematic for you. What one individual considers to be a problematic behaviour in their life might not be an issue at all for another person. Dopamine fasting is not about removing social interaction or exercise. Quite the opposite, actually. You are encouraged to partake in activities that are aligned with your personal values and that are good for your health. Dopamine fasting is not a new type of meditation or sabbatical. No meditation is involved. You also do not need to stop working.

Take time to explore and find out what truly engages you. Keeping up may trends may not always work.

Does Dopamine Detox Actually Work?

The short answer is – like most things, it depends. When understood literally, no. With the right understanding of what a dopamine fast actually is, yes.

Fasting from dopamine itself is not just scientifically inaccurate; it is impossible. Why? We have already noted that a lack of dopamine does not equate to an experience being less pleasurable. Also, when you avoid a pleasurable activity, your dopamine level does not drop. Given this, a dopamine detox or fast does not actually make sense, from a logical standpoint.

The original intention behind a dopamine fast, however, as intended by Dr Sepah, is feasible, and potentially beneficial when done right. The idea is to take intentional breaks from behaviours that might otherwise become compulsive, and to take them in a manner that is least disruptive to one’s lifestyle. The targeted outcome? Behavioural flexibility and hence better control over our lives. 

What You Can Do

Keep in mind that what is trendy is not necessarily true. Just because an idea has gained traction does not mean that everyone has understood it right. In fact, studies have shown that people tend to prefer scientific explanations – such as neuroscience – even if those explanations are logically irrelevant. This is known as the seductive allure effect. One study showed that this holds true across various scientific disciplines, whenever the explanations involved reductive information. Reductive information is reference to smaller components or fundamental processes.

Therefore, instead of focusing on the latest trends, one may want to explore and find out what works for you specifically. This may very well be the original dopamine fast (based on CBT) as intended by Dr Sepah. Or it may be something else that works for you. 

Think about your own life circumstances. What is your current situation? What do you need? Be creative. Opinions of those close to you may be helpful too. How might you be able to engage in life more meaningfully? What are some other ways to achieve the same outcomes? Find out what works for you specifically, given your situation and needs.

professional therapist can help you to explore these questions and more. A common misconception is that a person needs to have “major enough” problems before entering therapy. That is not true at all. People go to therapy for all sorts of reasons, including self-improvement. As long as it is something that matters to you, you can talk it through with a professional therapist. People often report greater self-awareness and better coping after a few sessions of professional therapy.

Conclusion: "Dopamine Detox: Does It Work?"

A dopamine detox, as many misunderstand it to be, is scientifically and logically inaccurate. It was never about reducing dopamine levels. This is because when we engage less in pleasurable activities, our dopamine levels do not decrease. Hence, it is not actually possible to “fast” from dopamine. What works, however, is fasting from compulsive behaviours that are problematic for us individually. Dr Sepah’s non-exhaustive list of six compulsive behaviours includes emotional eating, excessive internet use and gaming, gambling and shopping, pornography and masturbation, thrill and novelty seeking, and the use of recreational drugs.

A fast can last anywhere from one hour a day to one week per year, depending on individual needs. Fasting should be done in a way that is compatible with one’s lifestyle. When done correctly, the intended outcome of a dopamine fast is greater behavioural flexibility. This would allow a person to regain more control over their life. Unfortunately, misunderstandings of the terms “dopamine detox” and “dopamine detox benefits” run wild. Keep in mind that as alluring as trending topics may seem, always verify their sources. Do what works for you. All the best!

When a dopamine detox is done right, the outcome is behavioural flexibility and greater control over your life.

Frequently Asked Questions

Dopamine Detox: How does it work?

The original intention behind a dopamine fast, as intended by Dr Sepah, is to take intentional breaks and allow ourselves to address compulsive behaviours that potentially have a negative consequence in our lives. Dr Sepah lists six compulsive behaviours, although the concept may be applied to any behaviour with a potentially adverse consequence to oneself. The six compulsive behaviours are: emotional eating, excessive internet use and gaming, gambling and shopping, pornography and masturbation, thrill and novelty seeking, and the use of recreational drugs. The concept was based on CBT, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The targeted outcome? Better control over our lives.

How long does it take to detox from dopamine?

A dopamine detox, taken literally, is logically and scientifically not possible. This is because although our dopamine levels increase when we engage in pleasurable activities, our dopamine levels do not drop when we take a break from activities we associate with pleasure. Therefore, it is just not possible to “fast” from dopamine.

What can I do during dopamine detox?

While there are no strict rules to adhere to, here are some suggestions you may wish to consider.

Put away anything that makes the fast harder for you. For example, if the behaviour you are trying to fast from is automatically responding to notifications on your phone, put your phone somewhere you won’t be able to access easily.

During a dopamine fast, choose to engage in an activity that makes the compulsive behaviour difficult. For instance, if your compulsive behaviour is emotional eating, try swimming laps in a pool. Imagine how challenging it would be to eat food while underwater.

Find ways to make yourself accountable. What would help minimise the chance of you backing out midway? You may also seek help from those around you. In what ways could they support you?

Alternatively, allow yourself to experience the urge to engage in the compulsive behaviour, without giving in. For example, allow the thought of checking your phone for notifications to cross your mind, but don’t actually check your phone. Let the thought float by without judging it. Pay attention to what other thoughts come up.

It is easier to start small. For instance, try one hour a day. If that is manageable for you, you can increase the duration as you deem fit. With enough practice, you’ll be well on your way to behavioural flexibility!

What happens after dopamine detox?

Many people have misunderstood the idea behind a dopamine detox and taken the term literally. People have ended up avoiding activities they enjoy, thinking (mistakenly) that this would reduce their dopamine levels. This might even include avoiding hobbies and not spending time with loved ones. This is far from the original intention behind a dopamine detox, as intended by its creator. When done right, the outcome is behavioural flexibility and for you to have more control over your life.

Why is dopamine detox so hard?

A dopamine detox, taken literally, is difficult because it is simply not possible. As mentioned above, although our dopamine levels increase when we engage in pleasurable activities, our dopamine levels do not drop when we take a break from activities we associate with pleasure. Therefore, we can’t actually “detox” from dopamine.

What happens if you have too much dopamine?

Conditions associated with higher than usual levels of dopamine include obesity, mania, and addiction. Someone with high levels of dopamine might feel energised and euphoric. However, the downsides might be difficulty sleeping and poor impulse control. While some studies have shown that schizophrenia is associated with higher levels of dopamine, other studies have shown an association between schizophrenia and lower levels of dopamine.

Can you get addicted to dopamine?

You can’t get addicted to dopamine per se. It is a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter in your brain. That said, it is possible for you to be addicted to activities that are associated with higher levels of dopamine.

How long does it take the brain to recover from addiction to dopamine?

The concept of being addicted to dopamine is scientifically inaccurate, as dopamine is created in your brain naturally.

What are some dopamine detox side effects?

Misunderstanding the science behind a dopamine fast has led to adverse outcomes for many, possibly without them even realising it. For example, this occurs when people mistakenly think that part of a dopamine detox is avoiding interacting with other people.

How can I do a dopamine detox for studying?

When considering a dopamine detox for studying, what do you hope to achieve? Improved focus and concentration? Motivation? Better memory and recall? Creativity? There are many ways to get to the same outcomes. Consider leading a more balanced lifestyle. Get enough sleep. Eat well. Engage in mindful practices. Or speak to a professional therapist about what might be holding you back.

Is dopamine fasting a way to fix your brain or just a fad?

Understood literally (ie reducing dopamine levels), it is a fad. But understood correctly (ie focus on problematic behaviours), dopamine fasting can help you to regain more control over your life by improving your behavioural flexibility.