Illustration: Matija Medved

Optimize Me

Everyone is Wrong About Dopamine Fasting

Avoiding pleasurable activities to reset the brain’s ‘reward chemical’ sounds great. Too bad that’s not how dopamine works.

Welcome to Optimize Me, a new Elemental column exploring (and fact-checking) the weirdest self-improvement trends.

“In an instance of the Bay Area being very Bay Area: today was my first day in SF since moving here, and I ran into someone from my YC batch who told me he was on a ‘dopamine fast’ and thus had to cut our convo short (lest he acquire too much dopamine)”

ItIt was the tweet that launched a dozen take-downs: Look at how ridiculous these Silicon Valley bros are being now! WTF is dopamine fasting?!

The practice is ostensibly the avoidance of any pleasurable or exciting stimuli in order to recalibrate the brain’s “reward” chemical. In other words, you temporarily swear off food, sex, drugs, music, exercise, conversation, email, internet — anything that could trigger the release of the neurotransmitter. (There is no agreed-upon dopamine fasting regimen, though most people tend to follow the restrictions for 24 hours.)

Dopamine fasting stems from the idea that a constant barrage of junk food, porn, social media, recreational drugs, online shopping, and even professional success have dulled people’s appreciation of the small pleasures in life. The hope is that intermittent bouts of asceticism will clear out the chemical receptors and reset dopamine levels in the brain, allowing people to experience and enjoy the small bursts in dopamine that come from everyday life instead of only responding to the large manufactured surges.

There’s only one problem: That’s not how dopamine works.

“This idea that dopamine is the buzz, the rush, the pleasure signal and all that... there’s no evidence that [those feelings are] linked to dopamine at all!” says Jeff Dalley, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Cambridge who’s studied the chemical for more than 20 years. Instead, he says, dopamine is “the stuff that happens beforehand, the appetitive motivation. The actual liking and all the hedonic effects we think is probably the opioid system.”

“Dopamine-Mediated Impulsive Behavior Fasting doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it?”

Dopamine, like all neurochemicals, is involved in many processes throughout the brain and body. It is most notoriously implicated in drug addiction, which led people to believe that dopamine was a pleasure chemical. But in fact, scientists see the biggest dopamine surge in anticipation of a reward, not in response to one. Researchers now believe that dopamine is a salient signal telling the brain what to pay attention to. This fits with one of the neurochemical’s other important roles: facilitating learning. Dopamine teaches the brain to repeat a behavior or experience that was pleasurable or beneficial, but it doesn’t contribute to the feeling of pleasure itself.

While the term “dopamine fasting” is a misnomer, the practice isn’t completely without scientific backing.

“It’s not entirely idiotic,” says Peter Sterling, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. “These ideas of resetting by reducing overstimulation do make a certain kind of a biological sense; they’re allowing the system to reset the sensitivity.”

It’s true that when the brain or body are overloaded with a chemical, that chemical’s receptors can become overexerted. As a result, the receptors either become desensitized to the chemical, or get sucked back into the cell and are no longer accessible. A classic example of this is insulin resistance, where cells stop responding to the hormone after years of being inundated with it. But that only happens in cases of extreme, prolonged exposure.

“If you have really intense stimulation, i.e. psycho-stimulant drugs — cocaine, amphetamine — and you take those drugs consistently for a long period of time, [the neurotransmitter] systems become exhausted,” Dalley says. “But I would question whether just everyday sensations would be sufficient in magnitude to have any lasting effect on any system. I mean, [the neurotransmitters have] adapted to have sensation in our lives.”

It’s the extreme cases that Cameron Sepah, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, says he was targeting when he claims to have popularized the phrase “dopamine fasting” in August of this year. (A Vox article attributes the original idea to Greg Kamphuis, who published A 40 Day Dopamine Fast in February 2017; a Vice article attributes it to the YouTube channel Improvement Pill, which first posted about dopamine fasting in November 2018.) Many of Sepah’s clients report having behavioral addictions to things like the internet or their smartphones. But complete abstinence — the standard protocol for substance use disorders — from these technologies is impractical given professional or personal demands. So he started recommending “a moderation-focused, time-based protocol” to try to reduce people’s time spent on the problematic behavior.

The practice was intended to be an exercise in self-control to break the bad habits that dopamine can help to ingrain, not to be a monastic exercise in deprivation. In a blog post on the topic, Sepah writes, “To be clear, we ARE NOT fasting from dopamine itself, but from impulsive behaviors reinforced by it.”

So what about that unfortunate name? When asked why he termed the practice “dopamine fasting,” Sepah responded via email, “Dopamine-Mediated Impulsive Behavior Fasting doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it? If I had known the media would have caused such confusion, I probably would have [called it something else]. But cat’s out of the bag.”

At the end of the day, spending less time on our vices (and our devices) is probably good for all of us, and it certainly isn’t causing any harm. So get off your phones, get outside, read a book — just don’t call it dopamine fasting.

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental

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