Forget going without food for 16 hours. The latest fasting fad, on the face of it, involves depriving yourself of all the stuff that gives you pleasure—like Netflix, online shopping sprees, and even gossiping with your friends.
It’s called dopamine fasting, and as far as wellness trends go, it’s a pretty controversial one.
It’s not clear who came up with the idea, but a life coach named Richard deserves credit for making it go viral; he posted an instructional video to his YouTube channel, Improvement Pill, in November 2018 that boasts more than 1.7 million views.
Basically, a dopamine fast is a period of abstention from sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling, social media, and, in some extreme cases, talking to other people, for at least 24 hours. The goal is to emerge from the fast with a clearer mind and a sharper focus. Many experts are skeptical.
“As an attempt to alter dopamine levels or sensitivity by changing behaviors without the benefit of scientific support, this is unlikely to have the claimed effects,” Nicole Prause, PhD, neuroscientist and CEO of brain research company Liberos, tells Health. She points out a potential downside to dopamine fasting: Take it too far, and you may be “less happy and engaged and experience less pleasure during the period of the fast, plus you may ‘fail’ the fast and experience feelings of failure or shame."
Also, pleasure isn’t the only sensation dopamine is involved with, which raises concerns about the supposed benefits of a dopamine fast. “It’s a neurotransmitter that is stimulated when a biologically relevant cue, such as something sexually arousing or aggressive, is observed,” says Prause. “Dopamine is important to learning as a reinforcement, but also to smooth movement, motivation, and other functions.”
Jumping to the defense of dopamine fasting is Cameron Sepah, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco, who published “The Definitive Guide to Dopamine Fasting 2.0—The Hot Silicon Valley Trend” on LinkedIn in August to try to clear up “public misunderstanding due to media misportrayals. [sic]”
Sepah claims that dopamine fasting isn’t actually about reducing dopamine. He describes it in his guide as “a CBT-based technique that helps people cut down on the amount of time they spend on impulsive behaviors and regain behavioral flexibility over when they do them, by restricting their use within specific periods of time.” (CBT stands for cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy.)
Instead of avoiding all stimulation, Sepah’s model recommends focusing only on specific behaviors that are problematic for you, whether that’s spending too much time on Facebook, or buying too much stuff on the internet, or whatever. “To be clear, we ARE NOT fasting from dopamine itself, but from impulsive behaviors reinforced by it,” he writes.
He wants people to see dopamine fasting as a way of restricting external stimuli (like phones and TV), and he likens it to a CBT-based technique called "stimulus control."
“Because it makes us feel good, working to increase dopamine—particularly when we feel down—through things like gratitude, exercising, doing things you enjoy, etc. is a good thing,” Catherine Jackson, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Dr. J’s Holistic Health and Wellness, tells Health. “However, too much of anything can turn to bad. For example, when you get a notification on your phone, you get instant gratification and it feels good, increasing dopamine in your brain."
"That feeling can result in impulsively reaching for and checking your phone," she continues. "This habit is not exclusive to online activities and impulsive behaviors that give you a dopamine rush can occur with anything, like eating, or even a positive behavior like exercising.”
Because dopamine is involved in reward and learning, we learn behaviors over time and engage more and more in certain actions that reinforce the reward we are looking for, explains Jackson. She believes that CBT can certainly help reduce impulsive behaviors.
“Impulsivity is reacting to stimuli quickly without thought,” she says. “CBT can help individuals think before automatically responding. Doing things like reducing and eliminating stimuli and thinking before acting are just some things that an individual can learn. However, the thought behind CBT is to change how you think and to change how you behave.”
Sepah offers two schedules in his guide: the “exclusive schedule,” for those who “want to still do the behavior during the day, but just want to cut back a bit and regain some behavioral flexibility.” There's also the “inclusive schedule,” for people who would “really like to minimize a behavior, but still want or need to do it rarely.”
While not all experts see the point of dopamine therapy or believe it works, Jackson is on board. “Most people are not able to go cold turkey and stop any given behavior,” she explains. “The slow or step down schedule delineated will be more helpful to more people, and lead to more success over time.”Bottom line: you don't really need to worry about your dopamine levels. If you can identify something in your life that you're becoming overly reliant on and it's having a negative impact, any steps you can take to abstain from it are likely to be beneficial. And if dopamine fasting isn't really about a complete avoidance of dopamine, maybe it's time the people who endorse it call it something else?
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