In the same brand of pop culture shorthand that labels oxytocin the “love hormone” and cortisol the “stress hormone,” dopamine is classified as the “reward” chemical we deliver ourselves a dose of every time we experience something pleasurable. Of course, real life is never that simple.
So-called “dopamine fasting” is supposed to be a way to detox ourselves from addictive behaviors, and the trend began with a modest suggestion from a psychiatrist that maybe some of us should take breaks from stuff we spend too much time with (like social media). But that psychiatrist gave it a dumb name—he admits it’s not really about dopamine—and that dumb name is what took off in popularity. Now we live in a world where people are trying to avoid literally every pleasure in life in the name of “detoxing” from dopamine.
What is dopamine?
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Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, one of the chemicals that brain cells make to communicate with each other. Dopamine is involved in reward pathways in the brain, but it is also involved in other functions, like coordinating movement. Parkinson’s disease owes its tremors and stiffness to the brain’s decline in dopamine-producing cells, for example. Dopamine can also relax or constrict blood vessels (depending on context), increase sodium removal from the body, and slow movement in the digestive system, to name a few of its less-popularly-known functions.
Even in the brain pathways it’s most famous for, it doesn’t just signal a reward. As neuroscience researcher Kim Hellemans explained to Psych Central, it makes more sense to think of dopamine’s role in learning as a “pay attention” signal:
For example, “here is a hamburger, [so I] must remember [the] sight/smell/taste of this so next time I am hungry, I can plan to eat this tasty food item.” Or, as another example, “here is a bear, [so I] must remember this environment so I can avoid it in the future.”
We don’t actually want to reduce our ability to learn about dangers, or even to identify tasty foods. We certainly don’t want to mess with our body’s sodium balance or motor coordination. So the focus on dopamine in “dopamine fasting” is a bit misplaced.
What is “dopamine fasting” supposed to do?
In the Medium post that set off the trend in 2019, psychiatrist Cameron Sepah proposed dopamine fasting as a solution to compulsive behaviors we engage in when we feel bored or sad. He describes it as, essentially, a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, and suggests that you make yourself a schedule of “fasting” and “feasting” times. For example, if you compulsively check social media, you might “fast” from it every evening after work, and allow yourself a short “feast” time during some other window of the day.
But this moderate approach is not what became famous; the name became famous, and with it, all kinds of assumptions that follow from it. If we’re really fasting from dopamine (and if we associate dopamine purely with pleasure) we would have to eliminate everything that is enjoyable or fun from our lives.
Eliminating enjoyment is exactly what legions of aspiring biohackers understood “dopamine fasting” to mean. Here’s a guy who stopped listening to music, because he likes listening to music. Here are two dopamine fasters discussing whether it’s okay to use your phone for work-related purposes during a fast.
What does dopamine fasting actually do to your body?
Fans of dopamine fasting often talk about “detoxing” from dopamine or increasing their body’s sensitivity to it, so they can feel more pleasure from mundane things. They seem to be extrapolating from the concept of a “tolerance break,” which makes sense for things like THC or caffeine use; your body will become more sensitive to the effects of those chemicals if you go without them for a while. But there’s no such correlation with dopamine. Remember, your body produces it. You can’t actually cut yourself off.
The effects of a dopamine “fast” don’t have much to do with dopamine, but with whatever you do during the time you believe you are fasting. If you follow Sepah’s original suggestion, you might unplug on the weekends and spend more time with your family and friends. That would likely benefit your mental health. Maybe you would end up exercising or getting outside more (touching grass, literally) which would benefit your physical health as well.
But if you take the idea of the dopamine fast literally, you might end up avoiding pleasurable things that are neutral or even good for you, like social interactions, going outside, reading books, exercising, eating foods that you like, and, yes, listening to music.
Hardcore dopamine fasters tend to talk about meditating all day and/or getting more work done. This isn’t a picture of physical or mental health: rest and relaxation are part of the normal human experience. If you feel like you’re spending too much time on your phone, you can work on ways to reduce your doomscrolling time. There’s no need to commit to quitting everything that brings you joy.