Everything you need to know about Dopamine detox

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which creates motivation in the brain for various activities such as exercise, talking and TV. It rewards us for behaviours which we find enjoyable and so tells us that they are worth repeating. In the time before tech that was fine, it’s good to want to swim, talk, read or run more; but the tech CEOs of Silicon Valley have taken it one step farther by deliberately creating software which gives us a dopamine hit. So, dopamine fasting is a new trend which took off at the end of the last decade to avoid all of those behaviours in order to ‘reset’ your brain. Now, I don’t know about you but the idea of not talking, reading and just sitting inside bored for a weekend doesn’t appeal. Dopamine is a natural chemical so why don’t we just manage our dopamine the way our grandparents did?

A dopamine detox entails fasting from dopamine producing activities, or “pleasures,” for a certain amount of time with the hope of decreasing reward sensitivity. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this method.

Those who attempt a dopamine detox aim to detach themselves from everyday stimuli, such as social media, sugar, or shopping. They are replaced in favor of less impulsive habits and lifestyle choices. The fast can last for a few hours or several days.

It is very important to note that a dopamine detox is not a scientifically researched approach. Evidence of any benefits is anecdotal, and most benefits come from refraining from potentially addictive activities. However, they are not related to actually detoxing from dopamine.

The entire concept of a “dopamine detox” is scientifically incorrect, and reduces the brain to a very simplistic level. It is, in fact, far more complex that this “dopamine detox” trend suggests.

Dopamine

Dr. Cameron Sepah is the creator of the dopamine fast, or detox. He commonly uses the technique in clinical practice on tech workers and venture capitalists. Dr. Sepah’s goal is to rid his clients of their dependence on certain stimuli, such as phone alerts, texts, and social media notifications. Much of his research around this new practice was based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). What he was trying to accomplish with this concept is different from what people have come to understand that “dopamine detox” is.

The general concept behind Dr. Sepah’s “detox” is for people to let themselves feel lonely or bored, or to try simpler activities instead of reaching for quick “hits” of dopamine. Ideally, people will start to notice how certain stimuli might distract them.

Dr. Sepah identifies six compulsive behaviors as targets of the dopamine detox:

  • thrill and novelty seeking
  • recreational drugs
  • emotional eating
  • excessive internet usage and gaming
  • gambling and shopping
  • porn and masturbation

By fasting from these activities that trigger the brain’s neurotransmitters, people become less dependent on the emotional “hits” that dopamine provides, which can sometimes lead to dependence or addiction.

Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter in the brain. It is naturally produced by the body as a chemical messenger, and it affects many behavioral and physical functions, including:

sleep

  • mood
  • attention
  • learning
  • motivation

An excess or deficiency in dopamine production can cause mental health conditions. Exposure to overwhelming levels of stimuli can prompt such disorders, leading to dependencies on certain substances or activities.

How to do Dopamine fasting right

The kind of hits we get from social media and technology are fast and repetitive, so we’d recommend for the ideal dopamine fast you do a digital detox and try to replace the time you would be on your phone with slow-release enjoyable activities. But, just taking away your phone may not necessarily limit your dopamine if you spend your time watching TV or playing video games – so try and go properly analogue. Think bored teenager in the 80s! You could go for a swim, read a book or cook a long dinner. Anything away from quick gratification will give you the satisfaction of dopamine but in a far healthier and more productive way than simply a ‘like’. You could even use this time to reset your morning routine or incorporate more elements of reflection and exercise to an already busy life, perhaps a dopamine fast will even help you find time for a new resolution.

Does a dopamine detox work?

During a dopamine detox, a person avoids dopamine triggers for a set period of time — anywhere from an hour to several days.

The dopamine detox requires a person to avoid any kind of arousal, specifically from pleasure triggers. Anything that stimulates dopamine production is off-limits throughout the detox.

Ideally, by the end of the detox, a person will feel more centered, balanced, and less affected by their usual dopamine triggers. However, it is important to note that a true dopamine detox, whereby a person successfully halts all dopamine activity in the brain, is not possible.

The human body naturally produces dopamine, even when it is not exposed to certain stimuli. A more accurate description of the dopamine detox is a period of abstinence, or “unplugging” from the world.

Doing so may have positive effects on those who implement the practice from time to time. However, the term “dopamine detox” by its very nature is problematic, and not at all scientifically correct. Dr. Sepah himself says the name is not meant to be interpreted literally.

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Does a dopamine detox have benefits?

We have already clarified that a complete and total detox from naturally-occurring dopamine is not possible.

That said, the decision to unplug and detach from certain impulsive behaviors may come with some health benefits, one of which is the potential for heightened focus and greater mental clarity.

Dopamine is often distracting, and may be a hindrance for some people from achieving their goals. It is what prompts the excessive repetition of certain feel-good behaviors, causing people to scroll mindlessly on social media or binge-watch their favorite TV shows.

These unnecessary compulsions detract from spending time more productively on work, health goals, home organization, and more. When people actively avoid these distractions, they may free up more time for the things that matter more to them.

In short, a dopamine detox is not technically possible, and any evidence of its positive effects are purely anecdotal.

However, by avoiding certain behaviors, such as spending hours scrolling through a smartphone and social media sites, people may be able to achieve a greater state of mindfulness which comes with its own benefits. Among these are stress relief, lower blood pressure, and improved sleep.

Bottom Line

The misunderstood version of the “dopamine detox” is little more than a fad, with no scientific evidence to support its effectiveness.

A true “dopamine detox” is impossible because the brain continues to produce dopamine all the time. However, refraining from activities that stem from compulsion and impulse may prove beneficial for short periods of time.

Since many of the activities and substances people turn to can become addictive over time, a bit of distancing from outlets such as social media, fast food, and mindless TV can have an overall positive impact on a person’s mind and lifestyle.

Other practices such as meditation may be a far more effective way to achieve a better state of mindfulness, as a “dopamine detox” is not a scientifically proven method, and is at best misleading by definition.

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