Dopamine Fasting: Fad or Science?
Can dopamine fasting actually help cure you of unhealthy addictions? Or is it simply a fancy-named way to kid ourselves? Is it worthy? Can it be harmful? Is this thing really a thing? Healing Properties asks the experts.
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter, says WebMD. Our bodies makes it. And our nervous systems use it to send messages between nerve cells. That’s why it’s sometimes called a chemical messenger.
As everyone knows, dopamine plays a large role in how we feel pleasure. It’s also a big part of our unique human ability to think and to plan. It helps us strive, focus, and find things interesting. Dopamine also plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. The anticipation of most types of rewards increases the level of dopamine in the brain. So do addictive drugs such as cocaine, heroin and other opioids. Drugs mimic dopamine’s inherent pleasure — faster, stronger and longer.
Dopamine effects much more than the pleasure principle. In fact, it works all kinds of physiological wonders, including widening blood vessels, helping kidneys function, reducing insulin production in the pancreas and protecting the gastrointestinal tract.
Consequently, a dopamine system malfunction can cause all kinds of hell to break loose. Parkinson’s Disease can develop when there’s a dopamine shortage, so can ADHD. Conversely schizophrenia may occur when there’s too much or inconsistent dopamine activity.
What is Dopamine Fasting
Dopamine fasting was created by California psychiatrist Dr. Cameron Sepah. Name to the contrary, it has very little to do with either fasting or dopamine.
So says Dr. Peter Grinspoon anyway, who expressed his reservations in Harvard Health. But, Grinspoon noted, even Sepah believed the term “dopamine fasting” was just a catchy title.
“Dopamine is just a mechanism that explains how addictions can become reinforced,” said Sepah. “And “dopamine fasting” makes for a catchy title. It’s not to be taken literally though.”
Nevertheless, misconceptions began from the get. It wasn’t Sepah’s fault, claims Grinspoon. In fact, his motives were pure. And the idea was a sound one too.
“What Sepah intended with his dopamine fast was a method, based on cognitive behavioral therapy, by which we can become less dominated by the unhealthy stimuli — the texts, the notifications, the beeps, the rings — that accompany living in a modern, technology-centric society,” writes the doc. “Instead of automatically responding to these reward-inducing cues, which provide us with an immediate but short-lived charge, we ought to allow our brains to take breaks and reset from this potentially addictive bombardment. The idea is that by allowing ourselves to feel lonely or bored, or to find pleasures in doing simpler and more natural activities, we will regain control over our lives and be better able to address compulsive behaviors that may be interfering with our happiness.”
Compulsion, Compulsion, Compulsion
Sepah cited six compulsive behaviors: emotional eating, excessive internet usage and gaming, gambling and shopping, porn and masturbation, thrill and novelty seeking, and recreational drugs. “But,” he added, “dopamine fasting can be used to help control any behaviors that are causing you distress or negatively affecting your life.”
So what’s the problem? Well, to begin with, “you can’t ‘fast’ from a naturally-occurring brain chemical.” Sure dopamine rises when you experience pleasure. But it doesn’t subside when you don’t. So no, you won’t get a bigger jolt from that Instagram selfie after not posting for a week.
Still, that doesn’t seem to be a problem. And it isn’t. Not left at that. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a break from social media or any other compulsive behavior. In fact, it’s highly recommended by mindful folks everywhere.
The problem is when a person takes dopamine fasting to its extreme. And that’s just what happened. People started completely cutting themselves off from other people. They stopped eating and exercising, listening to music and even talking more than necessary. Some went so far as to not allow themselves to be photographed if there’s a flash. (Not sure if that applied to selfies.) In other words, they avoided any kind of human interaction whatsoever.
But that’s not what Sepah intended. Sure dopamine fasting is about eliminating activities — unhealthy activities. But there’s no need to get carried away. Furthermore, it’s about supplanting those unhealthy activities with things like, well, human interaction. Now dopamine fasters were depriving themselves of healthy things for no reason whatsoever.
Yes, dopamine fasting can be beneficial. But not when it’s simply trading one compulsion for another. Instead, treat the notion as it was intended — as a severe break from the tech-driven life. Cutting the ties that bind us into knots. Better yet, look at dopamine fasting as an adding rather than a subtraction. A method of enrichment rather than denial. Whatever the perspective, use it to increase personal time with your friends and your family, or even quiet time with yourself. You’ll most definitely be better for the effort.
Dopamine Fasting and Recovery
How does dopamine fasting affect folks who are in recovery? Well, as you’ve probably already suspected, the idea is actually founded upon addiction treatment protocols. In fact, you might say people in recovery have been “dopamine fasting” since addiction treatment began. We simply call it “detox.”
Here however we’re not talking about a period of abstinence; we’re talking about abstinence. Period. Recovery folks don’t merely want to temper their drug and alcohol consumption; they want to eliminate it completely. Why? Because their very lives depend upon it.
Whatever the problem compulsion, it’s crucial to get at the root of the addictive behavior. The so-called triggers that spark substance abuse, as well as the social situations that serve as addiction catalysts. This is where therapy comes into play, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). And enlisting the services of a certified mental health professional is by far the best way to avoid relapse.
Dopamine Fasting 2.0: Overcome Addiction and Restore Motivation
Want to watch a quick summary on the pros and cons of dopamine fasting? Then check out this After Skool special from Brandon Nankivell of One Percent Better. OPB provides delightfully-animated book summaries, primarily in the wealth and success sector. Here the clever cat provides a keen summation on the dopamine fasting fad.