Why A Full "Dopamine Detox" Isn't Possible & What To Do Instead
The terms detox and cleanse can be eye-catching, as their modern definition implies a better, healthier you on the other side of whatever program you've signed up for. But are they ever actually more beneficial than simply working on healthier habits one day at a time?
This is one of the many questions I had when learning about the dopamine detox—a popular method of refraining from any kind of stimulation in hopes of becoming more productive and more present all at the same time. Here's what psychiatry experts had to tell me about the potential of this buzzy detox, and how to execute it best.
What is a dopamine detox?
At its core, a dopamine detox is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)1 that involves giving up behaviors you find addictive for a short period of time—anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. This method was popularized by psychiatrist Cameron Sepah, Ph.D., and has gained more and more attention in recent times.
These addictive stimuli, according to Sepah, fall into six categories of behavior:
- Pleasure or emotional eating
- Internet or gaming
- Gambling or shopping
- Porn or masturbation
- Thrill or novelty-seeking behaviors
- Recreational drug use
Some people who have tried this "no stimulation" detox have also cut out exercise, music, socializing, and even reading (we'll dive into whether or not that's necessary in a bit). The end goal is to gain awareness and control over one's impulses to live a healthier, more present life.
Does it work?
The name dopamine detox implies that these behaviors are the only source of dopamine, and thus cutting them out will somehow rid you of the feel-good neurotransmitter—but that's not the full picture.
It's important to note that Sepah has clarified in past interviews that this term was not intended to be taken literally but unfortunately has been by many.
Experts clarify that the goal of this practice isn't to rid your life of dopamine but to change your relationship with it. "Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in the way the brain functions. It is impossible to 'detox' or rid the brain entirely of dopamine," says neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, Ph.D. She notes that it's more about practicing self-regulation than detoxification.
To be fair, high levels of dopamine have been linked to impulse-control issues and a hypercompetitive attitude. However, lower dopamine levels aren't the answer either; these have been associated with a lack of motivation.
Regardless, does cutting out your vices for a short period of time really do anything? According to a 2021 study, the dopamine detox method can be helpful in reducing impulsive behaviors, thus contributing to an overall healthier state of mind.
I doubt many people would be surprised to learn that spending time away from social media or limiting the use of recreational drugs would benefit your mental health, but nevertheless, the specific perks are quite motivating. Hafeez says that reducing the amount of time you spend on activities that overstimulate the brain leads to many benefits, including:
- Enhanced focus and attention
- Increased productivity and creativity
- Reduced mental overload
- Increased efficiency in daily tasks
- Improved well-being and self-awareness
That latter benefit comes from the time this detox gives you to turn inward and focus on yourself without any disturbances, Hafeez says.
In some addiction cases, like this 2018 study on internet addiction, dopamine detoxing seems to be beneficial. That being said, it's not something that will cure any addiction out there, especially addiction to substances.
Dopamine detox 2.0
If you want to try the dopamine detox, just know you don't have to refrain from anything and everything to reap the benefits.
As Sepah explained in his personal blog, there's a much more realistic "dopamine fasting 2.0" version that does not include the following:
- Avoiding all pleasure or stimulation
- Not socializing or speaking
- Not exercising
- Not listening to music
- Complete sensory deprivation
Instead, a realistic and beneficial dopamine detox should consist of refraining from impulses that are harmful to you and replacing them with positive behaviors—and it doesn't have to happen in one fell swoop. This is where those small yet consistent daily habits prove to be quite beneficial.
"By consciously detaching from excessive digital stimulation, embracing mindfulness practices, and rekindling your connection with simple pleasures, you can embark on a transformative dopamine detox journey," neuroscience expert and founder of BrainTap Patrick Porter, Ph.D., tells mbg.
Can you exercise?
Quick note: You do not need to give up exercise during the dopamine detox—unless you deem yourself addicted to it. (Learn more about the signs that you're using exercise as an escape here.)
"Exercise is known to increase levels of dopamine in the brain, which is a natural and healthy way to boost your mood, reduce stress, and improve overall well-being," Hafeez says. While it may be stimulating, it's not harmful.
What's more, "There is currently no scientific evidence that supports putting a pause to exercising while 'detoxing' from dopamine."
How to do the dopamine detox
Now let's dive into how to do this modified dopamine program:
- Identity your impulses: Sepah recommends limiting impulses that trigger distress (aka you're bothered by how much you do it), interfere with your daily tasks or social life, or that you've had trouble cutting down in the past.
- Block out time: Instead of totally cutting out all your impulses, set limits on when you act on them. You could experiment with doing a modified "detox" an hour before bed, in the first hour when you wake up, one day a week, one day a month, when you're on vacation, and so on—the choice is yours. Go for something you deem reasonable at first to encourage consistency. For example, you may say to yourself, "I won't go on social media between the hours of 8 and 10 p.m.," rather than cutting it out completely on your first day. You could also identify spaces that are free from your impulses, like a tech-free zone in your house.
- Build better practices: The less time you spend on impulsive behaviors, the more time you'll have available to you. Depending on your detox schedule, you may decide to incorporate new, beneficial activities into these gaps. "It could also be helpful to plan a time to meditate or journal to improve mindfulness, which allows your brain to improve focus and become more self-aware," Hafeez says. "Whether it's reading a book, creating art, playing an instrument, or having meaningful conversations with loved ones, these experiences trigger a release of dopamine in a healthier and more balanced manner," Porter adds.
If you slip up from time to time, don't be too hard on yourself—any limitation of unhealthy habits is better than nothing.
You may find that after you get used to your first set of boundaries (say, not going on your phone for an hour every day), you may be able to extend that time frame, or just experience a weaker pull to the addiction at all—those are both signs of success.
The important thing to remember is that the absence of negative stimuli makes room for positive actions, so be sure to use your newfound free time to engage in healthy activities that make you happy—not just sit there and wish you were doing something else.
While you can't literally detox your brain from dopamine, the dopamine detox does have some benefits. Most notably, limiting your use of and engagement in overstimulating activities can help you become more mindful, present, and productive. But it doesn't have to be all or nothing: A full detox from unhealthy stimuli (say, resisting the urge to go on social media for two weeks) is not the only path to success. Taking things slower and one day at a time can get you there, too—and it's much less daunting.
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty & Health Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including skin care, women’s health, mental health, sustainability, social media trends, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends and innovations, women’s health research, brain health news, and plenty more.