Dopamine Fasting Is The Latest Tech Trend You Might Already Be Doing

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One of 12 Health & Wellness trends that will shape 2020.

Thanks to our modern tech- and entertainment-filled lives, where we can pretty much access anything at any moment, our brains are constantly being stimulated, causing us to feel distracted, unmotivated, and even anxious. In fact, 210 million people are struggling with internet and social media addiction, which is associated with negative changes in multiple brain regions. Teens and young adults who log five hours a day on their phones (which is way too easy) are twice as likely to have symptoms of depression. And media multitasking (think checking emails on your laptop while watching Netflix and periodically checking Insta to see if your post got more likes) can diminish our working and long-term memory.

These are just a few reasons why there's a movement away from technology. Our 2018 wellness report called out big technology as the next big tobacco, predicting a trend in turning away from tech in favor of face-to-face time. And now, thanks to the folks of Silicon Valley (always at the forefront of biohacking), a new practice seems to take that a step further: dopamine fasting—which wants to save us from our tech addiction and a whole range of other damaging, impulsive behaviors.

What is dopamine fasting?

While there's no official definition, dopamine fasting often includes avoiding most activities that someone would find distracting or pleasurable...or distracting because they're pleasurable (think Facebook and Instagram, Netflix, hyper-palatable foods like pizza, sex, music, and even exercise) for a period of time. The idea is that this pleasure-void limits your exposure to quick bursts of dopamine—a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, reward, and motivation—now, so you can feel more pleasure later and tackle your responsibilities with newfound energy and motivation. 

Proponents, including lots of tech startup types, go to different extremes as far as what they eliminate on a dopamine fast. Some simply treat it like a digital or social media detox while others cast a wider pleasure net and won't even talk unless absolutely necessary, as revealed in this tweet from bioengineer Janey Munoz that went viral in October: "In an instance of the Bay Area being very Bay Area: today was my first day in SF since moving here, and I ran into someone from my YC batch who told me he was on a 'dopamine fast' and thus had to cut our convo short (lest he acquire too much dopamine)." 

This, understandably, triggered a few eye-rolls and raised a lot of questions about what's actually going on in the body during a dopamine fast, whether the science is there to back it up, and whether it's any different from, say, the perks you'd get from hiding your phone in the other room or meditating now and then.

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The science behind dopamine fasting: Does it stack up? 

The proposed scientific rationale for dopamine fasting, typically given by people who dopamine fast, often goes something like this: Frequent release of dopamine via pleasurable activities ups your baseline for dopamine—in other words, it overloads your brain's dopamine receptors, causing your brain to reduce the number of receptors, and thus makes you less sensitive to dopamine. So then, the idea goes, you need more stimulation (More candy! More puppy videos! More likes!) to reap the same pleasurable reward. But by avoiding these stimuli for a while (i.e., dopamine fasting) you can bump the number of dopamine receptors back up. 

This explanation does, it turns out, stem from real neuroscience concepts discovered from drug addiction research. As Eric Bowman, Ph.D., a neuroscience lecturer, recently told Inverse, the body can make "molecular adjustments" to the dopamine receptors in the brain over time if flooded with too much dopamine. But, and it's a big but, this probably wouldn't happen unless someone was taking drugs like opiates or had a neurological disorder. 

So, does this mean dopamine fasting is B.S.? Well, yes and no, experts say. First off, the name is garbage—dopamine fasting is literally not a thing we can do. We need dopamine for basic bodily functioning, and avoiding stimuli will not cause dopamine production to cease. And this idea that you will benefit from cutting out stimuli across the board—including healthy behaviors like exercising and socializing with friends—is also probably flawed.

"I think it is fine to take breaks from technology, as we have become too reliant on it and it can certainly affect our mental health in adverse ways, but [regulating] dopamine response is much more complex than avoidance of all things that may bring us joy," says integrative neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D.

But there is some positive news: If your dopamine fast includes cutting out specific behaviors that you'd describe as impulsive, addictive, or that just plain make you feel bad (mindless Instagram scrolling or consuming junk food, for example), some experts believe you could see a great benefit—as this could weaken the association between a particular stimulus/behavior and the feel-good reward that follows.

A better way to dopamine fast. 

Psychologist and assistant clinical professor at UCSF Medical School Cameron Sepah, Ph.D., is one of those pro-dopamine fasting experts—when it's done right. After noticing an increase in behavioral addictions (e.g., tech, gaming, and food addictions) in his private practice, he decided to create a more standardized, scientifically informed version of dopamine fasting—to combat the nonsense out there, he says—and it actually makes a lot of sense. 

In his version of dopamine fasting, Sepah recommends "fasting" from problematic behaviors during periods of time that are normally associated with rest, which will make it easier. Think one to four hours at the end of the day, one day of the weekend, one weekend per quarter. And, he says, "If you have zero bad habits you'd like to spend less time on, you probably don't need to do it at all."

"To be clear, we are not fasting from dopamine itself but from impulsive behaviors reinforced by it," Sepah said in his viral 2019 article titled "The Definitive Guide to Dopamine Fasting 2.0." "Dopamine Fasting 2.0 is an evidence-based technique to manage addictive behaviors by restricting them to specific periods of time...in order to regain behavioral flexibility." 

Other medical professionals see value in this approach to dopamine fasting, too. "I personally participate in dopamine fasting using meditation retreats and disconnecting with modern life by spending time in nature," says Molly Maloof, M.D., a personalized medicine physician whose practice is focused on providing health optimization to San Francisco and Silicon Valley investors, executives, and entrepreneurs. "I think it's an outstanding way to bring you in touch with your desires, quiet the mind, clear anxiety, and become more disciplined." 

How do experts explain the benefits? It has to do with "classical conditioning," says Sepah, a process involving dopamine that helps us learn. Basically, with enough training, "unconditioned stimuli" that we've never seen before—like a notification on your smartphone—can become "conditioned stimuli" because we learn to anticipate a reward. That reward could be the alleviation of our negative emotions, or seeing something that makes us laugh, like a montage of clumsy puppies running in slow motion. "This type of reinforcement can lead to impulsive/addictive behavior," he says.

A fascinating article from Harvard on the addictiveness of smartphones delves further into the topic, explaining that, "every time a response to a stimulus results in a reward, these associations become stronger by strengthening neural connections between certain brain cells...although not as intense as a hit of cocaine, positive social stimuli will similarly result in a release of dopamine, reinforcing whatever behavior preceded it. Rewarding social stimuli—laughing faces, positive recognition by our peers, messages from loved ones—activate the same dopaminergic reward pathways." 

But with dopamine fasting, "temporarily removing these problematic stimuli can help retrain the brain," says Maloof. This is actually in line with a cognitive-behavioral-therapy (CBT)-based technique called "stimulus control."

And, at least in the case of "fasting" from social media, it seems to have some pretty significant benefits beyond breaking bad behaviors. One 2019 study found that college students who cut out Facebook for a week experienced a 17% reduction in depressive symptoms, regained 13 hours of their time, and engaged in healthier activities

But while a tech or social media detox may be the most obvious way to dopamine fast, it can extend beyond technology to any problematic, impulsive behavior. "There's a great book called The Pleasure Trap all about how packaged processed foods cause significant dopamine release and can be addictive," says Maloof. "Part of the way you retrain the brain to enjoy foods that are not hyperpalatable, like junk food, is to eliminate the junk food for a month or so. I'm currently doing this with sugar and flour."

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Is dopamine fasting just mindfulness rebranded for the biohacking crowd? 

If the steps involved in a dopamine fast all sound a little familiar, that's because it's essentially what we here at mbg and countless wellness experts have been advocating for years: more mindfulness in all aspects of life (including diet), less tech, more tuning in. And while Silicon Valley seems to be making "dopamine fasting" out to be a new thing entirely, it seems to us that it's more of a rebrand, or a trendy new formula for helping you implement some of the advice you've been hearing all along. 

"Mindfulness and ancient vipassana-type meditation practices are built around the concept of nonattachment and noticing your desires and not being driven by them but being conscious of them," says Maloof. "Call [dopamine fasting] a rebrand, call it whatever you want, but we need a more disciplined society."

As we enter the new decade, we expect to see more mindful tech use—and mindfulness in general—and if dopamine fasting is the thing that hooks people to make these healthy changes, it's a trend we can probably get behind.

And are you ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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