Dopamine fasting is the catchy name of a popular wellness fad. Your brain produces dopamine naturally, so it’s impossible to “detox” from it. But this concept can encourage new self-regulating behaviors.

Dopamine is part of your brain’s reward pathways. When you do something perceived as pleasurable, the neurotransmitter dopamine cues the brain that it should repeat that experience.

Dopamine is a part of learning and survival. It once helped humans learn about positive behaviors like reproduction, food, and comfort.

In the modern world, dopamine is often influenced by choices — like the use of alcohol, caffeine, sugar, video games, and recreational drugs.

A dopamine detox is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) developed by Dr. Cameron Sepah, a California-based psychiatrist intent on helping people manage addictive behaviors.

Sepah believes conscious restriction of addictive activities can help people become more aware of impulsive behaviors and encourage more flexible thinking.

The goal of Sepah’s dopamine fasting program isn’t to deprive the brain of dopamine or lessen dopamine levels, as the name implies. In fact, Sepah is quoted in the New York Times, stating that the name of his CBT approach should not be taken literally.

The misinterpretation of dopamine fasting has led to a popular fad of denying yourself any pleasurable experiences with the unsubstantiated belief that doing this will “reset” your brain or help lower the threshold at which you experience pleasure.

How dopamine detox is intended to work

Dopamine detox is a form of CBT, a therapeutic methodology that identifies unhelpful patterns of thinking or behaving, associates them with underlying causes, and helps you cultivate more beneficial processes.

The underlying concept is that you’re more likely to engage regularly in unhelpful behaviors if they’re pleasurable and capable of producing dopamine. This is the process that can ultimately lead to addictive behaviors or impulsive pleasure-seeking.

Dopamine doesn’t directly cause pleasure

It’s a common misconception that dopamine is responsible for the sensation of pleasure. But according to a 2016 study, your pleasure response is a complex process involving multiple physiological mechanisms. In that cascade of circuitry, dopamine is the neurotransmitter that tells your brain to repeat a behavior.

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Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho, a licensed social worker from Morris Plains, New Jersey, explains a true dopamine detox aims at addressing unhelpful behaviors and habits people acquire over time.

“In this type of therapy, the patient is encouraged to be aware of both positive and negative habits then is taught to build new, healthier habits in response,” she says.

According to Sepah’s personal blog, his dopamine fasting technique focuses on an approach called “stimulus control.”

It involves taking the undesired stimulus, for example, your laptop in Internet addiction, and making it difficult to access by putting it somewhere hard to reach or by installing certain programs.

Then, you deliberately engage in another activity that’s unrelated to that laptop, like going for a walk.

Throughout this process, you’re taught how to recognize the negative feelings or experiences that make you want to engage in a specific behavior. When those feelings arise, the goal is for you to turn to a more helpful response rather than the undesired one.

Over time, dopamine fasting may help break the classic conditioning response you’ve developed that’s contributed to unhelpful habits or excessive:

  • gaming
  • drinking
  • eating
  • social media or internet surfing

But coping with behavioral addictions, such as gaming disorder or internet addiction disorder, may require the support of a licensed healthcare professional.

A 2021 study indicates that this CBT-based technique encourages a healthy lifestyle while reducing impulsive behaviors. But if the guidelines are misinterpreted or misused, it can affect your physical and mental health.

Further research is needed to measure the efficacy and safety of self-guided dopamine fasting compared to clinician-guided practices developed specifically for your needs.

Consider talking with a mental health professional for safe and effective guidance prior to practicing this technique.

What dopamine fasting is NOT

Sedah specifically states in his protocol that dopamine fasting isn’t:

  • reducing dopamine
  • avoiding all pleasure
  • social isolation
  • stopping exercise
  • a form of meditation

Can you have too much dopamine?

Even though dopamine fasting isn’t about lowering dopamine levels, the dopamine levels in your brain do matter.

“Dopamine plays a vital role in the brain’s reward system, which regulates mood and motivation,” says Kotkin-De Carvalho. “When this system becomes imbalanced or dysregulated, it can result in various mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.”

She indicates too much dopamine in the brain may cause impulsivity and cravings, as well as poor emotional regulation which may lead to aggression.

According to Mental Health America (MHA), consistently high levels of dopamine are indicated in substance use disorder (SUD) and some cases of schizophrenia.

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A dopamine detox won’t decrease your natural levels of dopamine.

If you’re concerned about unhelpful habits, like excessive alcohol consumption or social media use, a dopamine detox may help decrease the behaviors associated with cravings, impulsivity, or addiction.

1. Creating barriers

Original dopamine fasting involves making an undesirable habit difficult to participate in. This can mean:

  • putting something out of reach or line of sight
  • making it inconvenient
  • limiting time spent with others sharing the habit
  • installing blocking apps and software
  • giving someone else control of necessary resources, like credit cards

2. Selecting beneficial alternatives

Once you’ve made it challenging to engage in the undesired behavior, the next step is to pick an alternative experience that promotes your well-being.

Options may include things such as:

3. Understanding underlying causes

Part of dopamine detox is understanding why you want to engage in a specific activity. If your underlying feeling is boredom, for example, recognizing when you’re bored can help keep you from impulsively going to the undesired activity.

Journaling may be beneficial in emotional exploration, allowing you to recognize and put names to the feelings you experience throughout the day.

4. Seeking guidance

CBT is a psychological treatment conducted by a trained professional.

“Ideally, a dopamine detox should be carried out under the guidance and supervision of mental health professionals, who can help patients to understand the chemical processes involved and develop a more comprehensive strategy for changing their behavior,” cautions Kotkin-De Carvalho.

She adds a dopamine detox can be complicated by the symptoms of withdrawal in some cases, and working with a mental health professional can help ensure the detox is done safely and effectively.

There are no studies supporting dopamine detox, specifically, but 2018 research does support the use of CBT as a treatment for conditions like Internet addiction.

“Through a detailed assessment process, a cognitive behavioral therapist can help the patient understand how their thoughts and behaviors may contribute negatively to their mood or motivation, then develop strategies for changing those habits,” says Kotkin-De Carvalho.

She indicates that by gaining control over behavior, you may develop improved emotional regulation and impulse control, which often translate to greater well-being and happiness.

A dopamine detox is a cognitive behavioral therapy approach that encourages self-regulation of unhelpful habits.

It’s not the practice of denying yourself pleasure as a means of increasing dopamine sensitivity or lowering the amount of naturally occurring dopamine in your brain.

Following a dopamine detox under its original framework may help encourage beneficial behaviors while helping you break the cycle of impulses related to undesirable habits.