A behavioral brain fad called “dopamine fasting” (#dopaminefasting) has been floating around the internet for the past year. The idea is that by restricting most of your pleasurable daily activities — from social media, to watching videos, gaming, talking, or even eating — you can “reset” your brain. The idea also plays into people’s simplistic beliefs about how the brain works.
Can you have conscious control over discrete dopamine levels in your brain? Let’s delve into the science behind one of your brain’s most important neurotransmitters, dopamine.
During a “dopamine fast,” you’re supposed to abstain from the kinds of things you normally enjoy doing, such as alcohol, sex, drugs, gaming, talking to others, going online and, in some extremes, pleasurable eating. The idea is to “reset” your neurochemical system by de-stimulating it.
If it sounds a bit out there, you’re not alone in your skepticism. It should also be of no surprise to learn that no scientists were involved in the creation of this fad. Instead, it was apparently created by a “life coach” named Richard in November 2018 on his YouTube channel.
The trend got an unfortunate boost of legitimacy from a psychologist earlier this year, according to this Vice article on the topic:
A viral article posted on LinkedIn by University of California San Francisco assistant clinical psychiatry professor and “executive psychologist” Cameron Sepah put dopamine fasting back on the radar in early August. The post linked the practice to Silicon Valley, dubbing it the “hot trend” akin to intermittent fasting.
“It’s unclear what the long-term implications of this overstimulation are on our brains, but in my private practice working with executive clients, I have observed that this interferes with our ability to sustain attention, regulate our emotions in non-avoidant ways, and enjoy simple tasks that seem boring by comparison,” Sepah wrote. “We may be getting too much of a good thing, especially when dopamine reinforces behaviors that are out of line with our values.” He also links dopamine release to addiction: “Even behaviors such as gaming or gambling can become problematic and addictive through the reinforcement that dopamine brings.” MEL spoke to Sepah, who admitted the term “dopamine fasting” was more about provoking a reaction than maintaining accuracy.
Indeed. It’s not clear a single day (or even two) of “activity fasting” from over-stimulation (what defines over-stimulation? who defines over-stimulation, the patient or some arbitrary metric?) would be of much use to most people.
To better understand how neurotransmitters work, I spoke with Prof. Kim Hellemans, a neuroscience researcher at Carleton University in Canada. Along with Prof. Jim Davies, she hosts an awesome podcast called Minding the Brain.
“For starters, it’s important to note that most neurotransmitters are synthesized from precursor amino acids that are obtained from our diet […] and certain food items contain these amino acids in varying abundance,” Prof. Hellemans said.
“However, these amino acids compete with other large, neutral amino acids to cross the blood brain barrier. Which is a fancy way of saying that you’d need to eat a lot of any particular food item to significantly increase (or decrease) the biosynthesis of a given neurotransmitter. ”
“Dopamine is involved in much more than pleasure… it’s involved in both [eating behaviors] and stress responses,” Prof. Hellemans noted. “It is a signal that seems to be released when the organism needs to ‘pay attention’ and learn about the signals in the environment that are motivationally relevant.”
For example, “here is a hamburger, [so I] must remember its sight/smell/taste of this so next time I am hungry, I can plan to eat this tasty food item.” Or, as another example, “here is a bear, [so I] must remember this environment so I can avoid it in the future.”
“Dopamine is also critically involved in movement,” said Hellemans, as we’ve seen that the “loss of dopamine-projecting fibers is implicated in Parkinson’s disease.”
Walter Piper, a neuroscience researcher at New York University, agrees with Prof. Hellemans that people can indeed exert some control over dopamine levels. “A person can exert limited control over their dopamine or norepinephrine levels. […] Exercise and many other elements of a healthy lifestyle can boost dopamine activity in sustainable ways,” he noted. In addition to eating, Hellemans also noted that significant changes in our gut microbiota can impact certain neurotransmitter levels.
“Think of the receptors as a signal receiver and changes in the dopamine as a detected signal,” Piper suggests.
“In a healthy dopamine system, receptors would be plentiful, and dopamine would exhibit a pattern: moderate levels at rest, heightened levels when confronted by a cue of motivational significance, and quick, strong pulses when an unexpected reward is obtained, or rapid declines when an expected reward is withheld.”
But the dopamine system is dynamic in nature, meaning that it’s always changing and adapting according to what our body needs. “It will respond to the levels of stimulation an individual is exposed to,” said Hellemans, “but neurotransmitters are synthesized on demand and stored in vesicles (basically, little packages) inside the cell, ready for release.”
“If the cells are firing, they are released, and more will be synthesized in preparation. If the cells are not firing, the dopamine will still be there, waiting to be released.” Trying to “dopamine fast,” in short, would not likely have much meaningful impact on dopamine levels.
But even if dopamine were something that you could exert discrete control over, how would you measure dopamine levels in your body?
Prof. Hellemans tells me that dopamine measurements in humans are extremely difficult. “You can measure indirectly via looking at metabolites (breakdown products of neurotransmitters) in the cerebrospinal fluid, but that is extremely invasive and is only an indirect and correlative measure.” Piper suggests specialized PET scans may one day help us do so, too.
But the fact is, there’s been no research yet conducted on humans measuring the impact of “dopamine fasting.” Our understanding of dopamine comes mostly from human animal models, according to Prof. Hellemans, and very few studies have looked at its use in humans. What research we do have suggests the dopamine system is far more complex than most people realize for better understanding addictive eating, sex, gambling, and drugs (Volkow, Wise & Baler, 2017).
In people struggling with an addiction, Piper notes, “the turbulence of dopamine swings related to addiction effectively drowns out signals from other realms of life.” To retrain an addicted person’s dopamine system takes time — usually many months of staying away from the addicted drug or stimuli — but it can be done.
In people who don’t struggle with an addiction, how much would a day’s worth of fasting or staying away from stimuli actually result in meaningful change in the brain’s dopamine motive system? It’s unlikely to provide much of a benefit.
Dopamine fasting is a silly fad with an unscientific name that greatly undermines its own attempt in helping people take a break from technology or anxious living. It’s perfectly healthy and reasonable to take some time away from the never-ending demands of an always-on lifestyle.
We used to call this taking a vacation.
“‘Dopamine fasting’ as a term is an interesting conversation starter, but I’d prefer the term ‘vacation’ or simply ‘taking a break,’” agrees Piper. The key is to take a vacation or a break from your devices and technology, as they appear to be one of the primary contributors of many people’s fatigue with the modern world.
“We could all serve to ‘un-plug’ every once in a while,” agrees Prof. Hellemans, “but to attribute any perceived benefits to reduced dopamine levels is an over-simplification and misrepresentation of the complexity of the nervous system.”
And remember — don’t overdo any self-imposed isolation. “Humans have evolved as a highly social species,” reminds Hellemans, “and as such, loneliness and very little social stimulation can be coded in the nervous system as a threat — since loneliness is one of the most potent stressors.”
In short, it may be helpful to take a technology break from time to time. But don’t repeat the trendy falsehood that you’re engaging in “dopamine fasting,” because it’s not true and isn’t supported by the science.
And don’t forget to check out Prof. Kim Helleman’s & Jim Davies podcast, Minding the Brain.