Podcast: What Is Dopamine Fasting?
One of the new trends on social media is “dopamine fasting,” the idea that depriving yourself is somehow good for you. Is it? Does this trend have any benefit? Could it even be harmful? What’s the science behind it?
On today’s episode, Gabe welcomes back Psych Central founder and editor-in-chief, Dr. John Grohol. Join us as Dr. John gives us the 411 on dopamine fasting.
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Guest information for ‘Dr. John Grohol Dopamine’ Podcast Episode
John M. Grohol, Psy.D. is a pioneer in online mental health and psychology. Recognizing the educational and social potential of the Internet in 1995, Dr. Grohol has transformed the way people could access mental health and psychology resources online. Pre-dating the National Institute for Mental Health and mental health advocacy organizations, Dr. Grohol was the first to publish the diagnostic criteria for common mental disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. His leadership has helped break down the barriers of stigma often associated with mental health concerns, bringing trusted resources and support communities to the Internet.
He has worked tirelessly as a patient advocate to improve the quality of information available for mental health patients, highlighting quality mental health resources, and building safe, private support communities and social networks in numerous health topics.
About The Psych Central Podcast Host
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Dr. John Grohol Dopamine ’ Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to the Psych Central Podcast, where guest experts in the field of psychology and mental health share thought-provoking information using plain, everyday language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
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Gabe Howard: Welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Podcast. Calling into the show today we have Dr. John Grohol, who is the founder and the editor in chief of Psych Central. John, welcome to the show.
Dr. John Grohol: Great to be here with you, Gabe.
Gabe Howard: Well, I’m glad to have you. Today we’re going to be discussing a Twitter trend called dopamine fasting. Can you explain what that is?
Dr. John Grohol: Good old, dopamine fasting, yeah, that sounds like a fun thing, right? So dopamine fasting, it’s this idea that by restricting your pleasurable daily activities, things that you normally enjoy doing on a daily or weekly basis, such as drinking, alcohol, sex, drugs, gaming, even talking to others, checking your Facebook feed, your social media feeds and in some extremes, even pleasurable eating, that if you cut all that out for 24 hours, for 48 hours, you are somehow magically going to reset your neurochemical makeup in your brain.
Gabe Howard: I have a million questions about this, but let’s start at the very, very beginning. What is dopamine?
Dr. John Grohol: Dopamine is a neurotransmitter chemical in your brain. Very important for how your brain functions. It is something that we call as a part of the dopamine motive system, because the dopamine system in the brain functions on both motivation and reinforcement. It’s not just a reward system, as many people believe. We most often hear dopamine attached to things talking about drug addiction. That when people get addicted to cocaine or some other drug, that it screws up their dopamine receptors in their brains. And that is very true. But more generally, dopamine is involved in daily activities in everybody’s brain and it is involved in all the activities and behaviors that are around motivation and reinforcement in our lives. So when we eat something like a big piece of chocolate cake, our brain is flooded with dopamine and we feel good.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Grohol, I’m not a psychologist. I’m not a therapist. I’m not a researcher. And I’m certainly not a neurologist. But this just sounds ridiculous to me as just a regular person, the idea that if you don’t use part of your brain, it just magically becomes something different.
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah, it’s true, it’s not something that’s likely to happen because it doesn’t speak to how dopamine actually works in our brain. And since I’m not an expert in dopamine either, I had to speak to some experts, one of whom was Professor Kim Hellemans, neuroscience researcher at Carleton University in Canada. And we had a long conversation about dopamine and how it works in the brain. And one of the things that she reminded me was that in our brains, that dopamine is a part of a very dynamic system. And what that means is that it is always it doesn’t exist in sort of a static state. It responds to levels of stimulation that an individual is exposed to. So neurotransmitters are synthesized on demand as they’re needed and then they’re stored in these little packages in the brain inside the cell, ready for release. And if you don’t use them, they remain stored. If you do use them, they get used up in your brain and then your brain creates more dopamine. So if you think you’re going on a fast for 24, 48 hours of no dopamine, you’re actually not because your brain is storing up the dopamine anyway for future use. It has absolutely nothing to do with fasting dopamine in the brain.
Gabe Howard: I’m sort of a little confused about this idea of dopamine fasting because you can get pleasure from a lot of different things. Some of the examples that you gave are obvious things that you give pleasure, you know, pleasurable eating sex. We understand those. Even a technology fast. OK. Technology makes Gabe very, very, very happy. But, you know, beating my G.P.S. makes me happy. Petting my dog makes me happy. The work day ending and me walking in the front door knowing that the next several hours are mine to do with as I please. Those things make me happy. So even if dopamine fasting worked, I’m not quite sure what that would look like. Because don’t we get joy from just many different places?
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah. It speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of what dopamine is that it’s involved in so much more than pleasure. It’s involved in both things surrounding our appetite and eating behaviors as well as stress responses. So it seems to be a signal that’s released whenever an organism needs to pay attention and learn about stimuli or signals or other things happening in the environment around them. And in that way, dopamine is far more complex than most people understand it to be. And so it’s not just about, oh, here’s a hamburger. So next time I need to remember it’s sight and smell and taste. So next time I am hungry, I can remember like, hey, I can eat a hamburger. And that will satisfy my need for to satisfy my appetite. But another example is here’s a bear. So I must remember where I saw this bear. So I don’t go into the bear’s territory again in the future. So I can avoid it and not get eaten by a bear.
Gabe Howard: I like all examples that have to do with not being eaten by a bear. I just feel the need to say that, Dr. Grohol.
Dr. John Grohol: We take it for granted that we live in this civilized world where we drive around and automobiles and we eat pre-prepared food items from McDonald’s or Burger King or whatnot, and we forget that our bodies and our brains were developed and spent most of their time being raised in a very, very different environment, an environment where it was fight or flight, where you need to worry about where your next meal is coming from and you need to worry about whether you’re going to eat or be eaten. It’s only in the past 100 or 200 years or so where you can say, oh, humans have had a whole heck of a lot more free time to worry about things other than where their next meal is coming from.
Gabe Howard: What’s interesting to me is that people believe this because the brain is very, very advanced and it’s so advanced that you, Dr. Grohol, who have an advanced degree in psychology, had to find somebody who had, you know, a more advanced degree in the brain to understand this. But at the core of this, for people to believe this is true, they have to believe that the brain is exceptionally simple. And most people don’t believe that the brain is exceptionally simple. Why do you think that people believe that this works? What are they hoping to get out of it?
Dr. John Grohol: I think there’s desire in many people to find something that or to try something that they haven’t tried before that will help fix a lot of the issues that are most important to them on a day to day basis. And today, the issue that arises in many people’s life is a feeling of being overwhelmed, a feeling of being stressed out and having to reply to all of these alerts and notifications that are always bombarding us in our free time or downtime our time away from work. And so this idea that, oh, I could just take a break, a dopamine fast for 24 hours and I’ll come back and I’ll be all refreshed and renewed and my brain will have reset its neurotransmitters is very appealing because it just says, hey, you need to make a 24 hour commitment and everything is going to go back to the way it was five years ago. So for people who enjoy thinking that there are quick fixes to longstanding, difficult issues in a person’s life, this is very attractive.
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Gabe Howard: We’re back discussing the trend of dopamine fasting with Dr. John Grohol. Is this just the equivalent of the get-rich-quick scheme or the lose-weight-now pills? Are we just seeing this pseudoscience just move from weight loss to brain advancement?
Dr. John Grohol: Absolutely, this is. And make no mistake about it, this is dangerous pseudoscience, this is crappy science masquerading as something bigger and better, some sort of description of actual brain processes when nothing could be further from the truth. This has nothing to do with dopamine fasting. Now, what we do say, and what I’ve encouraged people to do for years, so this is not new advice, is of course, you can take a break from technology. Of course you can take a break from life. We call that, normal people call that, taking a vacation. We call that taking a technology break. There’s nothing that can stop you tomorrow from saying, hey, this weekend, I’m going to plug my phone in to charge and I am not going to pick it up for 48 hours. That is something that’s available to you. And guess what? It has nothing to do with resetting your dopamine levels. And it has everything to do with being more mindful and getting into mindfulness, which is something we’ve talked about before. That is a very positive meditation technique that can help anybody.
Gabe Howard: In my younger days, I was exceptionally overweight and I wanted to lose a lot of weight and I bought into the Internet. Gabe Howard was fooled by the Internet and I bought these magic pills. And that’s really the best thing I can say about them. They were magic pills because they explained that if I took these pills, that it would rewire my internal processes for lack of a better word and help me lose weight. And in order for these pills to be most effective. I had to take them with four glasses of water. I had to fast two hours before taking them and two hours after taking them. And they were not fat soluble. So I couldn’t eat a lot of fat with them. And it really helped. If I went for a walk in the morning and a walk at night and I took these pills four times a day and I followed all of the instructions perfectly and it worked like gangbusters. The magic pills worked amazingly, and I lost a bunch of weight. And then somebody pointed out to me that of course, the reason they were working is because I was drinking all of this water. I was doing all of this walking, and I had completely cut fat out of my diet to make sure that the magic pills worked. On one hand, I was tricked, but I did lose weight and the pills were just sugar pills. They probably did nothing negative to my body. The reason I’m telling this story is, is this like the same thing? If somebody calls it dopamine fasting, but they do put down the technology, they do go for a walk. They do read a book. Will they get positive results, even though the mechanism that’s in place is not what they think is happening? Or is it worse than this? Is it dangerous? Could they actively harm themselves?
Dr. John Grohol: Look, my problem with calling it dopamine fasting is that takes us down another step on the road to ignorance, which is where we simplify very complex systems to a point of meaninglessness. If words don’t have meaning, then we can’t share the same language and we can’t communicate very clearly with one another. So if everybody starts calling things dopamine fasting when they really mean just taking a break, suddenly they have this belief that they understand how the brain works that has nothing to do with how the brain actually works. And it just takes us down another level in the conversation of trying to help people really understand how the brain works. So when we talk about other things like mental illness, we don’t get even more confused because, oh, I heard that I can just take a dopamine fast and that’ll cure my mental illness. Oh, I know, I heard I could just take a dopamine fast and that can cure my depression. So I think language is super important and I think using words with their actual meanings is very helpful to having a clear conversation where everybody is sort of on the same page. Yeah, of course you can do all the things that are recommended in a dopamine fast and still gain the same benefits no matter what you call it. My point, I guess, is that we’ve all been doing these things for years and we didn’t have this dumb term to call it that.
Dr. John Grohol: And it doesn’t help anyone understand how the brain works, how their behaviors work any better by using this kind of terminology. Look at it like the supplement industry. Here’s an industry in the United States, which is one hundred and twenty two billion, B, with a billion dollars a year. And most research that has been done on supplements show that they are not useful to the vast majority of people who take them. They have no meaningful effect on your body’s health or well-being or long term longevity in terms of extending your life or warding off any kind of disease. So they act very much like a placebo, a sugar pill. And yet people spend one hundred twenty two billion dollars a year for these placebos. I don’t know that, you know, going on dopamine fast, putting down technology, et cetera, is going to hurt anyone. It really isn’t. Righ?. But it is important that we try and use the words that we’re given in the ways that they actually mean. Because like I said, I feel like if we start talking about things like dopamine, which scientifically we know quite a lot about, and then put it together with another word that has no business being there, fasting, we come up with these just dumbed down versions of science that are all leading us down a path of not being able to communicate with one another.
Gabe Howard: Well, and to build on your point of the supplement industry, the billion dollar supplement industry, because that industry has gotten so big and so profitable and so powerful, it has swayed public opinion. We now have people who say things like, oh, no, no, no, no. Big Pharma is just trying to make a profit off of me. I have to trust the supplements who are somehow natural and pure. So they’re moving away from research and helpful medicines and doctors in order to believe the unregulated supplement industry. And in that way, it has left people in harm’s way. So it’s, of course, possible that if we start believing, like you said, that all we have to do is a dopamine fast and suddenly depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc is all going to be cured. It’s not a far stretch to say and that’s why Big Pharma is taking advantage of us, because after all. And then.
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah, absolutely, I see it as a slippery slope. I see it when we start getting sloppy with our terminology and what we mean and talking about these things. Then suddenly people have a really simplistic idea of very, very complex things. We have a very early understanding of how the brain functions and how it works. We’re nowhere close to really unraveling all the mysteries of this very complex organ. So I think it just it confuses everything and makes the message so much foggier and more cloudy when people who may very well be well-meaning throw out these terms that have no scientific basis.
Gabe Howard: So, John, the takeaway is dopamine fasting doesn’t do anything, but taking a break from technology or taking a vacation can do wonders for your mental health.
Dr. John Grohol: Absolutely. And I cannot encourage that enough — that people need to not become slaves to the tools that they welcome into their lives. And I’ve said it before, you don’t need an alert to tell you every time someone has had a reaction on Instagram or Facebook or any other social media. Turn off alerts, become more mindful in your life and use technology as the tool that it was intended to be. Don’t let it be the thing that rules your life. We’ve seen it negatively impact many, many people’s lives because they’re being dictated by the technology rather than dictating to the technology. So take a break when you need it and don’t get don’t get caught up in the new snake oil.
Gabe Howard: And leave discussions of dopamine to neuroscientists.
Dr. John Grohol: Absolutely.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Grohol, thank you for being on the show. We appreciate having you.
Dr. John Grohol: Always a pleasure. You bet.
Gabe Howard: And remember, everyone, we appreciate you, too. You can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counseling anytime, anywhere, simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. We’ll see everyone next week.
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Central Podcast, T. (2019). Podcast: What Is Dopamine Fasting?. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 20, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/podcast-what-is-dopamine-fasting/