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Dopamine fasting is the buzzy new way to clear your mind – but does it really work?

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Jessica Rapana
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The latest wellness trend to emerge from Silicon Valley, “dopamine fasting” is being touted as the antidote to our collective attention fatigue – but does it really work?

These days, we’re constantly being bombarded with information and indulgences: Instagram, smartphones, fast food and casual sex. I could go on. 

It’s no wonder that so many of us are plagued with attention fatigue – or even burnout – in the midst of this hyper-stimulating, always-on culture.

What if we could reset our brains to expect less and respond more? To be more easily satiated? Well, herein lies the premise of “dopamine fasting”, the buzzy new biohacking trend to come out of Silicon Valley. 

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What is dopamine and what does it do?

First things first: dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is involved in how we feel pleasure and can be triggered by anything that makes us feel good.

“We’re addicted to dopamine,” James Sinka, a Silicon Valley techie explains to the New York Times. “And because we’re getting so much of it all the time, we end up just wanting more and more, so activities that used to be pleasurable now aren’t. Frequent stimulation of dopamine gets the brain baseline higher.”

He continues: “Your brain and your biology have become adapted to high levels of stimulus so our project is to reset those receptions so you’re satiated again.”

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Dopamine fasting: can it help to ‘reboot’ our brains?

What increases dopamine?

Basically, any pleasurable activity will give you a hit of dopamine, albeit in varying degrees. These days this can be spurred by a number of things, including smartphones, social media, Netflix, delicious food, sex and even eye-to-eye contact. 

What is dopamine fasting?

Supposedly, by tamping our usual sources of pleasure and stimulation for an entire day – no screens, music, reading, talking, exercise, sex, alcohol, work, meat – this helps our brains reset to feel more pleasure later. Or, so the theory goes, anyway.

Sinka and his Silicon Valley buddies do this for 24 hours every quarter – so four times a year.

There are, however, less extreme versions. Dr Cameron Sepah, a professor at UCSF Medical School and dopamine faster, advocates for a milder version: fasting from problematic behaviours – such as checking your phone or eating – during periods of down-time, such as a few hours in the evening or a day at the weekend. 

This is something he uses in clinical practice with his patients to target behavioural addictions, such as tech, gaming and food. He tells the Times that ‘dopamine fasting’ is somewhat misleading. It’s a more of a stimulation fast. 

Dopamine fasting: short-term pain for long-term gain?

What are the benefits of dopamine fasting?

Like all fasts, this kind comes with a “short-term pain for long-term gain” type of mentality.

Supposedly, by depriving our dopamine-flooded brains for a certain period of time, be it an hour or an entire day, we can ‘reboot’ our receptors to become more easily satiated again.

Where did dopamine fasting originate?

The term has been floating around the corners of the internet for the last few years, including a viral Reddit thread that saw a man inviting people to join him in a 40-day “dopamine challenge” – fasting from “TV, refined sugar, alcohol, processed fats, nicotine, recreational drugs, caffeine, and porn”.

However, the idea seems to have gained momentum since Dr Sepah outlined his version last August titled The Definitive Guide To Dopamine Fasting 2.0. Since then, as is often the case when Silicon Valley gets hold of a weird wellness trend, dopamine fasting has really taken off.

A woman on her phone

Dopamine fasting: no screens

Does it really work?

Like most wellness trends du jour, this one is up for debate.

Kent Berridge, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan tells Healthline that taking a break from stimulating activity “will stop turning on the dopamine system over and over like everyday life does”, but “it isn’t going to reset it.”

He adds: “That’s not that clearing your mind won’t allow you to enjoy pleasure more. It just won’t be a result of the regulation of dopamine.”

Some are less convinced. Joshua Berke, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, labelled the trend a “fad”. He tells the BBC that “dopamine does not have a straightforward relationship to ‘pleasure’ or ‘happiness’” and he was “not aware of any evidence at all” to support the practice.

He adds: “It certainly sounds plausible that taking a break from obsessively checking your social media account and partying every night is good for you. [It’s] just unlikely to have much to do with dopamine per se.”

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Jessica Rapana

Jessica Rapana is a journalist based in London, and enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content. She is especially fond of news, health, entertainment and travel content, and drinks coffee like a Gilmore Girl.

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