What Is Dopamine Fasting? Meet The Dangerous Fad Among Silicon Valley’s Tech Geniuses
Dopamine fasting has become a popular strategy for regaining the ability to feel pleasure when disconnecting from technology. Here we tell you what it is, what risks it entails and how (or if at all) it works. What Is Dopamine Fasting? Meet The Dangerous Fad Among Silicon Valley’s Tech Geniuses
Technology has been part of our lives for a long time, but since the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, it is almost impossible to live disconnected. Such excess connection and stimulation has revived a dangerous fad among Silicon Valley workers: dopamine fasting.
Although dopamine fasting was installed a couple of years ago in that corner of San Francisco, this 2021 has returned with more force. The reason is simple: we have been constantly connected to electronic devices for more than a year.
Since the pandemic broke out and the lockdowns began, many of us have depended on our computers and a good internet connection to work, study, socialize and entertain ourselves, as well as to buy food, pantry, clothes and of course, more gadgets!
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As you can imagine, entrepreneurs, creators, engineers, programmers and others involved in the ‘tech’ world, whose epicenter of innovation is Silicon Valley, are perhaps among the people who spend the most time surrounded by gadgets and connected to different networks.
Faced with this ‘overconnection’ , many have chosen to implement a kind of periodic technological detox , which they call dopamine fasting . The goal is to deprive the brain of the many stimuli that make it produce constant dopamine discharges, to regain the ability to feel and get excited with more subtle things, as well as reconnect with our being.
The Hypothesis Behind Dopamine Fasts
The devotees of this practice affirm that the stimuli produced by the cell phone , the tablet , the computer , the television , the video games and any gadget of this type, causes dopamine surges . Even food , sexual activity and even body movement are on the list of triggers for this neurotransmitter.
Dopamine is associated with pleasant and relaxing sensations , and with the release of ‘rewards’ in the brain each time we perform a task. likewise, it is related to the regulation of our motivation.
“Dopamine release can be triggered by a variety of external stimuli, especially salient and unexpected events,” Joshua Berke, professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of California, told the BBC.
By being connected and using these devices all day, our body gets used to the feeling of constant satisfaction , which generates a type of addiction and resistance to stimuli . That is, we already need dopamine highs just to feel good and stable, but we require those stimuli to be stronger and stronger to achieve the same sensation of pleasure.
The absence of these shocks can cause in some people body stiffness, tremors, weakness and lack of concentration, with continuous episodes of bad mood and lack of motivation in general.
Thus, fasting dopamine would serve to counteract this effect somewhat. With the disconnection, it is sought to deprive the body of these discharges to make it unaccustomed to receiving constant stimuli. The result would be a reconnection with our own emotions , as well as re-sensitize ourselves and enjoy the little pleasures , as before we lived surrounded by technology.
How Do You Do A Dopamine Fast?
This practice goes beyond a digital detox, in which you only stay away from technology, as it consists of disconnecting from ALL the stimuli that could produce dopamine surges . The idea is to seek absolute boredom and minimize pleasure, so dopamine fasting can include:
* Turn off all gadgets: cell phone, tablet, computer, television, video game console, virtual assistant, etc. This is the only indispensable point, the others are optional but highly recommended.
* Eat as little food as possible, especially avoiding foods rich in sodium or carbohydrates.
* Remain as still as possible, although there are those who integrate activities such as yoga or a little exercise.
* Eliminate the consumption of alcohol, tobacco and narcotics.
There are also those who even prefer to avoid interaction with other people , music and artificial lighting , as well as sexual stimuli , whether alone, as a couple or through adult material.
Therefore, someone who is fasting on dopamine could stay at home, not getting out of bed other than what is necessary and eating very little or nothing. There are even those who practice it simultaneously with another very popular plan in Silicon Valley, but also highly questioned by doctors and nutritionists: intermittent fasting .
In addition, practitioners of this habit report that, in the absence of distractions, they can reflect on things that they overlook on a day-to-day basis, because the pace of life is so fast that there is hardly ever time to take a break and meditate, to think before doing.
The goal is that, after this period of ‘withdrawal’ , our brain is no longer overstimulated and we are able to fully enjoy less intense sensations.
How Long Should A Dopamine Fast Last?
This technique can be done for a whole day, although some specialists recommend that it be 3 to 7 days to have the best result.
Dr. Cameron Sepah, one of the leading proponents of dopamine fasting, posted his ‘ Definitive Guide to Dopamine Fasting ‘ on LinkedIn, and it went viral. He recommends implementing this strategy daily for between one and four hours, once every weekend, one weekend every four months, or one week per year, depending on ‘tolerance’ and self-control capacity. Those who are already used to the method, can do it between 5 and 30 minutes one to three times a day, advises the specialist.
It is very common (and quite prudent) to notify family, friends and co-workers that you will be offline and will not be able to answer calls and / or messages.
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The Dangers Of Dopamine Fasting
Although, it sounds very tempting to disconnect for a single day to ‘reset’ our response to external stimuli and reconnect with our being, this practice carries certain health risks and there is still no scientific evidence that it works.
First, it should be clarified that dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is always present in our brain , so suppressing it completely is impossible. As such, it is not a chemical that we can develop dependence on, as is the case with other substances.
Cutting all these elements would not cause us a deficit of the neurotransmitter, but their levels would return to the standard values that our body needs. What fasting seeks is to help it return to its natural balance , disabling the brain to the constant discharges of dopamine, which cause us to need more and more to achieve the same effect (resistance).
However, some researchers have warned that this withdrawal period has similar effects to other disorders, such as bulimia.
Many cases have been found in which, after being subjected to the abrupt and radical limitation of everyday stimuli, people feel a strong urge to immediately resort to the elements that trigger the rush of dopamine. There are also those who report a deep sense of disappointment , not perceiving a real or drastic change after going through the experience.
Therefore, dopamine fasting practitioners are at risk of falling into extreme and impulsive behaviors : spending too many hours online checking notifications of everything they missed on social networks or responding to messages, spending a sleepless night playing video games or compulsive eating (for usually junk food).
To avoid this compensating effect , it is recommended that those who are going to do a dopamine fast prepare in advance consciously. It is advisable to meditate beforehand, apply ‘mini fasts’ of one or two hours the previous days and schedule the day or days of disconnection in the middle of other normal activities, to avoid falling into excesses at the end.
There is nothing wrong with being connected, be it out of practical necessity or for sheer pleasure. The problem is when this becomes a need that can affect our quality of life, preventing us from enjoying other things that are healthier and provide us with greater well-being, such as meditating, cultivating our hobbies offline, being with family and friends, living with people. in general and exercise, among others.
Dopamine Fasting: Misunderstanding Science Spawns A Maladaptive Fad
The dopamine fast, created by California psychiatrist Dr. Cameron Sepah, has very little to do with either fasting or dopamine. As Sepah told the New York Times, “Dopamine is just a mechanism that explains how addictions can become reinforced, and makes for a catchy title. The title’s not to be taken literally.” Unfortunately, with such a snazzy name, who could resist? This is where the misconceptions begin.
What’s The Thinking Behind A Dopamine Fast?
What Sepah intended with his dopamine fast was a method, based on cognitive behavioral therapy, by which we can become less dominated by the unhealthy stimuli — the texts, the notifications, the beeps, the rings — that accompany living in a modern, technology-centric society. Instead of automatically responding to these reward-inducing cues, which provide us with an immediate but short-lived charge, we ought to allow our brains to take breaks and reset from this potentially addictive bombardment.
The idea is that by allowing ourselves to feel lonely or bored, or to find pleasures in doing simpler and more natural activities, we will regain control over our lives and be better able to address compulsive behaviors that may be interfering with our happiness.
The six compulsive behaviors he cites as behaviors that may respond to a dopamine fast are: emotional eating, excessive internet usage and gaming, gambling and shopping, porn and masturbation, thrill and novelty seeking, and recreational drugs. But he emphasizes that dopamine fasting can be used to help control any behaviors that are causing you distress or negatively affecting your life.
You Can’t “Fast” From A Naturally Occurring Brain Chemical
Dopamine is one of the body’s neurotransmitters, and is involved in our body’s system for reward, motivation, learning, and pleasure. While dopamine does rise in response to rewards or pleasurable activities, it doesn’t actually decrease when you avoid overstimulating activities, so a dopamine “fast” doesn’t actually lower your dopamine levels.
Unfortunately, legions of people have misinterpreted the science, as well as the entire concept of a dopamine fast. People are viewing dopamine as if it was heroin or cocaine, and are fasting in the sense of giving themselves a “tolerance break” so that the pleasures of whatever they are depriving themselves of — food, sex, human contact — will be more intense or vivid when consumed again, believing that depleted dopamine stores will have replenished themselves. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way at all.
Fasting May Simply Be A Technique To Reduce Stress And Engage In Mindfulness-Based Practices
Sepah recommends that we start a fast in a way that is minimally disruptive to our lifestyles. For example, we could practice dopamine fasting from one to four hours at the end of the day (depending on work and family demands), for one weekend day (spend it outside on a Saturday or Sunday), one weekend per quarter (go on a local trip), and one week per year (go on vacation).
This all sounds sensible, if not necessarily new or groundbreaking. In fact, it sounds a lot like many mindfulness practices and good sleep hygiene, in the suggestion of no screen time before bed.
However, people are adopting ever more extreme, ascetic, and unhealthy versions of this fasting, based on misconceptions about how dopamine works in our brains. They are not eating, exercising, listening to music, socializing, talking more than necessary, and not allowing themselves to be photographed if there’s a flash (not sure if this applies to selfies).
Misunderstanding Science Can Create Maladaptive Behaviors
When you think that none of this is actually lowering dopamine, it’s kind of funny! Especially since avoiding interacting with people, looking at people, and communicating with people was never part of Sepah’s original idea. Human interaction (unless it is somehow compulsive and destructive) is in the category of healthy activities that are supposed to supplant the unhealthy ones, such as surfing social media for hours each day. In essence, the dopamine fasters are depriving themselves of healthy things, for no reason, based on faulty science and a misinterpretation of a catchy title.
Taking Time Out For Mental Rejuvenation Is Never A Bad Thing, But It’s Nothing New
The original intent behind the dopamine fast was to provide a rationale and suggestions for disconnecting from days of technology-driven frenzy and substituting more simple activities to help us reconnect us with ourselves and others. This idea is noble, healthy, and worthwhile, but it’s certainly not a new concept. Most religions also suggest a rest day (for example, the Jewish Sabbath) or holidays without technological distractions, so that you can reflect and reconnect with family and community, Thousands of years of meditation also suggests that a mindful approach to living reaps many health benefits.
Unfortunately, the modern wellness industry has become so lucrative that people are creating snappy titles for age-old concepts. Perhaps that is how to best categorize this fad, if only we can get its proponents to look at us or speak to us, without disturbing their dopamine levels, in order to explain this to them.
Digital Addictions Are Drowning Us In Dopamine
Rising rates of depression and anxiety in wealthy countries like the U.S. may be a result of our brains getting hooked on the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.
A patient of mine, a bright and thoughtful young man in his early 20s, came to see me for debilitating anxiety and depression. He had dropped out of college and was living with his parents. He was vaguely contemplating suicide. He was also playing videogames most of every day and late into every night.
Twenty years ago the first thing I would have done for a patient like this was prescribe an antidepressant. Today I recommended something altogether different: a dopamine fast. I suggested that he abstain from all screens, including videogames, for one month.
Over the course of my career as a psychiatrist, I have seen more and more patients who suffer from depression and anxiety, including otherwise healthy young people with loving families, elite education and relative wealth. Their problem isn’t trauma, social dislocation or poverty. It’s too much dopamine, a chemical produced in the brain that functions as a neurotransmitter, associated with feelings of pleasure and reward.
When we do something we enjoy—like playing videogames, for my patient—the brain releases a little bit of dopamine and we feel good. But one of the most important discoveries in the field of neuroscience in the past 75 years is that pleasure and pain are processed in the same parts of the brain and that the brain tries hard to keep them in balance. Whenever it tips in one direction it will try hard to restore the balance, which neuroscientists call homeostasis, by tipping in the other.
As soon as dopamine is released, the brain adapts to it by reducing or “downregulating” the number of dopamine receptors that are stimulated. This causes the brain to level out by tipping to the side of pain, which is why pleasure is usually followed by a feeling of hangover or comedown. If we can wait long enough, that feeling passes and neutrality is restored. But there’s a natural tendency to counteract it by going back to the source of pleasure for another dose.
If we keep up this pattern for hours every day, over weeks or months, the brain’s set-point for pleasure changes. Now we need to keep playing games, not to feel pleasure but just to feel normal. As soon as we stop, we experience the universal symptoms of withdrawal from any addictive substance: anxiety, irritability, insomnia, dysphoria and mental preoccupation with using, otherwise known as craving.
Our brains evolved this fine-tuned balance over millions of years in which pleasures were scarce and dangers ever-present. The problem today is that we no longer live in that world. Instead, we now live in a world of overwhelming abundance. The quantity, variety and potency of highly reinforcing drugs and behaviors has never been greater.
In addition to addictive substances like sugar and opioids, there is also a whole new class of electronic addictions that didn’t exist until about 20 years ago: texting, tweeting, surfing the web, online shopping and gambling. These digital products are engineered to be addictive, using flashing lights, celebratory sounds and “likes” to promise ever-greater rewards just a click away.
Yet despite increased access to all of these feel-good drugs, we’re more miserable than ever before. Rates of depression, anxiety, physical pain and suicide are increasing all over the world, especially in rich nations. According to the World Happiness Report, which ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be, Americans reported being less happy in 2018 than they were in 2008.
Other wealthy countries saw similar decreases in self-reported happiness scores, including Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Japan, New Zealand and Italy. The Global Burden of Disease study found that the number of new cases of depression world-wide increased 50% between 1990 and 2017, with the highest increases in regions with the highest income, especially North America.
It’s hard to see cause and effect when we’re chasing dopamine. It’s only after we’ve taken a break from our drug of choice that we’re able to see the true impact of our consumption on our lives.
That’s why I asked my patient to give up videogames for a month, enough time to allow his brain to reset its dopamine balance. It wasn’t easy, but he was motivated by the counterintuitive idea that abstaining from the thing that made him feel good in the short-term might actually make him feel better in the long-term.
To his surprise, he did feel better than he had in years, with less anxiety and less depression. He was even able to return to playing videogames without negative effects, by strictly limiting his playing time to no more than two days a week, for two hours a day. That way he left enough time in between sessions for the brain’s dopamine balance to be restored.
He avoided videogames that were too potent, the ones that he couldn’t stop playing once he started. He designated one laptop for gaming and a different one for school, to keep gaming and classwork physically separated. Finally, he committed to playing only with friends, never with strangers, so that gaming strengthened his social connections. Human connection itself is a potent and adaptive source of dopamine.
Not everyone plays videogames, but just about all of us have a digital drug of choice, and it probably involves using a smartphone—the equivalent of the hypodermic needle for a wired generation.
Reducing phone use is notoriously difficult, because at first it causes the brain’s pleasure-pain balance to tilt to the side of pain, making us feel restless and cranky. But if we can keep it up long enough, the benefits of a healthier dopamine balance are worth it. Our minds are less preoccupied with craving, we are more able to be present in the moment, and life’s little unexpected joys are rewarding again.
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