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What is Dopamine Fasting?

You’ve heard of dopamine, correct? It’s a neurotransmitter in your brain that’s released in response to pleasure and reward. That dopamine release is the good feeling you get in response to drugs, food, exercise, sex and other stimulants. Studies show that even simple acts of pleasure, such as doodling, laughing and listening to music, can also increase dopamine levels. Considering that dopamine is linked to feelings of happiness and pleasure, why has ‘dopamine fasting’ become the latest trend? According to some people in Silicon Valley, you’re getting too much of a good thing.


The practice of dopamine fasting started gaining traction when Cameron Sepah, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco, published a how-to guide on his LinkedIn page. He suggested taking breaks from things that trigger the release of dopamine and could potentially become addictive, such as using smartphones, watching TV, playing video games and shopping. Without such breaks, Sepah said, you may get accustomed to high levels of dopamine in your brain. This could, in turn, give you the urge to seek out even higher doses to achieve the same effect.

Sepah said the practice of dopamine fasting is based on cognitive behavioral therapy, designed to change thought patterns that influence behavior. “Taking a break from behaviors that trigger strong amounts of dopamine release (especially in a repeated fashion) allows our brain to recover and restore itself,” he wrote.

While Sepah popularized dopamine fasting, he didn’t invent the term. In 2016, Greg Kamphuis launched “The Dopamine Challenge” and invited others on social media to join him for a 40-day fast from “TV, refined sugar, alcohol, processed fats, nicotine, recreational drugs, caffeine, and porn.” Kamphuis also planned to “make deliberate choices about meal times, social media, and shopping.” He explained his reason for fasting as a “desperate attempt to get healthy and motivated” and to “sacrifice a few weeks of pleasure to search for a lifetime of joy.”

While it may sound intriguing, the problem with the concept is pretty simple: you can’t fast from dopamine, because the release of dopamine is not under your control. When you experience something unanticipated, dopamine is released. Since the experience is just that — unanticipated — it’s out of your control. Dopamine is typically released in response to feelings you do not have conscious control over. That being said, there are plenty of benefits to taking a break from your smartphone or from habits that could become addictive.

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