By Marianne Vicelich
It’s known as a life-hack, but what is ‘Dopamine Fasting’?
According to clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCSF School of Medicine and creator of the ‘dopamine fast’, Dr Cameraon Sepah, “we are addicted to dopamine”.
According to Harvard Medical School, due to the constant influx of dopamine, we find ourselves constantly wanting more and more, leading to impulsive and excessive feel-good behaviours.
Although some people dismiss dopamine fasting as a Silicon Valley tech trend or consider it a lifestyle fast aimed at reducing dopamine levels in the brain for heightened pleasure upon re-engagement, that is not how it actually works. Dopamine is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter in the brain and is not an external substance. While its levels fluctuate at different times, such as during pleasurable experiences like sex, eating delicious food, or listening to music, dopamine is always present in the brain.
The term ‘dopamine fasting’ is somewhat misleading; it is more accurately described as a stimulation fast. Dr. Sepah explains, “Dopamine is just a mechanism that explains how addictions can become reinforced and makes for a catchy title. The title is not to be taken literally.” In other words, you cannot abstain from dopamine itself. The concept of dopamine fasting was developed to reduce impulsive behaviours, not the neurotransmitter.
Dopamine fasting vs stimulation fast
So, what is Dopamine Fasting then? Dopamine fasting is an approach based on cognitive-behavioural therapy, aimed at helping individuals become aware of and reduce addictive or impulsive behaviours such as excessive social media use, emotional eating, excessive shopping, and/or drinking. Rather than immediately succumbing to these rewarding cues that provide instant but short-lived gratification, the goal is to allow our brains to take breaks and reset from these potentially addictive influences.
Dopamine fasting, also referred to as a mental break or unwinding, is a method to create space in our daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly routines instead of constantly being overwhelmed by enticing impulses. The original intention of dopamine fasting was to offer a rationale and suggestions for disconnecting from the frenzy of technology-driven days and substituting simpler activities that help us reconnect with ourselves and others while embracing a mindful approach to living.
Identifying Addictive Behaviours
Dr Sepah identified six categories of behaviours that are particularly prone to addiction: excessive internet use, emotional eating, shopping, porn or masturbation, thrill or novelty-seeking behaviours, and recreational drug use.
Many of us can benefit from a better understanding of our impulsive behaviours and how to manage them. Consequently, Dr. Sepah created a fasting schedule that can be easily incorporated into our daily lives. His suggested plan for abstaining from impulsive behaviours includes the following:
Choose fasting times to reduce impulsive behaviour without completely eliminating it. For example, try abstaining for one to four hours before bed, depending on your work schedule; dedicate one day per weekend to alternative activities or spending time outdoors; allocate one weekend per quarter for a local trip; and set aside one week per year for a vacation.
Dr Sepah even recommends a designated “feasting” time, during which you schedule 5 to 30 minutes, one to three times a day, to engage in impulsive behaviour.
The key takeaway is that dopamine fasting allows us to be more conscious and aware of our impulsivity and addictive patterns. What makes this approach particularly appealing is that instead of shaming impulsive behaviours, Dr. Sepah’s method establishes healthy boundaries around them, which we can incorporate into our daily lives. This approach aligns with the principles of mindfulness wellness practices, as we take time to focus on what truly matters instead of constantly opting for unproductive distractions.
(Extracts from Harvard Medical School, Harvard Health Publishing.)