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It’s known as the life-hack of Silicon Valley execs. But what is dopamine fasting and are there benefits?


Could being unplugged be more fashionable in the future?

A lot has been said about technology and how it’s designed to ensure we keep on clicking.

As a result, some turned to a trend known as “dopamine fasting”.

In a nutshell, it means abstaining from cheap forms of dopamine and, for many, that meant ditching their smartphones. 

A few years ago, it attracted followers in the tech industry — the people behind the apps many of us find difficult to tear our eyes away from.

But is dopamine fasting just another health and well-being fad, or is there something in it?

Experts say smartphone notifications give a dopamine rush.(ABC: Tara Cassidy)

In her work, Dr Anna Lembke says our relentless pursuit of pleasure is making us miserable. 

She’s a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Well, to be fair — it’s not entirely our fault.

Alerts are like hits

Your smartphone notification gives you a dopamine rush, according to Dr Anastasia Hronis, a clinical psychologist and honorary associate at the University of Technology Sydney.

Dr Hronis says dopamine fasting has been misconstrued in the past by media. (Supplied)

Dopamine is the chemical we make in our brains.

It’s one of the body’s neurotransmitters, and it’s essential to the experience of pleasure, reward and motivation, Dr Lembke says. 

It does a lot of other things too (dopamine levels are associated with diseases including Parkinson’s disease), but it is kind of the celebrity of brain chemicals because of its link to pleasure

So a dopamine hit brings about pleasure, but this is quickly followed by a come down so that we’re quickly searching again for another dopamine hit, starting the cycle all over again. Dr Lembke says this worked when we were hunting to survive, but not so much now.

Today, we can get that hit faster and with much less effort.

It can come via empty-calorie brain candy (think sugar, social media apps and drugs) or from something with a little more soul food (like exercise or being outside in a natural environment).

In recent years we have seen an increase in what Dr Lembke describes as “digital drugs”. Think things like:

  • social media
  • gaming 
  • porn
  • online gambling 
  • online apps/ dating apps 

Hardwired for addiction 

Digital devices are designed using the same psychology as other addictions, Dr Lembke says.

“They are engineered to be addictive, and they work exactly as intended.”

Brain imaging shows that people who use addictive drugs regularly show decreased dopamine transmission in the brain’s reward pathway, explains Dr Lembke. 

“After abstaining from their drug of choice for on average four weeks, healthy baseline level of dopamine firing are restored.”

She says digital drugs have been shown to light up the same reward pathway as traditional drugs.

“So we can infer that the dopamine fast has the same impact, and scientists are beginning to study this.”

Temptation is everywhere, and although it’s pleasurable, we can end up feeling worse.(Pexels)

When we’re repeatedly exposed to pleasure-producing stimuli, our brains adjust, and eventually, we need more and more just to feel “normal,” or not in pain, Dr Lembke says.

Known as a dopamine-deficient state, this cycle can lead to depression, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness or insomnia.

What is dopamine fasting?

Essentially, it means giving up something for a while.

Dopamine fasting was proposed by California psychiatrist Cameron Sepah for managing behaviour addictions.

In a piece for Medium, he describes it as:

“… An evidence-based technique to manage addictive behaviours, by restricting them to specific periods of time, and practising fasting from impulsively engaging in them, in order to regain behavioural flexibility.”

Dr Sepah recommends dopamine fasting for controlling six main categories of impulsive behaviours:

  • pleasure or emotional eating
  • Internet or gaming
  • gambling or shopping
  • porn or masturbation
  • Thrill or novelty-seeking behaviours
  • Recreational drug use

What dopamine fasting is not

The name makes for a catchy title, but you’re not actually fasting from dopamine.

The focus is on reducing compulsive behaviour, not reducing a naturally occurring brain chemical.

“I believe the intention is more to be able to take a break from something to be able to build greater flexibility of how and when we engage with that thing (e.g. technology),” Dr Hronis says.

Dr Lembke says it’s not about avoiding all stimulation or pleasure – it’s about cutting back on the specific behaviours that are problematic for you.

“What you’re doing is you’re fasting from the substances or the behaviours that cause a release of dopamine in the reward pathway,” she said.

So, it’s like a reset.

In today’s era of abundance and over-consumption, Dr Lembke says it’s important to find a pleasure-pain balance, which means intentionally avoiding pleasure and seeking the kind of purposeful pain that keeps us healthy, like exercise.

Dr Lembke says dopamine fasting can help reduce impulsive behaviours associated with cravings or addiction. (Supplied)

What’s a more sustainable way to do a digital detox? 

As with anything, experts say, moderation is key. 

Here’s a few things to keep in mind: 

Start small 

“If you’ve decided that you would like to gain more control over your digital use, perhaps start with small periods of time that are realistic and manageable where you don’t engage with devices,” Dr Hronis says.

“The ultimate goal is often to build flexibility over the relationship we have with our devices and the digital world.”

Don’t give up everything

It’s not about abstaining from every pleasure in life. Just the ones you need to break free from.

“Chose your drug of choice,” Dr Lembke says.

Tell someone about it

“Plan your quit date in advance,” Dr Lembke says.

“Tell people what you’re up to so you’re accountable and so they know what is going on.”

Don’t rely on willpower

Dr Lembke recommends using self-binding strategies to create barriers between you and the digital drug.

“Delete the app, unsubscribe, etc, so you’re not relying on willpower alone.”

Use ‘pain’ to your advantage 

We need pain to appreciate the pleasure. 

“Replace your drug of choice with things that are more painful than the pain of withdrawal,” Dr Lembke says.

She says this can include things like exercise, ice-cold water baths, intermittent fasting, prayer, or meditation.

Go natural

Mindfully savouring sunrises or sunsets, nature and other “natural pleasures” are examples of activities that raise dopamine levels without the spikes caused by drugs or other behaviour addictions.



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