Mental health, Science, pseudoscience, & media literacy

The Dopamine Fasting Myth

The dopamine fasting myth: why it's impossible to go dopamine free – graphics of nerve synapse and brain neural connections

I have an issue with pseudoscience masquerading as science.  Whether these ideas have any associated value or not isn’t my concern.  My problem is when science-like concepts are used to trick people into believing that an idea is something that it isn’t.

My current rant is about dopamine fasting.  I recently heard about this from another blogger.  To be clear, my aim is not at all to criticize that particular blogger or any other blogger who shares things like this.  Fads like this are presented in a way that seems, at least at face value, to be valid.  The problem doesn’t lie with people that accept these concepts because they pass the face value test; rather, it lies with the people who deliberately draw on pseudoscience to trick others into essentially buying what they’re selling.

What dopamine fasting involves

So what is dopamine fasting?  It appears to have been first proposed by a psychiatrist in California, Dr. Cameron Sepah, and it gained a following in Silicon Valley.  You may have heard that addiction relates to rushes of dopamine in the brain’s reward centre.  The process of dopamine fasting involves abstaining from pleasurable activities that might trigger this kind of dopamine surge.

Dr. Sepah’s recommendations (as described in The Telegraph) are to fast between 1-4 hours a day, plus a day each weekend along with some extra time throughout the year.  During that time, you need to avoid the following:

  1. Browsing the internet or playing video games
  2. Online shopping or gambling
  3. Pleasure eating
  4. Thrill-seeking behaviour (anything that triggers strong emotions)
  5. Viewing pornography
  6. Recreational drugs

The site Alive and Well Balanced suggests a 24-hour dopamine fast with several additional requirements:

  • No reading books or magazines
  • No music or podcasts
  • No coffee, caffeinated tea, or other stimulants
  • No talking to others (unless absolutely necessary)
  • No food

On the surface, all of this may sound quite plausible.  Avoiding pleasure to avoid dopamine might seem like a great idea on the face of it.

Bring on the pseudoscience

The problem is, once you get down to the nitty gritty of how things work in the brain, it starts to fall apart.

Let’s quickly talk about what fasting is.  Fasting in the traditional sense involves depriving oneself of food and/or liquids.  It may be done for health, religious/spiritual, or other reasons, but the basic premise is non-consumption.

How would that translate to dopamine?  It would seem to suggest going dopamine-free, i.e. during the fasting period you would have no (or almost no) dopamine, or that you stop putting dopamine into your body.

Except that’s completely absurd.

Several articles I looked at claimed that pleasurable activities cause the production of dopamine, implying it was sort of like the sun shining on the skin causes the production of vitamin D.  The problem is, it doesn’t work that way.

Dopamine in the brain

The dopamine is already there.  The brain makes it from an amino acid (phenylalanine), and it’s hanging out at the end of neurons locked and loaded and ready to go, just like its chemical cousins serotonin and norepinephrine.

The graphic on the left below represents a synaptic connection between two neurons. The neuron on top represents the message sender, and the pink areas within it represent dopamine (or other neurotransmitter) that it’s got stored and ready to go to pass on to adjacent neurons.

graphic of brain circuits

Dopamine is not a one-trick pony.  Sure, it’s the main neurotransmitter acting in the brain’s pleasure and reward centre (the nucleus accumbens), but it’s doing a heck of a lot of other things in a heck of a lot of other places. The graphic on the right hints at the many different pathways in the brain. Any given neurotransmitter works in multiple different pathways.

Because it plays such an important role in the brain, if it was actually possible to go on a dopamine fast (i.e. having zero dopamine in your brain), you would be seriously up shit creek.  Movement-wise, you’d be looking at something along the lines of severe Parkinson’s Disease.  Mentally, the part of your brain that handles executive functioning (essentially your cognitive air traffic control) would be out to lunch, along with a variety of other mental functions.

Why this is a problem

So, does the process of “dopamine fasting” lead to benefits from a psychological/behavioural perspective?  Quite possibly – I have no way of knowing (and a research study would be a useful way to find out), and that’s not what I’m challenging.

My point is that by calling it a “dopamine fast” it gets people talking the language of pseudoscience because the average person is highly unlikely to know the real science—and that’s just plain misleading.  I certainly don’t expect everyone to be up on their neurophysiology, and that’s why it bugs me if the original proponent of an idea like this is leaving the door wide open and rolling out the welcome mat for people to make inaccurate assumptions.  If a name is chosen because it’s gimmicky rather than inaccurate, that’s a problem.

Ok, rant over.

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33 thoughts on “The Dopamine Fasting Myth”

  1. Sorry for the extra comment: We were just thinking the same thing you were:

    “Because it plays such an important role in the brain, if it was actually possible to go on a dopamine fast (i.e. zero dopamine), you would be seriously up shit creek. ”

    Exactly.

      1. The only reason it has become a trend is because there is a need, a need comping from society which is desperate for an answer and if something sounds remotely possible well some people do it because they feel cornered and it is their alternative to suicide or other desperate measures.

        I went to the Amazon and went on a special diet(no sugar, salt, spices, oil, sex etc) and it healed what doctors could not for many years. Now there is no research regarding this scientifically but it worked. As the shaman explained, oil and salt protect the body and when the salt an oil are not taken in then the plant medicines can penetrate deeper into the cells and help on a deeper level.. Now there is not science that supports this but I saw many people including with cancer in the throat and womb being cured by these methods and clinical depressions etc….

        Most of the issues were cleared by the Healer shipibo woman. If you ever feel like there are no more answers go there. Aya Madre center in Iquitos Peru. This is the only Shipibo woman owned center. I believe she is the best. I only offer this information because I was called to share.

        As for dopamine, yes this is sudo since however there are truths present in what the method which may provide lasting results. Then again shaking things up in general will help provide new possibilities.

        Thank you for sharing.

  2. HA! If I only could control my dopamine, that would be very awkward! So basically when I don’t browse the net I’m ok and for the extra experience I should go on a retreat. That is what they are selling with a pseudo-science name.

  3. I’d never heard of this before. I wonder how people think this stuff up.

    Weirdly, keeping Shabbat per Orthodox Jewish law meets almost all of Dr Sepah’s dopamine fast, except for pleasure eating (not the stricter guidelines though, most of those are things people enjoy doing on Shabbat). I find Shabbat restorative, but I’m not sure that it has anything to do with dopamine so much as avoiding triggers and screens and being in a safe environment with real people.

  4. OMG! I cannot believe that people actually fall for this stuff! And even even if its true, how can you control it and what about the other hormones in the brain! This is really absurd ! thanks for spreading awareness regarding such topics!

      1. Apparently, some people should reconsider their degrees! I’m really ashamed that some of them are medical professionals!
        this platform is helping us however, to clear things up ! we should always keep citing medical facts even when there’s a big resistance against us !

  5. Never heard of it. I’ve heard of different components of it, unrelated to dopamine however. People are now doing food fasts such as the 16/8 (a la Jennifer Aniston) in hopes of losing weight. Depends on what you eat during those 8 hours though! Or fasting for 24 hours one day a week only. Or going on weekend social media “fasts” to reconnect with family or whatever. It’s all about taking control of your own time and choices, which is what I did when I gave up Facebook and dating sites.

  6. Great post! If I have a said it lately, this is one of my favorite blogs. You always make me think in a different way. And I value your commitment to the scientific method and empirical research 🙂

  7. Thank you for writing this. Reading forums where guys think they are resetting their libidos by depriving it of dopamine for an extended length of time is frustrating. It’s hard to convince people their placebos are meaningless. All they really need to do is imagine the change happening and it will. It’s all about visualization!!! 😉 Thanks for the extra slam on Law of Attraction. I look forward to your rant on reiki.

  8. This blog post is brilliant. You’re the go-to person for pseudoscience. I’ve never heard of this concept! I definitely don’t think this should be attempted. It sounds dangerous and sinister. I think if we’re going to get all Buddhist Monk about it, they probably accept their urges toward a rush or high and channel them more productively. This, though, sounds genuinely scary, like playing with fire. Very interesting!!

  9. I didn’t read all to the end because it lost me – am going for some pleasure eating right way. Yesterday I wasn’t around any of the shit they say we should ‘stay away’ from (why only for some few hours and specific days beats my imagination) and still had a meltdown in the evening. So, et me just get going. Ashley you do a great job sharing all the stuff you share here, and I hope this particular sharing don’t trigger – I hope the rant helped more than it hurt that’s all am saying.
    light
    Marie

  10. I had no idea this exists, wow. I appreciate posts like this – would love a post on Reiki because a lot of people I know swear by it and I’m the odd one out in my skepticism!

  11. I am loving this rant. You’re right, they shouldn’t call it dopamine fasting. Dopamine is crucial for so many other things in the brain besides pleasure, and we can’t even consume dopamine in the way you consume food.

    I’m glad you’re pushing against this stupid misuse of scientific language.

    When you were looking at different articles did you find anything that says there’s a benefit from abstaining from things like internet or reading or talking with people for x amount of time a week? I can definitely see a benefit from cutting back internet use, but the other ones seem sketchy.

    1. I didn’t come across anything clearcut. It makes sense to me that there could be a benefit from taking a break from things that someone is doing in a mindless, uncontrolled way, but I would think that would be a lot more individual than just saying don’t do this list of things.

  12. I haven’t heard of this before. It does sound true but not possible. Fasting of any kind isn’t healthy but I get why people do it. When it comes to what is already in our bodies and being created, it doesn’t seem possible to stop it completely.

    To quit an addiction, you have to replace it with something else or just be patient with yourself.

  13. Are you sure you understand what the result of this process is? Not dissing, just asking. You say it’s reduce dopamine in general. But it’s not the end result. Of course dopamine will never be ZERO. And dr. Sepah obviously knows that. What it’s meant to do is eliminate the bouts of dopamine, the chronic exposure of dopamine receptors to excessive amounts of doamine, that would reduce the number and sensitivity of these receptors. So what you are doing is allowing D2/3 to recover and function properly, enabling you to easily rid yourself of those damaging activities (excessive eating, binge-watching, gaming, porn, etc). This is what I understand is the advantage. Please correct me if i’m wrong.

    1. The point I was trying to make that “dopamine fast” is gimmicky without being accurate, which makes it easy for people to make assumptions that it’s something other than what it’s intended to be.

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