‘Dopamine Fasting’ Is a Silicon Valley Craze, But Does It Work?

Taking a break from modern day life and all of its creature comforts is probably, for most people, an unpleasant, if not downright alarming prospect. Checking social media likes, playing video games, eating various delicious foods, and even working out at high intensity levels have all become standard, pleasurable facets of people’s lives, at least in many parts of the developed world, and going without them would be painful. But a fad, which has been catching on in a big way in Silicon Valley, aims to mitigate the inevitable downsides of those pleasures with “dopamine fasting”. It’s an exercise that calls for living life for some period of time like Siddhartha seeking Nirvana.

Improvement Pill’s video on dopamine fasting, which is one of the most popular explainers out there. 

The Guardian recently reported on the phenomenon, which has been steadily increasing in popularity since at least the latter part of 2018. And while the exact parameters of what makes up a dopamine fast are nebulous, the concept is quite simple. The thinking goes that modern life affords many people endless pleasures, which overstimulate the brain and cause it to feel depleted levels of satisfaction from normal activities as a kind of defensive response to the overwhelming amount of incoming delights. To combat this, dopamine fasters take some period of time, perhaps a few hours or a day or several days, and completely drop almost everything in their life that brings them pleasure. This break period—supposedly—allows for the brain to recover from its dopamine inundation. Thus, it returns to a state where it can be more excited about normal activities.

The temporary restraint from giving into temptation is specifically referred to as dopamine fasting because those who partake in the lifestyle choice say that it zeroes in on boosting the levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine, for those who haven’t looked into why music, for example, makes you feel so good, is a neurotransmitter and hormone that is responsible for making somebody feel the sensation of pleasure. It performs other functions as well, but its ability to induce pleasure is what’s most relevant to this kind of fasting. (Check out the video below for a more detailed description of what dopamine does.)

A video by Dr. Eric Berg DC describing what dopamine is and what it does. 

The concept, at its core, makes a lot of sense from an intuitive standpoint—anybody who’s ever dug their way down to the bottom of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s knows that at least the last few scoops are more of a chore than an exciting, tastebud journey. Several researchers who spoke with The Guardian echoed that fact, noting that, at least in theory, taking a break from constant dopamine-increasing activities would likely have positive effects on one’s mind and body. David Nutt, the director of the neuropsychopharmacology unit in the division of brain sciences at Imperial College London, told The Guardian, for example, that “Retreating from life probably makes life more interesting when you come back to it.”

It’s still unclear, however, how effective dopamine fasting is, because it seems like no real studies have been done to validate or disprove the efficacy of the total break from pleasure. It’s also unclear whether or not the supposedly effective method does indeed affect dopamine, and not some other type of neurotransmitter or transmitters. Researchers also pointed out to The Guardian that there may be sneaky ways that people will get hits of dopamine even if they’re abstaining from everything that normally makes them happy. For example, dopamine fasters may receive a hit of dopamine when they think about how successful they’ve been at avoiding activities that release dopamine.

Dopamine fasting is a new trend in Silicon Valley that calls for skipping out on life's pleasures for some period of time.

The molecular structure of the neurotransmitter, dopamine. AndreaAP96

Regardless of its efficacy, or whether or not it even specifically affects dopamine, dopamine fasting seems to be a fad that has some staying power. Which doesn’t come as much of a surprise anyway considering the fact that Nutt, who studies the physiology of the brain, said that “Monks have been doing it for thousands of years.”

What do you think of this dopamine fasting trend? Is it a good idea to avoid all of life’s pleasures for some period of time here and there, or is rebooting the brain’s reward circuitry on the regular totally unnecessary? Meditate on this story in the comments! (Even if that does bring you pleasure.)

Feature image: Ana_Cotta