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Dopamine Detox: How It Works, Effectiveness & Alternatives

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Feb 25, 2024 • 11 cited sources

“Dopamine detox” is a popular wellness fad that involves restricting external rewards that produce dopamine in an attempt to regain control over compulsive and unhealthy behaviors.[6]

While plenty of bloggers, social media influencers and reporters argue that dopamine detox works, it’s not a medically recognized practice. If you’re struggling with addictive behaviors, including compulsive drug use, enrolling in a qualified treatment program is the best way to get better.

What Is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a naturally occurring neurotransmitter that plays a role in pleasure and reward processing, motivation and impulses, and learning. When something makes you feel good, your brain produces dopamine, – reinforcing the behavior. 

Dopamine can potentially be involved in compulsive or negative behaviors and is thought to be highly involved in the development of various addiction disorders. 

What Is a “Dopamine Detox” or “Dopamine Fasting”?

Your brain needs dopamine to function.[1] Dopamine is involved in multiple pathways in the brain. There is always dopamine in your brain. As a result, you cannot “detox” from dopamine.

However, dopamine detox has become a new wellness trend that you may have read about online or through social media.

There are claims that by depriving yourself of certain positive or rewarding stimuli, you can lower your dopamine response to a specific trigger and gain more control over your thoughts and habits in response to that trigger.

The Theory Behind Dopamine Detox 

Dopamine is involved in reward processing. When you receive a reward (like drugs, food, sex, television or any other pleasurable reward), dopamine surges.[2] Repeated dopamine spikes to the same stimulus can weaken the brain’s response to reward over time. It will then take more of the substance to produce the same amount of reward. Simple pleasures that should and could be sufficient to create contentment are dulled, and a person requires the addictive substance or activity (food, nicotine, drugs, sex, gambling, etc.) in order to get enough dopamine to feel “good”. 

The idea behind a dopamine detox, or fast, is to stop giving oneself the substance or experience that creates the dopamine reward to let the brain reset and become less sensitized to dopamine. With time, the theory goes, the brain resets and doesn’t require as much dopamine to feel good. Eventually, the person does not need the addictive substance or behavior in order to feel good, breaking the cycle of addiction.

Dopamine fasting involves two concepts common to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). While dopamine fasting is not considered part of traditional CBT, understanding its underpinnings could be helpful. The two shared concepts include the following:[3]

  • Restriction: Objects somehow implicated in the negative behavior are either removed physically or made impossible to access in some other way.
  • Exposure and response prevention: The person is exposed to the triggering stimulus without engaging in the typical response.

The idea is to adjust your attitude until even strong temptation can’t keep you from your daily routine. You’ve broken the association between the behavior and the reward.[3]

What Is Dopamine Fasting Supposedly Used to Treat?

“Dopamine fasting” is a concept or technique that has been proposed by some as a way to treat multiple addiction disorders, including:[4,5]

  • Emotional eating
  • Gambling and online shopping
  • Excessive gaming and internet use
  • Masturbation and porn
  • Novelty and thrill-seeking
  • Recreational drug use

Effectiveness of Dopamine Fasting

Most of the readily available information regarding dopamine fasting comes from newspapers, blogs and social media posts. Even extensive searches fail to bring up published studies that show how well it works when compared to other forms of therapy for chemical or behavioral addictions.

However, some studies on behavioral addictions suggest that quitting the habit abruptly can come with some benefits. For example, in a study of teenagers who played games compulsively, quitting for 84 hours prompted them to spend more time with their families and participate in more outdoor sports.[8]

Researchers say that few studies have examined the value of brief abstinence in people with behavioral addictions. Most research is deeply focused on how people stop engaging in harmful behaviors and quit for good.[9]

Small studies do seem to suggest that some behavioral addictions could respond to short periods of quitting—which one might also call a dopamine detox.

Addictions to chemical substances are different.

A dopamine detox involves cold-turkey quitting a target of misuse. Quitting alcohol abruptly can lead to life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, including seizures.[10] Quitting opioids abruptly can also be dangerous, as some people experience life-threatening dehydration.[11]

Given these risks, it’s unlikely that researchers would ask study participants to quit their drugs to determine the efficacy of dopamine detox. It’s also unlikely that doctors would ask their patients to do something so hazardous to get over a substance misuse issue.

Alternatives to the Dopamine Detox

If you have a true substance use disorder or other addiction disorder, the good news is there are FDA approved treatments available. These treatments, including MAT and cognitive behavioral therapy, have been proven to decrease withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse in patients with OUD. 

Instead of a full dopamine detox or dopamine fast, it can be beneficial to engage in behavioral therapy sessions with a trained professional who can help you to recognize unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. They can then teach you tools for managing these thoughts and behaviors through real evidence based techniques. 

It is not medically advisable to turn to a fad or trend to treat a true addiction disorder. If you are concerned that you have a true substance use disorder, seek out professional assistance from a doctor or licensed mental health professional.

Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD

Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More

  1. Silicon Valley is Obsessed with ‘Dopamine Fasting’ to Stay Sane. It Might Actually Work, but Not Because of Dopamine. Insider. November 2019. Accessed September 2022.
  2. Is There Actually Science Behind ‘Dopamine Fasting?’ Live Science. November 2019. Accessed September 2022.
  3. Maladaptive or Misunderstood? Dopamine Fasting as a Potential Intervention for Behavioral Addiction. Lifestyle Medicine. December 2021. Accessed September 2022.
  4. The Definitive Guide to Dopamine Fasting 2.0: The Hot Silicon Valley Trend. Medium. October 2019. Accessed September 2022.
  5. Dopamine Fasting: Misunderstanding Science Spawns a Maladaptive Fad. Harvard Health. February 2020. Accessed September 2022.
  6. Dopamine Fasting Probably Doesn’t Work, Try This Instead. PsychCentral. November 2019. Accessed September 2022.
  7. Participant Perspectives on the Acceptability and Effectiveness of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavior Therapy Approaches for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. PLOS ONE. October 2020. Accessed September 2022.
  8. Effect of Brief Gaming Abstinence on Withdrawal in Adolescent At-Risk Daily Gamers: A Randomized Controlled Study. Computers in Human Behavior. November 2018. Accessed January 2024.
  9. Short-Term Abstinence Effects Across Potential Behavioral Addictions: A Systematic Review. Clinical Psychology Review. March 2020. Accessed January 2024.
  10. Alcohol Withdrawal. StatPearls. July 2023. Accessed January 2024.
  11. Opioid Withdrawal. StatPearls. July 2023. Accessed January 2024.

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