“Dopamine detox” is a popular trend that involves restricting external rewards that produce dopamine in an attempt to regain control over compulsive and unhealthy behaviors. While it has become a popular “wellness fad”, it refers to a group of homogenous techniques or practices and does not have a clear medical protocol. .
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”?
The terms “Dopamine Detox” or “Dopamine Fasting’ have 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 block your dopamine response and lower amounts of dopamine in the brain. The “theory” is that this can alter negative behavior patterns while increasing pleasure from more healthy sources instead of the addictive substance or behavior.
The Theory Behind Dopamine Detox
Dopamine is involved in reward processing. When you offer a reward (like drugs, food, sex, television, or any other pleasurable reward), dopamine surges. Repeated dopamine spikes to the same stimuli can weaken the response of the dopamine receptors, and it will then take more of the substance to get the same response. 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 in order to let the brain reset and become less sensitized to dopamine. With time, this means the brain resets and doesn’t require as much dopamine to “feel good” and therefore the person does not need the addictive substance or behavior in order to feel “good”, breaking the cycle of addiction.
The dopamine detox, or dopamine fasting, is based on the concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on mindfulness to minimize impulsive behaviors and restore flexibility within your lifestyle.
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
First, let’s clear up a misconception: Your brain needs dopamine to function. Dopamine is involved in multiple pathways in the brain. There is always dopamine in your brain. As a result, you cannot “detox” from dopamine.
“Dopamine fasting” is a vague term and can look a lot of different ways. It could be as simple as “I am not going to eat ice-cream for one week to let my body detox from my ice cream addiction” to something as complicated as an abrupt cold turkey discontinuation of an opioid drug.
There is a lot of misinformation about “dopamine fasting” online. It is not a medical term, but instead a rather vague, colloquial term. It does not have a strict definition or set of rules about how to actually decrease dopamine levels in the brain.
It is helpful to understand how dopamine works and the role that it may play in the brain and in addiction disorders. Dopamine deprivation or resetting is a concept used by some behavioral health professionals to help patients decrease negative behaviors or substance use.
However, at this time there is no definitive proof that “dopamine fasting” significantly decreases rates of true addictive disorders.
Alternatives to the Dopamine Detox
If you have a true substance use disorder or other addiction disorder, the good new 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.
Medically Reviewed By Elena Hill, MD, MPH
Elena Hill, MD; MPH received her MD and Masters of Public Health degrees at Tufts Medical School and completed her family medicine residency at Boston Medical Center. She is currently an attending physician at Bronxcare Health Systems in the Bronx, NY where ... Read More
- Silicon Valley is Obsessed with ‘Dopamine Fasting’ to Stay Sane. It Might Actually Work, but Not Because of Dopamine. Insider. https://www.insider.com/what-is-dopamine-fasting-according-to-neuroscientist-2019-11. November 2019. Accessed September 2022.
- Is There Actually Science Behind ‘Dopamine Fasting?’ Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/is-there-science-behind-dopamine-fasting-trend.html. November 2019. Accessed September 2022.
- Maladaptive or Misunderstood? Dopamine Fasting as a Potential Intervention for Behavioral Addiction. Lifestyle Medicine. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/lim2.54. December 2021. Accessed September 2022.
- The Definitive Guide to Dopamine Fasting 2.0: The Hot Silicon Valley Trend. Medium. https://medium.com/swlh/dopamine-fasting-2-0-the-hot-silicon-valley-trend-7c4dc3ba2213. October 2019. Accessed September 2022.
- Dopamine Fasting: Misunderstanding Science Spawns a Maladaptive Fad. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/dopamine-fasting-misunderstanding-science-spawns-a-maladaptive-fad-2020022618917. February 2020. Accessed September 2022.
- Dopamine Fasting Probably Doesn’t Work, Try This Instead. PsychCentral. https://psychcentral.com/blog/dopamine-fasting-probably-doesnt-work-try-this-instead. November 2019. Accessed September 2022.
- Participant Perspectives on the Acceptability and Effectiveness of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavior Therapy Approaches for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. PLOS ONE. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7577499/. October 2020. Accessed September 2022.