Dopamine detoxing has been growing in popularity since Doctor Cameron Sepah released his ‘Definitive Guide to Dopamine Fasting 2.0’ in 2019. Ever since then, dopamine detoxing has received a wide range of both positive and negative feedback; however, it has often been misinterpreted and so misapplied.
Nonetheless, dopamine detoxing has a handful of use cases and benefits. Although, none of this should be taken as medical advice.
To define dopamine detoxing, we must first ascribe what ‘dopamine’ is. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is released during pleasurable experiences. Dopamine affects many of our bodily functions and having optimal levels can support productivity and motivation.
Essentially, dopamine is a chemical in the brain which determines our cravings and compels us to act to achieve certain things. It is not, as is commonly misunderstood, a chemical which makes our brain feel pleasure. It is important to note that dopamine is not inherently bad.
However, dopamine addiction can have harmful implications. As presented by Mellis (2005), “decreased DA (dopamine) function in addicted subjects results in a decreased interest to non-drug-related stimuli and increased sensitivity to the drug of choice.”
This means that those suffering from drug addiction are less receptive to the dopamine released in response to non-drug-related to stimuli (and so feel less motivated to act in the direction of these stimuli.)
Further, they have ‘increased sensitivity to the drug of choice’, meaning that they require a larger hit to enjoy an equally pleasurable experience. This is because sharp increases in dopamine levels can reduce the amount of dopamine receptors in the brain; meaning that one needs to experience more stimuli to experience the same amount of pleasure.
This conveys the harms of dopamine addiction; and drug addiction is not the only manifestation of dopamine addiction. People can also be addicted to foods which are high in sugar, to video games, and to social media. Similarly to drugs, these can all provide ‘instant gratification’; they allow us to receive a high burst of dopamine without much exertion.
Contrastingly, physical exercise also leads to the release of dopamine; however, this is not a harmful way to release dopamine as it requires time and effort to experience the pleasure. Rather than receiving sufficient dopamine from; for example, going on a walk or reading a book, people suffering from dopamine addiction often rely upon receiving short bursts of dopamine from impulsive tendencies towards external stimuli.
Low levels of dopamine can reduce alertness and motivation; as well as being linked to mental illnesses such as depression, whilst excessive levels of dopamine can be linked to poor impulse control and, by extension, addiction. Dopamine detoxing is generally directed to the impulsive behavioural habits exhibited by people with excessive levels of dopamine and is focused around reducing and limiting this impulsive behaviour.
Confusion often arises around what dopamine detoxing is because the word ‘detox’ indicates that it is a lifestyle change to reduce the amount of dopamine in the brain. By extension, this provides a negative connotation of dopamine. However, a dopamine detox does not affect the dopamine levels in the body and, as we have already established, dopamine is not inherently bad.
Rather, because dopamine determines our cravings, the purpose of a dopamine detox (sometimes referred to as a dopamine fast) is to change our relationship with dopamine, by fasting from substances or behaviours which lead to instant gratification. The idea is to reduce our dependence on external stimuli which provide sudden bursts of dopamine and replace these with more sustainable and healthy behaviours which produce dopamine.
Sepah’s prescribed method of dopamine detoxing follows a Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)-based method of controlling stimuli. CBT treatment, in this instance, is focused upon changing behavioural patterns.
A study of the ‘Efficacy of CBT on Internet Addiction’ concluded that CBT can be effective in treating different forms of addiction, such as alcoholism and internet addiction. Further, the study also found CBT to be effective in treating anxiety and depression.
The stimulus control used in dopamine detoxing involves making it harder to or less likely that you will be able to access the stimulus (for example, by locking your phone away.)
Alternatively, Sepah advocates engaging in alternative activities which are incompatible with the stimulus or using website-blocking software to prevent yourself from accessing the stimulus. Thus, the theory advocated by Sepah relies upon reducing impulsive behaviour, rather than reducing dopamine itself.
The six most common behavioural addictions recognised by Doctor Cameron Sepah are:
- Pleasure/ Emotional eating
- Internet/ Gaming
- Gambling/ Shopping
- Porn/ Masturbation
- Thrill/ Novelty-seeking
- Recreational drugs
A frequent misconception is that, when conducting a dopamine detox, one should also reduce social interaction as this is a pleasurable experience. This is linked to the idea that in a fast, one should do nothing, or only do simple mindful activities, such as meditation.
Though, the purpose of the detox is not to remove all dopamine releasing activities, but to remove impulsive behaviours which we rely upon for a dopamine burst, and replace these with regular activities which release dopamine in a more sustainable manner.
The above idea is a widespread misapplication of the dopamine detox which can have harmful implications. Dopamine is a naturally occurring chemical and we should not be attempting to reduce the amount of dopamine in our body. However, it does not seem a strange theory, which advocates attempting to reduce impulsive behaviour and replace this with activities which have less of a damaging impact on our mental health.
Dopamine detoxing should not be used in place of medical advice; however, the theory based upon CBT has grown in popularity in recent years and is commended by many who engage in this fast. It is often recognised as being valuable in increasing willpower and resistance to temptation (and by extension, helping with addiction), as well as improving mental health.
Although the misinterpreted and misapplied form of dopamine detoxing can clearly do more harm than good; the CBT-based theory recommended by Sepah is widely commended by those who engage in it, and seems to offer a valuable method to limit; for example, social media addiction.