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Dopamine Fasting: Healthy or Harmful?

Living in a digital world has turned many of us into dopamine addicts; often the idea of a complete detox seems like the right thing to do. Grace discusses what motivates dopamine fasts and the potential risks of this health trend.

By Grace O'Sullivan,

THE CROFT/ Living in a digital world has turned many of us into dopamine addicts; often the idea of a complete detox seems like the right thing to do. Grace discusses what motivates dopamine fasts and the potential risks of this health trend.

The term ‘dopamine’ in isolation is regularly associated with prosperous health - we receive dopamine from exercise, dancing, sex, the experience of enjoyable art, and even foods rich in vitamins. Why, then, is a ‘dopamine fast’ deemed a health kick?

The rules of a dopamine fast vary from source to source, and practitioners can take it to whatever extreme suits them. At its most lethal, participants can only consume water and must repel all human interaction, music, television and wider technology. It is a detox from all the stimuli that activate this ‘happy hormone’- when we partake in pleasurable activities, the brain rewards us by releasing dopamine. However, when we become hooked on consistently chasing this reward, we become prone to a weaker sense of self-control as we constantly pursue sources of stimulation.

Hilariously, dopamine detoxes are most popular in Silicon Valley, the spawning ground of tech companies including Apple, Facebook and Google. Having released a plague of technological overstimulation, the players of these companies are now diligently fasting from the evils they’ve created; I suppose it’s sweet of them to at least pretend they can be monks as well as millionaires.

The dopamine fast intends to affect greater self-control; the idea seems to be that participants, rather than thoughtlessly hunting for dopamine stimuli, become less dependent on the chemical feeling and can adjust to a lifestyle with decreased stimulation. To me, this state of decreased stimulation is absolutely desirable. I’m constantly disturbed by our collective obsession for more; as feeble as it sounds, a twenty-minute walk without checking my phone can be genuinely transformative, so I feel reluctant to return to a more engaged and anxious state. By regularly tuning ourselves into environments where we are forced to chase the new, to seek out every sensation available to us, we deprive ourselves of any genuine feeling of peace.

So, while an unstimulated mind may be a soothing source of health, is the ‘dopamine fast’ a wise way to achieve this?

It seems that the term ‘dopamine fast’, while guided in the right direction, may villainise the wrong enemy. Certainly, stimulators that trigger overloads of dopamine are beneficial to fast. But dopamine is itself just a product of this stimulation, so it seems worthwhile to investigate activities that produce dopamine but do not overstimulate the mind.

For example - if you decided to commit the entire day to avoiding screens, having sex and eating strawberries (both these activities, you’ll be pleased to know, trigger the chemical), I’m sure that, without having regimentally ‘fasted’ from dopamine, you would experience the desired effects (slower trains of thought, depleted levels of anxiety, many other lovely things). However, you would have reached the goal in a far less depressing way. And, frankly, lucky for you if you ever experience such a day.

In our societal chase for maximalism, we suddenly panic and feel the need to drastically cut back. Let’s be truthful: a dopamine fast sounds like the kind of day you would like to avoid - something born from the mind of a ruthless Puritan or George Orwell’s 1984.

While it seems appealing to temporarily impose harsh restrictions on ourselves in the name of health, this obsessive culling of pleasure is often misplaced. Is it not smarter to treat the cause of the problem first, rather than let the effects build up and then impose the self-flagellating treatment of a fast? This, again, represents a pattern that we follow as a 21st-century society - a rapid cycle of over-indulgence, which triggers a sudden shock of guilt, urging us to go into total restriction. By rushing ahead thoughtlessly, we become addicted to these dopamine sources and suddenly terrify ourselves into a dramatic state of elimination.

But, if we were more thoughtful, carefully considered why we are pursuing these dopamine triggers, and, importantly, identify which ones are overly stimulating - we could avoid this rapid pattern. Many things create dopamine but are not overstimulating at all.

I also think it’s important not to encourage self-shaming when we recognise ourselves chasing these feel-good hits. Many companies and social structures set us up to pursue these pleasures. So don’t blame yourself if you struggle to moderate these behaviours. I promise you are a good person, even if you slyly reject your screen time cap every single day.

Do you think dopamine fasting is actually good for you? Let us know!

Featured Image: Elvira Blumfelde