• A form of “mental dieting” known as dopamine fasting has quickly become popular with millenials. While it’s impossible to “fast” from a naturally occurring brain chemical, that doesn’t stop some people from trying.
  • This strict practice aims to restore the brain’s natural flow of dopamine by restricting the dopamine faster’s access to pleasure-inducing activities and substances.
  • Everything from food seasonings to eye contact, laughter, and exercise can be restricted by some dopamine fasters.
  • Such a severe form of modern asceticism is harmful to one’s mental and physical health; while potentially addictive substances like nicotine or alcohol are often cut out by fasters, eliminating healthy activities like social interactions and exercise is a step too far.
  • Instead, those who want to try dopamine fasting should talk with their life coach or counselor to create healthy lifestyle changes.  

Dopamine is probably the only neurotransmitter that could be considered a household name. News sources, tech bros, and mental health outlets toss the word around like a frisbee. Everyone and their dog seems to know what dopamine is—a feel-good chemical that’s produced in the brain, which rewards us for performing life’s simple pleasures, whether it be running, enjoying a sunny day, or eating pecan pie. On the other hand, dopamine is a major player in the formation of addictions, with the capability to rewire our reward pathways when we introduce artificial forms of stimulus into our lives and bodies.

All types of addictions, be they from social media platforms, drugs, or shopping, can induce a warm sense of pleasure because they can stimulate the production of dopamine. So in an attempt to control the ebb and flow of dopamine, determined individuals have started resorting to a strict practice known as dopamine fasting. Shutting themselves off from all imagined forms of pleasure, dopamine fasters aim to limit things such as social interactions, junk food, one’s favorite foods, tv shows—some even go as far as eliminating eye contact

Dopamine fasters hope that their intermittent austerities will reset their brain chemistry, granting them improved focus and mental clarity. Yet experts say that we can’t “fast” from a chemical that’s naturally produced in the brain. This leaves two questions: Does dopamine fasting work? And if it doesn’t, why are so many people trying it? 

Modern Asceticism, Mental Dieting, and Misinformation

Dopamine fasting took off in August of 2019 after being created and advocated for by a California psychiatrist, who simply intended for the trend to be a casual way to practice cutting back on over stimulus from simple things like junk food and social media. It wasn’t meant to be taken as literal “fast” from dopamine. However, many followers misunderstood the title; now the practice has become extreme.  

From there, it seems to have spread quickly throughout Silicon Valley, where millennials and like-minded entrepreneurs wanted an escape from the increasing amount of stimulus in their daily lives. Dopamine fasting shares similarities with a form of “mental dieting” known as digital detoxing, which involves deactivating or deleting social media, or to a lesser extent, locking one’s phone away for a set period of time. 

But for many dopamine fasting is far more austere and has no set guidelines, now that it’s been adopted as a controversial dieting fad. This highly subjective practice can take things much further than a digital detox, with some fasters cutting out as many dopamine triggers as possible, including:

  • Alcohol 
  • Drugs 
  • Seasoning on foods
  • Pleasure foods, like desserts
  • Nicotine 
  • Sex
  • Social interactions 
  • Eye contact and conversations (which are at least reduced to a bare minimum) 
  • Exercise 
  • Laughter 

Do these forms of pleasure trigger dopamine production in the brain? Yes—but this is where the misinformation begins. Because dopamine is naturally produced in the brain, there’s no real way to “detox” or rid ourselves of it. And while some of these activities or substances listed above can be harmful, not all of them are, and most can be moderated. In fact, cutting out some of the helpful, natural mood-boosting activities like exercise, laughter, sex, and human contact could cause prolonged unhappiness, or worse—lead to the development of a mental health condition like anxiety or depression

Moderation Is Key

Reducing the amount of time spent doing things that are good for our mental health is bad for us—there’s no way around it: Dopamine fasting is a practice to avoid. But if you’re looking to cut back on the amount of time you spend engaged in unhealthy activities, moderation is a far better alternative to this over-the-top form of modern asceticism. 

When taken to the extremes, dopamine fasting isn’t healthy, and many who practice this mental dieting fad are falsely led to believe that they can somehow “fast” from a naturally occurring chemical in their body. Dopamine fasting does get some things right, though; there are substances and activities that have the potential to cause addiction. When our brain becomes addicted to something, our reward pathway is altered, meaning that we stop producing dopamine without that addictive source. 

Mental Dieting Done Right

Dopamine fasting aims to reset the reward pathways, but in many ways, this route is overkill. Instead, there are more viable ways to find a middle path if we want to cut back on sources of unhealthy, addictive dopamine stimulation in our daily lives. Identifying those sources should be a personal journey, one that seeks to find a balanced, moderated approach—and that doesn’t go too far. 

If you’re interested in mental dieting, take a look at your personal habits and personality. For a balanced approach, that doesn’t involve eliminating eye contact or seasoned food, consider whether: 

  • You can identify any habits that create feelings of guilt. Perhaps you eat out too often—or maybe you’re ready to quit smoking. For many people, going cold turkey isn’t possible and may lead to excess stress. Instead, create a plan that tapers your negative habit off gradually over the course of a few weeks or months. 
  • Talking with a counselor or life coach for more direction would help: Life coaches and therapists are trained to provide balanced, healthy ways to create real lifestyle changes. Plus, confiding in a mental health professional will offer you a shoulder to lean on as you change your habits. Two heads are better than one.
  • You can realistically cut the habit, activity, or substance out of your life without harming your mental health: Okay, so we all know that cutting out alcohol and pecan pie won’t kill us. But more essential things like social engagement, laughter, and exercise are an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. Like a Jenga tower, removing just one of these blocks can create a cascade effect that throws off your mental health, and may create more problems than what you started with. 

Now you know that dopamine fasting isn’t a good idea, nor a safe way to change your lifestyle. But it’s still an interesting fad and one that indicates how far many of us are willing to go to achieve mental clarity. This is a worthy pursuit—but one that should be done carefully, or even better, with the help of a counselor or life coach.