The latest trend to come out of Silicon Valley is all about deprivation, and has the distinctly un-fun name of ‘dopamine fasting’.
It’s part of an increased interest in biohacking amongst tech entrepeneurs, which basically means manipulating your body to get the most out of it. For instance, intermittent fasting – which Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is a big fan of, claiming it gives him focus and more time to spend working. Really, it’s all about optimising yourself, and what you can achieve as a result.
At one end of the biohacking spectrum is changing your behaviours (like how much you eat, sleep or exercise) and the other, more extreme side, involves using tech to modify your body.
While dopamine fasting doesn’t call for you to install a chip in your hand, it’s not for the faint of heart. So what is involved?
Dopamine is released “when we’re about to experience pleasure”, explains Dr Diana Gall of Doctor4U, “which differs from person to person”. It’s also important to note that “dopamine isn’t an addictive chemical”, according to Gall.
Dietitian Rachel Clarkson says: “Whenever you consume or you experience something that can make you feel good, like food, television, social media, spending time with friends etc, all of these things release dopamine in the brain and make us want to do more of it; it makes us feel good.”
Your body, and especially your brain, need a certain level of dopamine as well – too little can lead to diseases like Parkinson’s, and too much has been linked with conditions like schizophrenia.
Overstimulation, says Clarkson, “makes us less sensitive to dopamine, so we need more of it.”
Dopamine fasting then, Gall describes as “the idea of abstaining from pleasurable or addictive behaviours for a set amount of time,” in order to increase sensitivity once the fast is over.
“Those that take part in dopamine fasting usually have to identify exactly which behaviours they find addictive in order to abstain from them for a period of time,” explains Gall. “For some people, this might be video games or junk food, while others might choose to avoid drug use, pornography or social media. However, there are some that take things to the extreme and limit all activities that might spark pleasure, including time spent with friends or partners.”
The New York Times recently followed three sleep tech entrepreneurs on a dopamine fast – one of whom, James Sinka, said: “We’re addicted to dopamine, and because we’re getting so much of it all the time, we end up just wanting more and more, so activities that used to be pleasurable now aren’t. Frequent stimulation of dopamine gets the brain’s baseline higher.” For their fast, they cut out eating, technology, most talking, sex, work, exercise and even eye contact.
For Clarkson, “dopamine fasting helps to make sure we’re not over consuming dopamine in areas such as social media, screen time etc. so that we can be more ‘present’ when consuming things like food.”
Gall notes: “The theory of dopamine fasting is that by depriving yourself of addictive and pleasurable activities, you’ll learn to appreciate them more and become less emotionally numb, almost like the phrase ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’.”
Clarkson thinks it can have positive benefits, arguing that, “mentally and socially, time away from our screens and social media can only ever be a good thing.” Which suggests just logging off social media for a bit could be beneficial – rather than embarking on a full-blown dopamine fast.
“Limiting too many pleasurable activities could have the opposite effect and cause mental health issues and the feeling of isolation,” warns Gall. “For most people, it’s enough to wind down at the end of the day near bedtime and abstain from using phones or any stimulating activities in order to get a good sleep.”