Sometimes, it can seem like your days are filled with nonstop stimulation. From reaching for that satisfying crunch of a potato chip to squeezing in a quick game of Subway Surfers to looking for ways to refresh your wardrobe on TikTok, you might feel like your brain is constantly looking for the next exciting thing.
Why does your brain do this? It could be because it is looking for dopamine.
Could a dopamine detox be right for you? We connected with Rohit Madan, MD, a psychiatrist with Banner - University Medicine, to learn more about the pros and cons of this trendy practice.
1. What is dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that’s associated with pleasure and reward.
“Dopamine plays a role in our brain’s motivation and reinforcement system,” Dr. Madan said. You may notice its effects when you eat junk food, use technology, play video games or view social media. It’s called a “feel-good” hormone, but with too much dopamine stimulation you might find that you don’t enjoy everyday activities and you seek instant gratification.
2. What is a dopamine detox?
With a dopamine detox (or dopamine fast) you intentionally take a break from activities that trigger a dopamine release. The idea is that you reset your dopamine receptors, re-sensitize the brain’s reward system and regain a sense of balance and control.
“The goal of a dopamine detox is to reduce the overstimulation of dopamine receptors in the brain,” Dr. Madan said. “You reduce the activities that you find problematic in your life. Limiting your engagement in instant gratification activities that you view as problematic and replacing them with healthy activities that align with your values can be beneficial for your physical and mental well-being.”
People choose dopamine detoxes to improve focus, increase productivity, enhance creativity, reduce cravings and, generally, to feel better.
3. How do you do a dopamine detox?
You’ll want to identify the activities you want to take a break from, find alternative activities that promote relaxation, mindfulness and personal growth and set a timeframe for your detox.
Dopamine detoxes have not been scientifically studied, so there’s no universally accepted or recommended standardized approach. And there’s no recommended timeframe for these detoxes — it’s a personalized experience.
Many people abstain from screen time, social media, video games, internet browsing and junk food. They replace these activities with reading, cooking, meditating, journaling, going for walks or spending quality time with loved ones or in nature. “You can use the extra time to reflect on your habits, goals and values and to create a plan for how to spend your time and energy going forward,” Dr. Madan said.
You can tailor the detox to your needs. Think about your habits and what parts of your life might benefit from a detox. “You can focus on reducing or eliminating activities that you believe are negatively impacting your well-being, while still engaging in essential and productive tasks,” Dr. Madan said.
A dopamine detox shouldn’t involve extreme deprivation since that can be harmful. You shouldn’t expect to replenish your dopamine by depriving yourself of things like food, sex or human contact and you shouldn’t think that your experiences will be enhanced if you take a break from these activities. “Taking a break from highly stimulating activities may give you a sense of reset or increased motivation, but it’s essential to maintain a balanced approach,” Dr. Madan said.
Keep in mind that when you give up stimulating activities, you might feel bored or uncomfortable. You could have withdrawal symptoms. But you can overcome these challenges. You’ll want to find healthy substitutes for stimulating activities, practice self-care, be sure to spend time being physically active and seek support from family, friends or others who are detoxing from dopamine along with you.
4. What are some misconceptions about dopamine detoxes?
Using words like “detox” or “fast” might make it seem like you’re entirely avoiding dopamine release, but that’s not the case. “Dopamine is a vital neurotransmitter that’s involved in many essential brain functions, including motivation, learning, pleasure and even physical movement. Eliminating all dopamine release would be both impossible and harmful,” Dr. Madan said.
And dopamine isn’t the only thing that’s associated with pleasure and reward. It’s just one part of a complex network of neurotransmitters and brain processes. “The focus on dopamine oversimplifies the brain’s functions and neglects other crucial factors that contribute to habits and behaviors,” Dr. Madan said.
5. What are the downsides of a dopamine detox?
Some people make bold claims about dramatic life changes or instant transformations with a dopamine detox. “It’s essential to approach these claims with skepticism and keep expectations realistic,” Dr. Madan said.
There’s no scientific research that supports dopamine detoxes as a way to reset your brain’s reward system or improve your mental health. “The catchy phrase ‘dopamine detox’ has made it popular on social media and in self-improvement circles. But effectiveness and benefits are largely anecdotal. Many people consider the terms ‘dopamine detox’ or ‘dopamine fast’ to be a misconstrued fad,” Dr. Madan said.
The benefits of a dopamine detox may be related to breaking unhealthy habits, reducing excessive stimulation and gaining clarity about your priorities rather than any effects on your dopamine levels.
6. What happens after a dopamine detox?
Some people feel relieved after reducing certain activities, while others might not notice much difference. “Outcomes vary, based on habits, lifestyle and neurobiology,” Dr. Madan said.
Keep in mind that a dopamine detox isn’t about giving up the things you enjoy forever. It’s about finding a healthy balance. You can reintroduce activities mindfully after the detox, with a focus on moderation.
If you’ve tried or you’re considering a dopamine detox because you’re struggling with mental health issues, addictive behaviors or significant life challenges, consider reaching out to a qualified therapist, counselor or health care provider instead.
The bottom line
A dopamine detox (or dopamine fast) involves giving up activities like screen time, social media, junk food and video games to gain clarity, productivity and self-awareness. While many people claim to benefit from a dopamine detox, there’s no scientific evidence to prove they work. Breaking bad habits and clearly looking at your choices might be what’s causing any benefits, rather than changes in dopamine levels.
If you decide to try a dopamine detox, add physical activity, mindfulness and time spent in nature or with loved ones in place of the activities you’re giving up. And if you’re hoping a dopamine detox might help with mental health issues, consider talking to a health care professional.
If you would like to connect with an expert who can help you evaluate your goals and take the steps you need to achieve them, reach out to Banner Health.