Q&A: John Salamone On The ‘Dopamine Fasting’ Trend

A hand reaching for a potato chip that's baiting a mousetrap.
'Dopamine fasting' has become a hot trend, but a UConn neuroscientist says it's more marketing than science. (Getty Images)

The “dopamine fasting” trend currently getting attention sees people deprive themselves of pleasurable activities for a day or a week at a time. Supposedly, it helps reduce anxiety and quit bad habits. But the practice is nebulously defined, and depending on the source, a dopamine fast can be anything from limiting one’s chocolate intake to avoiding all social situations on a regular basis. But practitioners still claim to get something out of the fasts. UConn Today asked behavioral neuroscientist John Salamone to explain the science behind dopamine fasts and how they (might) work.

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is a brain chemical involved in many functions, including motivation, emotion, learning, and reinforcement. Considerable evidence indicates that dopamine is important for engaging in effort, including sustained physical effort, which of course is important for motivation.

Dopamine is also involved in mood, but the role in mood is complicated. For example, though people often attribute the pleasure induced by food or drugs to dopamine, there is evidence indicating that interfering with dopamine transmission does not alter the enjoyment people take in food, and that dopamine-antagonist drugs do not consistently block the subjectively rated euphoria induced by drugs of abuse.  Moreover, dopamine is one of the transmitters activated by stressful and aversive conditions as well.

Is intentionally avoiding rewarding but destructive habits, such as constantly looking at one’s cell phone, really a ‘dopamine fast’?

I think it is ludicrously oversimplified to call it “dopamine” fasting.  If a part of the issue is reducing the stress of constantly answering texts and emails, then one could just as well call it “cortisol fasting” (cortisol is a stress-related hormone, part of the hypothalamo/pituitary/adrenal axis of the stress response) or “adrenaline/noradrenaline fasting” or “sympathoadrenal fasting” (the sympathoadrenal axis of stress, related to increased heart rate, blood pressure, etc.)  One could also call it “locus ceruleus noradrenaline fasting,” because that is another example of a brain system activated by stress. Opiates made by our own bodies are also involved in regulating hedonic responses, so why not call it “endogenous opioid fasting”? To me it is clear that the use of the term “dopamine” is a marketing ploy, to try to link in to all the internet and popular press mythology of dopamine as the “pleasure chemical” of the brain.

What about the therapeutic value—might some people still be helped by a “dopamine fast” regimen?

There probably is some merit to the general idea of disconnecting, cutting yourself off from the internet, and reducing stimulation, in order to relax and reset. Of course, it is doubtless that there are any number of ways to do that, and the proposed “dopamine fasting” regimen does not have a monopoly on that.  The more detailed question is whether or not one intends to use this method as a formal therapy procedure; if so, then it needs to be evaluated in a controlled clinical trial, with multiple control conditions used for comparison.   For example, is it better than meditation, or exercise, or reading a book? Moreover, it is not clear that cycles of “binging” on stimuli vs. “fasting” from stimuli is the best way to modulate stimulus input. It might be better to limit texts and emails a few hours every day, rather than complete fasting on specific days. These conditions would need to be compared as well. I don’t know of any well controlled studies using the “dopamine fasting” methodology, so until that is done, “dopamine fasting” seems to be another trendy fad therapy without much empirical basis compared to other options. Uncontrolled idiosyncratic application and individual self-reports are not the way to determine if it is effective.