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Is dopamine fasting a wellness trend actually worth trying?

Feeling nothing for a day in order to feel more later on is the new wellness trend that everyone’s trying, but does it actually work?

Over the last decade, ‘wellness’ has become such a ubiquitous part of mainstream culture that now, it’s pretty hard to imagine life without it. A term coined in the 50s when people started realising that there’s more to health than simply treating illnesses reactively, it’s all about making those conscious choices that’ll supposedly lead to a more fulfilling life.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that some of the trends are actually rather worthwhile – such as mindfulness and meditation – many of them are often just fads with no real proof that they’ll make any difference to our overall wellbeing.

What about that time that Gwyneth Paltrow got sued for selling expensive crystal eggs because she claimed that shoving them up your hoo-ha had the ‘power to cleanse and clear’? Or when juicing had an absolute moment in 2018 for allegedly boosting your immune system when there’s no scientific evidence whatsoever that it’s any healthier than just eating fresh produce whole?

And does anyone remember the explosion of ‘teatoxes’ which promised to help us lose weight and feel less bloated, but in reality did nothing other than force us to rush to the toilet 100 times a day? Thank goodness Instagram rolled out new policies restricting celebs from posting about it is all I can say.

While I understand the importance of feeling good as much as the next person, I do think there needs to be more clarity regarding what works and what doesn’t – particularly from brands and influencers promoting products to susceptible audiences on social media.

It’s for this reason that I’m a bit sceptical about the latest in wellness: dopamine fasting. The happiness hack isn’t a new eating plan, nor is it quite as whack as microdosing LSD to improve productivity, but essentially involves being as miserable as possible for an extended period of time. That’s right, professionals and even some neuroscientists are getting behind a technique which suggests you deprive yourself of all joy so you can reboot your brain and appreciate everyday pleasures more later on.

Tech-entrepreneur and founder of Silicon Valley Wellness Centre James Sinka is a frequent ‘faster’ who supports the trend. ‘We’re addicted to dopamine,’ he told the New York Times. ‘And because we’re getting so much of it all the time, we just end up wanting more and more, so activities that used to be enjoyable now aren’t.’

Sinka also explains that frequent stimulation increases the brain’s baseline until we eventually adapt to extremely high levels of dopamine. ‘This project is meant to reset those receptors, so you’re satiated again,’ he says.

With this in mind, I kinda see where he’s coming from. Dopamine is relatively similar to alcohol really, in the sense that one beer when you first start drinking will get you buzzed but it might take considerably more to feel anything once you’ve developed a tolerance. Apparently, the same reaction takes place with those feel-good neurotransmitters we have in our brains. So, to ‘reset’ them as Sinka puts it, we need to deliberately cut out any activities that can cause a surge in our levels of dopamine.

Dopamine itself doesn’t actually make us feel good: we get hits of it when we’re excited and that motivates us to seek out more of the same feeling. It can be anything from an interesting conversation, to a text notification from someone you fancy, to spotting a dog in the street, to eating a delicious meal.

To fast, it’s literally all of this that you need to eliminate from your day, because any kind of stimulation is a total no-no. This means no food, no drinking anything but water, no talking, no exercise, no making eye contact, and absolutely no phones. The list goes on and it’s genuinely as bleak as it sounds. Basically, don’t leave your room because god forbid you accidently see someone you know or interact with something stimulating. All you’re supposed to do is sit there. Oh, and you’re allowed to write. 24 hours alone with my thoughts with nothing but a pen, notepad, and glass of water? I think I’ll pass.

I acknowledge that it’s probably worth it in the long-run, and I am always trying to reduce my screen time, but surely it’s more beneficial to make little changes gradually rather than going the whole-hog and locking yourself away for a day. Changes that aren’t potentially harmful to your mental and physical health. And not to mention the amount of willpower you’d need to complete a dopamine fast, of which I have none.

Jokes aside, there are mixed reviews on whether or not this trend really resets your brain. Sinka does claim that he feels noticeably more energised afterwards and Peter Sterling, a neuroscience professor at Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says it’s basic biology.

‘It is true that any sort of intense stimulation to any part of the body and brain, cause the sensors of that stimulation to turn down,’ he explains. ‘So when we live by getting great surges of dopamine from rich foods, alcohol, nicotine and the rest, our dopamine receptor desensitizes and then we need more. Withdrawing from stimulants probably does reduce these surges and I expect would restore sensitivity to small pulses to which we were normally sensitive.’

However, not everyone is as convinced, stressing that there’s still no concrete evidence the practice actually works. ‘Dopamine doesn’t have a straightforward relationship to pleasure or happiness like we think it does,’ psychiatry professor Joshua Berke told the BBC. ‘This is a fad, not a controlled study. It certainly sounds plausible that taking a break from obsessively checking your social media account and partying every night is good for you, it’s just unlikely to have much to do with dopamine per se.’

Dopamine fasting could be useful if you’re looking to establish boundaries within yourself and gain more insight into your bad habits and destructive behaviour, but there’s definitely an element of placebo effect going on here. You won’t know until you try however so, if you’re still interested in giving it a go, there’s no scientific risk in doing so. Just be prepared for the extremely long, dull day ahead because although doing nothing can’t kill you, there’s a chance you’ll die of boredom.