What Is A Dopamine Detox?
To start, "dopamine detoxing" is not actually a true detox. Detoxing refers to the body's natural process of finding, and flushing out harmful substances or toxins. Our bodies are constantly doing this, but sometimes they can get a little behind, or even overwhelmed, so they need a little help through nutritional support, therapeutic modalities, specific lifestyle changes, etc.
So What Is It?
Dopamine detoxing is a little different. A better term
would be "Dopamine Fasting", but for consistency, and since it's commonly references this way already, in this article we will refer to it as Dopamine Detox. Dopamine is an essential neurotransmitter involved in several key systems. The most prominent of these is the the dopaminergic motivation pathway. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter released before and after a pleasurable action or experience to encourage us to do that thing. Unfortunately, this pathway gets a lot of negative press since it's also responsible for the creation o addiction patterns, such as alcohol consumption, drug usage, gambling and sexual addictions. But without this pathway, we wouldn't be motivated to eat, sleep, interact with people, work towards goals, and have all sorts of enjoyable and beneficial experiences.
However, this system does require skillful handling. Anytime we participate in pleasurable activities that give us a dopamine release, it can create a neurological habit, sometimes turning into an addiction. We can easily become reliant upon, and even addicted to, social media use, movies, sugary or fatty foods, and other similar activities, that in small controlled amounts don't cause any harm.
But the problem is that when we are constantly getting larger-than-usual rushes of dopamine, the standard amounts of dopamine pale in comparison, making it harder to start and finish important goals. Imagine eating ice cream first thing in the morning every day for a week, and then suddenly, switching to a super nutritious, but not nearly as tasty, smoothie. It just doesn't give us the same type of pleasure, and consequently, we aren't as motivated to do it, despite that being the best option for us. Now imagine that same principle applied to all areas of your life. If you've struggled with the motivation to get necessary and beneficial things done, it may be that your brain has grown accustomed to higher dopamine releases.
That's where dopamine detoxing comes in. By deliberately avoiding the activities and substances that give us significant dopamine releases, we can gradually reset our motivation and reward threshold. For instance, if we minimize our social media and tv usage, than gradually, the idea of reading that really good book on our list becomes more desirable and we're more motivated to do it. Even normal tasks at work or school can become more enjoyable and we find it easier to stay focused and accomplish more of what we actually need to do.
A lot of people just think they're lazy, but in reality, it's that their brain doesn't find certain tasks motivating enough or rewarding enough to make that task desirable.
So How Do I Know If I Should Try Dopamine Detoxing?
There a lot of different signs that you may be struggling with an overused dopaminergic system. These can include:
You don't feel very motivated to get important work done.
You find it difficult to stay focused at work or school.
You know you should do something but can't muster the willpower to do so.
You crave unhealthy foods and avoid healthy ones.
You fill your free time with entertainment and pleasurable activities.
However, it is very important to note that there are multiple other potential causes for the experiences described above. We recommend discussing these things with your doctor, and even with a close family member or friend who knows you well and can help give some insight. If you do decide to avoid certain dopamine-releasing activities, consult with your doctor to ensure that you make wise decisions for your health. Always do more research, pay attention to your body and mind, and never do anything that could be potentially harmful to your health.
What Would a Dopamine Detox Look Like?
Because every person is unique and has different needs and lifestyles, there isn't one specific approach that works well for everyone. But it's important for everyone to pay attention to their body and brain's needs and be deliberate and intentional with their choices. The following examples are meant to provide a general template and illustrate how the principles may be applied to a specific lifestyle and health need. These ideas can be combined or modified based on what you feel you need to reset dopamine pathways and based on your lifestyle needs.
Go one week without social media, TV, movies, YouTube, video games, etc.
Keep your cellphone off for the first few hours of the day.
Avoid all sugary and sweet foods (even zero-calories sweeteners) for a week.
Avoid all forms of caffeine for 1-2 weeks. (this might require some tapering since caffeine addictions are very common and stopping cold-turkey could lead to caffeine withdrawal)
Avoid caffeine first thing in the morning and limit it to afternoons and only as necessary.
Avoid or limit alcohol consumption for a full week.
Abstain from sexual activities for a couple of weeks, including intercourse, pornography, etc.
Avoid specific activities or interactions that you crave or that you feel give you "feel good" sensations.
What Do I Do After The Detox?
You could just go back to living the way you were, and you would probably notice some benefits. You might be a little more focused and motivated at work for a while, and it might be easier to get out of bed in the morning. But This is an incredible opportunity to deliberately reprogram your brain to help you move towards your goals.
Firstly, consider maintaining certain elements of your dopamine detox. Maybe instead of adding caffeine back in altogether, don't start your day with caffeine and only use it as necessary. Maybe limit social media use and cell phone entertainment to 15 minutes a day, or not until after you get home from work or school. Maybe limit TV and video games to weekends. This will help regulate dopamine levels and ensure that other necessary, but not as pleasurable, activities can still elicit a sufficient dopamine response, making it easier for us to stay motivated.
Secondly, coming off of a dopamine detox is the perfect time to reprogram your brain to enjoy, and even crave, specific activities. If you haven't done anything in a while to elicit a significant dopamine response, your brain is ready and waiting for anything to satisfy that need. You could establish a new hobby, or a self-empowering routine very easily. The accomplishment of this activity will create a dopamine response, and since your brain has not had as much dopamine recently, this activity will become significant. Your brain will start expecting and looking forward to do this thing. You have now taught your brain to be motivated to do something good and beneficial! Some people prepare a super nutritious smoothie the night before and then drink it first thing in the morning. Before, they might have craved caffeine right when they wake up, gotten a huge dopamine release, and then been unmotivated to do anything else for the rest of the day, because nothing else released as much dopamine as the caffeine. But now, the dopamine release from drinking a healthy smoothie or working out, is sufficient motivation, and instead of setting the dopamine bar very high for the rest of the day, they can still find the motivation to do other necessary tasks, despite not releasing a large amount of dopamine.
By resetting your brains expected dopamine release levels, you'll find it easier to accomplish the things you want to. You'll also receive more enjoyment from dopamine-releasing activities, such as caffeine, relationships, entertainment, etc. The key is to be aware of how your brain works and how to make the neurobiology work for you instead of against you.