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Dopamine Fasting: Fad or Fantastic?

Inspired by the concept of “Dry January,” where people try to give up alcoholic drinks for a month, many people are now trying “dopamine fasting,” giving up those things that trigger a dopamine release and can be habit forming, such as smoking pot, excessive social media use, overeating, or video gaming.

The concept of dopamine fasting has been on a wild ride since Dr. Cameron Sepah, a psychiatrist and executive coach, first posted about dopamine fasting on his Medium page. Dr. Sepah prescribed a brief, sudden withdrawal from dopamine-generating habits to his Silicon Valley clientele, who found the experience difficult but life-changing.

Word spread about dopamine fasting, and so did the hype. Instead of giving up smoking pot for a month, people turned it into giving up all pleasure for 24 hours. People would not eat anything, not use a computer, not speak, not listen to music, drink only water, and avoid all stimulation. That is not what Dr. Sepah had in mind.

In a recent scientific journal paper for Lifestyle Medicine, five authors examined both the hype and the evidence for dopamine fasting. The authors point out that dopamine fasting does not require abstinence from pleasurable activities such as reading or listening to music. It was always intended as a break from impulsive behaviors which have become habitual and unhealthy. The authors state:

It is emphasized that abstaining from all pleasures is not the goal of dopamine fasting; instead, individuals should specifically target behaviors that cause distress, impairment to daily work or life performance, or addictiveness.

Now the concept of dopamine fasting has found a new defender, Dr. Anna Lembke, head of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Lembke is the author of Dopamine Nation. We have written about her work before on AddictionNews.

Dr. Lembke recently told Medscape Medical News that she’s a supporter of dopamine fasting, not as a 24-hour break with every bad habit, but as a targeted approach to eliminating compulsive behaviors:

To reset this wiring, Lembke recommended a 4-week fast from a person’s ‘drug of choice.’ But this isn’t the trendy tech-bro quick cure-all where you abstain from everything that brings you joy. It’s a targeted intervention usually aimed at one behavior or substance at a time. The fast allows a person to understand ‘the nature of the hijacked brain,’ and breaking free motivates them to change habits long term, said Lembke.

With many addictions, a few weeks is all it takes to break the chemical hold, survive the withdrawal symptoms, and adjust the set points. But the underlying behaviors have to change to avoid relapse. Dr. Lembke recommends:

  • Try to avoid the places where you tend to overindulge
  • Delete the apps on your phone that facilitate overindulgence
  • Do not bring problem foods or substances into your home
  • Substitute healthy activities at the times when you used to indulge

Dr. Lembke recommends physical exercise, in particular, because it can replace some of the dopamine you’re not getting. All of this advice is conditioned. People who have had trouble going cold turkey might need a more gradual approach than a dopamine fast. And severe withdrawal symptoms should be treated and not risked alone. You’re advised to get your doctor’s opinion before starting a dopamine fast; they will probably welcome it.

Written by Steve O’Keefe. First published January 18, 2024.


“The Definitive Guide to Dopamine Fasting 2.0: The Hot Silicon Valley Trend,” by Dr. Cameron Sepah, Medium, October 28, 2019.

“Maladaptive or misunderstood? Dopamine fasting as a potential intervention for behavioral addiction,” Lifestyle Medicine, December 2021.

“Dopamine Fasting: Some MDs Are Prescribing It. Should You?,” Medscape Medical News, January 15, 2024.

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