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'Dopamine fasting' is how some people are trying to reset their brains

Brain chemistry doesn't work that way, expert say, but some of the practices can boost health.
/ Source: TODAY

As interest in intermittent fasting keeps growing, a completely different type of fasting trend is coming out of Silicon Valley. Followers of "dopamine fasting" believe that if they deprive themselves from anything stimulating — devices, movies, TV, light or even other people — they can alter the levels of dopamine in their bodies and reset their brains.

On the surface, it's a life hack that sounds like a good idea: try to modify the dopamine chemical — known as one of the "happy hormones" — in the body simply by unplugging from devices and stepping away from activity.

"Dopamine fasting is like, 'I'm getting off my devices so I can feel more,'" Dr. Zach Freyberg, an assistant professor of psychiatry and cell biology at the University of Pittsburgh, told TODAY. "It's doing things that are that are meant to keep you sensitized to the world around you."

To fast, followers say they avoid things they enjoy, which can include mobile devices, sex, social media, entertainment, shopping, gambling, exercise, food and alcohol, for a set period of time. Some might even avoid eye contact or chats during that time.

The goal — avoiding stimulation in the present, in order to be happier later. For example, love online shopping? During a fast, you'd skip it.

In a way, it's like meditation where people spend time without outside excitement. But this type of fasting is tailored to what specifically causes your dopamine to spike, whether it's red wine, Snapchat or Christmas movies.

Sounds simple, right? Not really.

“Your brain is always working. Your neurotransmitters, like dopamine, are always working,” Madelyn Fernstrom, a neuroscientist and NBC News’ health and nutrition editor, told TODAY.

What is dopamine?

While dopamine fasting focuses on the molecule's role as a neurotransmitter in the brain, dopamine does a lot of heavy lifting throughout the body.

“Dopamine is something that's inside of our bodies that our bodies make,” Freyberg said. “In the brain, dopamine is responsible for lots of important brain functions. You need it to help control mood, you need that to feel a sense of satisfaction and reward.”

People often think of it as the “hormone of excitement and novelty seeking,” said Dr. Amit Sood, executive director of the Resilient Option, and former professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic.

This means people experience a surge of it when they try something new or anticipate something. Some of what Silicon Valley sells causes dopamine spikes.

“A lot of social media is driven by dopamine,” he said. “You’re just chasing it.”

But dopamine’s role is much more complex. It also helps the brain control movement and exists in other parts of the body, regulating insulin, aiding digestion, managing kidney function and maintaining blood pressure.

“It’s kind of like an air traffic coordinator. It controls and coordinates the functions of a lot of different organs, a lot of different parts of the body, to make sure they work harmoniously,” Fryberg explained.

Not having enough dopamine causes real problems. Parkinson’s disease, for example, is “a disorder of dopamine,” Fryberg said.

“The body absolutely needs to make that dopamine because it needs to control the life support systems,” he said.

In some ways, eating and exercising can influence dopamine production, but not in the way that dopamine fasting fans think.

“When you eat, the amount of dopamine in your blood stream temporarily goes up because that helps control insulin,” Fryberg said. “There's more and more evidence that exercise can help in Parkinson's patients preserve the amount of dopamine in the brain.”

“Beyond that that's all we know,” he said.

Wrong name, right idea

The experts agree that even if the name is an oversimplification of how brain chemistry works, the concept behind dopamine fasting is positive. What "fasters" are truly proposing is taking a break from stimulation and being mindful — both healthy practices.

“There is no downside, unless you believe you are having an immediate impact on your brain chemistry,” Fernstrom, a nutrition scientist, said. “It is mistake to think that a short-term behavior of any kind is going to be having an impact on your brain.”

What’s more, unplugging and spending time without stimulation might have an opposite effect than anticipated.

“Meditation has been shown to increase dopamine in the brain reward activity center,” Sood said.

While meditation and avoiding devices is beneficial, Sood encourages people to think of it as adding something to life not subtracting.

“It is very difficult to empty your life of something,” he said. “I tried emptying my mind and it doesn’t work. It is not about emptying it. It’s about filling it with the right things.”

That's why he suggests that people think of something positive while stepping away from devices and overactivity.

“If you meditate on gratitude or compassion or kindness it will be more effective,” Sood said.