Understanding What Dopamine Is
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in regulating mood, motivation, and motor control. It’s also involved in the brain’s reward system, which makes it vulnerable to addiction. According to studies the neurotransmitter has also been associated with different neurological diseases. Clearly, it’s importance can not be underestimated.
How It Works In The Brain
It has many functions, but when it comes to the brain and mood, there are two main things that it does. Dopamine is linked to your motivation and ability to take action. It turns ideas and plans into actions.
The second thing dopamine does is produce a feeling of reward or pleasure in your brain. This is how your brain keeps you motivated to do things that will help keep you alive, like eating food when you’re hungry, or moving toward something that might help keep you alive.
This last part is important because all of those things are necessary for your survival, so if dopamine rewarded you for doing all other activities equally, then nothing would ever get done.
Consider Why You Want To Detox From Dopamine
There are many reasons why someone might want to detox from dopamine. Maybe you’re struggling with addiction, or you’re trying to overcome anxiety or depression. Maybe you’re just curious about the process and what it could do for your mental health.
Something else to consider is the fact that it’s not an easy process — dopamine is strongly bonded to your central nervous system (CNS) — and it takes time. A 30 day dopamine fast might provide you with some great benefits, although I would suggest sticking with it for the long run.
I’ve been doing a dopamine detox for the past four weeks, and have found some ways that can help you get started. Before we get into the process, this information is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition or disease. I’m sharing it for educational purposes only and to simply shed some light on the neurons, hormones and neurotransmitters that make up our bodies.
Talk To A Psychiatrist About Your Dopamine Detox Goals
This is an important step in the process, as your psychiatrist can help you understand the risks and benefits of detoxing from dopamine. They can also provide guidance on how to best approach the detox process. Detoxing from dopamine can be a difficult and challenging process, but with the help of a qualified professional, you can make it through successfully.
Dr Anna Lembke, an American psychiatrist, Chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University. She is the author of the book Dopamine Nation, and in this book she developed a unique way to do a dopamine detox. She calls it “dopamine fasting”. Dr Lembke illustrates step-by-step how to follow through on doing a dopamine detox by actually using each letter of the word “DOPAMINE”.
D – Data
“The d in DOPAMINE stands for data. I begin by gathering the simple facts of consumption” says Dr Lembke. The first step is to start gathering the data of what you are using, how much, and how often you are using it. For Dr Lembke, this revelation began to sink in after she read romance novels for hours on end and days at a time.
For myself… well… I think we have a clear winner, mi teléfono. Yes our mobile phones, iPhone, android, smartphones, whatever your choice, it’s a very powerful device that many of us are seriously addicted to and we spend hours a day on it.
O – Objectives
“The o in DOPAMINE stands for objectives for using. Even seemingly irrational behaviour is rooted in some personal logic. People use high-dopamine substances and behaviours for all kinds of reasons: to have fun, to fit in, to relieve boredom, to manage fear, anger, anxiety, insomnia, depression, inattention, pain, social phobia . . . the list goes on” says Dr Lembke.
In her own life, she used romance novels as an escape from the painful transition away from parenting young children to parenting teenagers. A job which she considered to be out of the range of her expertise. In my own personal life, often to relieve boredom or deal with mild anxiety, my mobile phone is just an arm stretch away.
P – Problems
“The p in DOPAMINE stands for problems related to use. High-dopamine drugs always lead to problems. Health problems. Relationship problems. Moral problems. If not right away, then eventually” says Dr Lembke.
When it comes to high-dopamine substance use, most of us are unable to see the full extent of the consequences of our substance use while we’re still using. Getting people to see some negative consequences of their use, even if it’s only that others don’t like it, can be a point of leverage for getting them to stop. And stopping, even just for a short period of time, is essential for getting them to see the true domino effect.
For myself, scrolling through my smartphone late at night was causing bad sleep habits, because blue light before bed is a bad idea. There are certain links between our quality of sleep and our immune function. This study discussed the link between sleep deprivation and a compromised immune system.
What does that mean for me? Remember – “P” for problems, therefore health problems down the road if I don’t start using my smartphone more responsibly.
A – Abstinence
“The a in DOPAMINE stands for abstinence. Abstinence is necessary to restore homeostasis, and with it our ability to get pleasure from less potent rewards, as well as see the true cause and effect between our substance use and the way we’re feeling” says Dr Lembke.
Abstinence makes the brain grow fonder. Yes I just made that quote myself, but it’s quite accurate when listening to the advice Dr Lembke is giving us. Abstinence from our high-dopamine substances will have a sort of balancing effect on our brains. The obvious question – what is the recommended time that people need to abstain from a high-dopamine substance to experience the brain benefits of stopping?
According to Dr Lemke two weeks of “dopamine fasting” is not enough. In her book she mentions this study where Dr Marc Schuckit and his colleagues did a study on a group of men. These men were drinking large quantities of alcohol and it was consumed on a daily basis. They also met the criteria for clinical depression, in other words major depressive disorder. The men who were classified as depressed in Schuckit’s study had been hospitalized for four weeks, during which they received no treatment. After only one month of not drinking, a staggering 80 percent no longer met the criteria for clinical depression.
For us this means – “A” for abstinence – at least a month.
M – Mindfulness
“The m of DOPAMINE stands for mindfulness. Mindfulness is a term that is tossed around so often now, it has lost some of its meaning. Evolved from the Buddhist spiritual tradition of meditation, it has been adopted and adapted by the West as a wellness practice across many different disciplines” says Dr Lembke. Mindfulness is the practice of observing your thoughts and emotions without judgment.
It’s tricky because you need to use an organ that’s often partnered with judgement, which we do in our brain-the part about being able to see things as separate from ourselves when they are actually all connected . Do yourself a favour and look up at the galaxy during starry nights, one thing always strikes me: how mysterious it seems there can be something so far away yet still has a hold on us—like mindfulness itself!
Mindfulness helps us watch our thoughts and feelings come up without immediately judgmentally killing them. It’s extremely important to reserve judgment so we can learn more about the mind-body connection through experience instead of just memorizing theory on how it works.
I – Insight
“The i of DOPAMINE stands for insight. I have seen again and again in clinical care, and in my own life, how the simple exercise of abstaining from our drug of choice for at least four weeks gives clarifying insight into our behaviours. Insight that simply is not possible while we continue to use” says Dr Lembke.
This insight can be clarifying and help us to make changes in our lives. It can also help us to understand why we became addicted in the first place. Ultimately, this insight can be invaluable in recovery.
So if you’re struggling with addiction, consider giving up your drug of choice (mi teléfono) for at least four weeks and see what insights you gain.
N – Next Steps
“The n of DOPAMINE stands for next steps. This is where I ask my patients what they want to do after their month of abstinence. The vast majority of my patients who are able to abstain for a month and experience the benefits of abstinence nonetheless want to go back to using their drug. But they want to use differently than they were using before. The overarching theme is that they want to use less” says Dr Lembke.
Progress is possible. With each passing day, week, or month of abstinence, the dopamine system gradually recovers. This gives us, the dopamine addicts, hope for a bright future in which we can enjoy all the good things in life without being controlled by certain high-dopamine substances or objects, like your smartphone or social media.
Take the next step – a morning routine is the perfect time to think about what you want for your future and how best you can make it a reality. A refreshing morning walk in nature will help clear thoughts, boost energy levels and reset after an evening of social media scrolling!
E – Experiment
“The e and final letter of DOPAMINE stands for experiment. This is where patients go back out into the world armed with a new dopamine set point (a level pleasure-pain balance) and a plan for how to maintain it. Whether the goal is continued abstinence or moderation, we strategize together for how to achieve it. Through a gradual process of trial and error, we figure out what works and what doesn’t” says Dr Lembke.
She also mentions a word of caution for us dopamine addicts -the goal of moderation, especially for people with severe addiction can backfire. A study found that rats who are genetically more likely to become addicted will binge drink after weeks without alcohol and continue using heavily as if they had never stopped drinking at all!
The world is full of things that make us want dopamine, like smartphones. Smartphones are almost like drugs because they can be so alluring without making you addicted-but it’s important to find balance in our lives! We have too many high-dopamine items already; how do we manage them? The key seems simple: take care when indulging, or else, suffer the consequences.
DR. ANNA LEMBKE: UNDERSTANDING & TREATING ADDICTION
So, what do you think? Are you ready to give dopamine fasting a try? It’s not as scary as it sounds, and the benefits are definitely worth it. If you decide to embark on this journey, be sure to let us know how it goes in the comments below. We would love to hear about your experience! In the meantime, have a happy and healthy day.
Dr Anna Lembke, M.D.
Chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University