Dopamine fasting is a lifestyle trend popular in the world’s tech centre Silicon Valley which involves cutting yourself off from almost all stimulation for 24 hours.
You can’t eat or drink anything apart from water, or use the internet, your phone, your computer or TV (or any other screens or technology) during that time. You also can’t listen to music or radio, have sex or masturbate, and you are encouraged to keep reading and talking to a minimum.
Its name refers to dopamine, a chemical in our brains. Scientists don’t agree on how exactly it works but it can become activated when something good happens or we feel rewarded.
Fans of “fasting” say that we are all so overloaded by media and distractions that we constantly get dopamine “hits”, so we have become numb to them. They think that by taking a break we might become more focused and productive when we start doing these regular things again. Others, however, say it is unscientific rubbish.
So what are you allowed to do on a dopamine fast? You can go for walks, meditate, think, and write a diary.
I tried it out from 22:00 on 16 December until 22:00 the next day – after a medical check from our BBC in-house team. You do need to see your doctor before trying anything like this.
Here’s what happened.
22:00 Monday: The Hobnobs are hidden
I’ve messaged my group chats as if I’m going away to a desert island for a month, turned off and hidden my phone.
Randomly, I seem to have Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up stuck in my head, of all songs, when I can’t stick something on to drown it out.
My preparation has involved eating loads of food as I won’t get to eat for 24 hours, and going to the pub without drinking alcohol because I didn’t want to feel hungover on top of not being able to eat. The Hobnobs have been hidden so the sight of them doesn’t upset me tomorrow.
I’m intrigued to see how I feel at the end of these 24 hours – and a little embarrassed at the fact that I feel nervous. I’m not sure that there’s anything specific I want to achieve from this: maybe some peace of mind. If I have some life-changing realisation that’s a bonus. I’ve practiced meditation and headstands, so I’ll give them a go tomorrow. Now, though, I’m going to stare at the wall for a minute, get ready for bed and go to sleep.
11:50 Tuesday: The first rumblings
It’s the next day. After a bit of a sleepless night (although I couldn’t tell you how long I was awake for because I had no way of telling the time without my phone), I have emerged from a heap under my covers and am downstairs.
I live with my parents and I’ve sat in a room away from my dad, so he can watch TV. All I can hear in this room is a ticking clock, which is already annoying. Though it’s good I can use it to tell the time now I’m awake. And each tick means I’m one second closer to being able to eat a meal. Yep, the hunger has already kicked in after 13 hours.
I’m going to have a shower and wash my hair soon, which will probably be the highlight of my day. So far, no enlightenment. Just a rumbling stomach.
13:30: Chillin’ killin’
I’ve just had a period of laying on the sofa, over-thinking. Not necessarily in a bad way, though. It’s been quite peaceful to sit and have literally nothing to do. I know that had my phone been here, I’d have spent the past hour or so getting angry at Twitter and scrolling through “Winter Wonderland with this one <3” posts on Instagram.
I feel like I’ve settled into the day a bit. Now, I understand why some of the elderly people I know have their armchairs facing the window – watching people walk by has become a source of entertainment.
14:25: 54 baubles
The stomach rumbles are getting louder. Just counted how many baubles I can see on my Christmas tree. I think it’s 54.
16:02: No phone, no problem
After a long nap, I’ve woken up thinking specifically about pasta. The excitement I feel about eating at 22:00, when my 24 hours will be done, is like how I felt about Christmas when I was a kid. While no food is the hardest thing so far, I’m surprised by how little I miss using my phone.
On a normal day, I’m on it much more than seems healthy. But today I don’t feel much need to know what’s happening online – it actually feels so refreshing not having a clue what’s happening outside of my house. On that note, I’m going to go for a walk around my area.
16:45: Gettin’ hangry
During my walk, a funny thing happened. Instead of looking at my phone or listening to music, I started playing a game of Rate The Christmas Lights with myself. I’ve decided that more is more when it comes to outdoor lights in December.
The fun of the walk was slightly dampened by the fact that I wanted to remember who plays Paulette the salon lady in Legally Blonde – and I had no means of Googling it.
I’ve also not eaten a single thing for almost 19 hours and my stomach is desperate. I feel tired and weak after a half a hour walk. I might try meditation in a minute to distract me from the hunger-induced bad mood.
17:05: Pigeon steps
I estimated it would take me 51 pigeon steps to get from one end of the living room to the other. It took 32.
19:30: I think I’m delusional
In the past 2.5 hours I’ve rapped the whole seven minutes 25 seconds of Dave’s How I Met My Ex, sung a few songs to myself, tried to meditate, written in the smallest handwriting I possibly can and held a headstand for a few minutes. I couldn’t tell you how many minutes, though, because I didn’t have a stopwatch.
If today was a game, this part would be a montage showing the level of boredom I’ve unlocked. This is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I’m literally talking to myself in my head. “Sooo… what shall I think about next? Lol. Rubbish weather today, am I right?”
21:00: Looking wistfully at a pesto jar
I’ve lined up all of the ingredients for the pasta I’m going to eat at 10pm, and stared at them longingly. This day has been really difficult, the hunger and boredom have been overwhelming. The idea of a “detox” day sounds a lot sexier than it actually is. I kind of feel like I’m punishing my body.
I do feel peaceful and a little bit smug (having not used technology for 23 hours), but I’m not sure I’ve gained much from the experience. The general feeling of serenity has been tainted by the constant undercurrent of hunger. I hate myself for writing a sentence that verbose. I hate myself for using words like “verbose”.
22:15: ‘Alexa, play Freedom by George Michael’
The fast is finally over. I feel like Mo Farah when he finishes the race and the cameras film him while people feed him water, throw him British flags and shout his name. The moment I swallowed the first pasta twirl will go down as one of the highlights of my 21 years on this earth.
I’ve turned on my phone and found a solid 378 WhatsApp messages, which feels a bit much to be fair. I can’t be bothered to read them all right now. I just searched the name of the actress who played Paulette in Legally Blonde – it was Jennifer Coolidge. That felt like scratching an itch.
11:00: The morning after
It’s the day after my fast. I’ve woken up and done my daily routine: brushing my teeth, eating breakfast, showering, getting ready, catching the train, and starting work. I still spent my usual amount of time scrolling through my phone this morning, and haven’t noticed that any of my behaviour or habits have changed. I am, however, appreciating every last bite of food I’m eating today.
The idea of removing all stimulation, anything which could give me a “dopamine hit”, was supposed to give my brain a rest, making me more focussed the next day. And it’s true that it’s left me feeling sort of mentally “reset”.
As someone who’s often busy all day it gave me some space to reflect on how I was feeling. But any sense of inner calm I might have felt was destroyed by the constant, niggling hunger.
So, while it was an interesting experience, I’m not likely to be recommending dopamine fasting to my mates this year.