Have you heard of dopamine fasting? The term was coined by San Francisco psychologist Dr Cameron Sepah. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is part of your reward system in your brain. The idea of dopamine fasting is to reduce the “cravings” for whatever triggers you whether it is TV, social media, junk food, sex, alcohol, or drugs for example. This would then allow your brain to “reset” it’s dopamine levels allowing you to be content with simpler things.
For the most part this is bogus.You need dopamine in your system. Low dopamine levels contribute to Parkinson’s disease and also depression. Also you don’t know what your baseline dopamine level is so how would you even know if you have “reset” your levels?
Dopamine surprisingly spikes even before you actually get the reward. If anything it is an anticipation or motivation response. Have you ever noticed when you are excited for something and your anticipation levels are through the roof, and when you finally get the reward the effect isn’t as big as before you got it? Take for example, a certain food you just can’t wait to eat and are thinking about it all day. When you finally get a bite, there is some satisfaction in finally getting it, but probably not as much as what you had built up in your head.
How can dopamine fasting help with your sleep?
Dopamine is also an excitatory or stimulating neurotransmitter. When you are trying to get to sleep, the last thing that you want to be doing is be excited or wired. Think about this, what are some of the populations favorite activities to do before bed? Scroll mindlessly through social media feeds, play video games, watch stimulating TV, play games on their phone, or eat snack foods are all stimulating activities as far as your brain is concerned.
Your perception might be that they aren’t, but if you were to take an MRI of your brain doing most of these activities it would show that you are indeed stimulated. It makes it very difficult to try and go to sleep immediately after being stimulated. There is a period of coming down. Do you get a second wind at night? Could it be your actions and habits are facilitating this second wind and increasing your vigilance aka alertness? Even if you are able to crash to sleep because your sleep debt is high, the dopamine that is still circulating is preventing you from entering into deeper sleep sooner and getting a truly refreshing sleep. You are going to hang around in the “friend zone” of sleep known as light sleep.
Dopamine is triggered from cues. Your brain over time and doing the same behaviors has learned to make associations and to anticipate things. This is how it becomes more efficient. Have you noticed when you turn on the TV, you suddenly are craving snack food? How about after dinner reaching for your phone and getting lost in social media for 30 minutes?
Everything you do has been conditioned due to repetition. Do you remember Pavlovs dog? Your habits are exactly the same.
How can you improve your sleep?
This is covered in the Build Better Sleep Blueprint which you can get here. I am going to give you a quick exercise you can do at night to help you set your brain up for sleep.
- The goal is to turn off electronics or other dopamine inducing activities. You want to trade them for relaxing and calming activities.
- Start by removing cues for those actions you want to remove. Do you make your way into the living room after putting the kids to bed and plop down for 2 hours of TV? Hide the remote. Put the TV on a timer. Walk into the kitchen, study, or bedroom instead.
- Write down and have available options. Just like when you are likely to reach for quick easy junk food when hungry when you do not have anything packed or planned the same goes for calming activities.
- Some ideas to get you started. Reading a real book, coloring, meditating, crocheting, playing solitaire with real cards, stretching, listening to a podcast, or writing.
- Do this for a week and see how your sleep changes and how you feel in the morning.
Sign up for the SnoozeLetter for more sleep tips.
Need some personal sleep help to improve your sleep and energy? Purchase my Sleep Analysis.