It’s not uncommon to hear someone talk about getting an “endorphin rush.” Sex, exercise, even hot peppers — all sorts of things are credited for these euphoric highs. So what are endorphins, and are they really responsible for our feelings of excitement or satisfaction?
In the early 1970s, researchers were studying how the brain is affected by opiates, such as heroin or morphine. They found that opiates interact with specialized receptors in cells that are primarily massed in the brain and spinal cord. When opiates enter these receptors, they hinder or block the cell’s transmission of pain signals. But why, wondered the scientists studying this phenomenon, would these specialized receptors exist in the first place? The most plausible answer was that opioid receptors exist due to the presence of an opiatelike substance produced naturally in the body.
Enter endorphines: your own private narcotic. Endorphines are neurotransmitters, chemicals that pass along signals from one neuron to the next. Neurotransmitters play a key role in the function of the central nervous system and can either prompt or suppress the further signaling of nearby neurons.
Endorphins are produced as a response to certain stimuli, especially stress, fear or pain. They originate in various parts of your body — the pituitary gland, your spinal cord and throughout other parts of your brain and nervous system — and interact mainly with receptors in cells found in regions of the brain responsible for blocking pain and controlling emotion.
Until recently, much of what we’ve learned about endorphins has been gained from monitoring endorphins in the human bloodstream and in rats’ brains. It wasn’t possible to measure endorphin levels in the human brain without harming the subject, so the role of endorphins in the “runner’s high” and other periods of euphoria or mood change were still hotly debated. However, new imaging methods allow researchers to study the ebb and flow of endorphins as they interact with human brain cells, verifying their role in the rush that exercise — and other triggers — sometimes prompts.
There are at least 20 different kinds of endorphins, and one kind, beta-endorphins, are stronger than morphine and have been shown to play a part in everything from alcoholism to diabetes to aging of the brain
Endorphins and Emotions
Endorphins block pain, but they’re also responsible for our feelings of pleasure. It’s widely believed that these feelings of pleasure exist to let us know when we’ve had enough of a good thing — like food, sex or even companionship — and also to encourage us to go after that good thing in order to feel the associated pleasure.
The majority of your emotions (and memories) are processed by your brain’s limbic system, which includes the hypothalamus, the region that handles a range of functions from breathing and sexual satisfaction to hunger and emotional response. The limbic system is also rich with opioid receptors. When endorphins reach the opioid receptors of the highly emotional limbic system, and — if everything is working normally — you experience pleasure and a sense of satisfaction.
Intriguingly, endorphins (or a lack thereof) may be responsible for certain forms of mental illness such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. When you, the average person, are washing your hands, there’s a point when you register that the task has been satisfactorily completed. If endorphins are at least partly responsible for saying “when,” a person who doesn’t have enough may never receive the mental cue to stop washing his or her hands and will continue until that signal is received.
It’s been theorized that problems with endorphin production or the binding process may be responsible for clinical depression or sudden shifts in emotions. Some people who engage in self-hurting behaviors may do so in part to feel the feelings of euphoria and emotional isolation that can — for them — be prompted by controlled amounts of self-inflicted pain.
Endorphins may also be responsible for heightened states of rage or anxiety. If your endorphins overdo their job or the hypothalamus misreads the endorphin cue, you could be flooded with “fight-or-flight” hormones at the slightest hint of trouble or worry.
Endorphins affect us like codeine or morphine do, but without the addiction. Regular users of opiates generally aren’t models of emotional stability, and steady, controlled endorphin release is something of a pipe dream. Making matters worse, some of us have brains that act like ambitious drug dealers, and others of us only dabble now and then. This variation can help explain why one person reacts differently from another to the same stimulus.
Endorphins have a leg up on opiates, however. Endorphins may be responsible for the “placebo effect,” owing to the real response of endorphin-release prompted by a tricked hypothalamus, creating a sense of well-being after consuming a much-hyped sugar pill, or even after simply anticipating something pleasurable.
Why Aren’t Endorphins Addictive?
When endorphins lock into the opioid receptors, they are almost immediately broken down by enzymes, allowing them to be recycled and reused down the road. However, when similarly shaped but chemically different opiates lock into these same receptors, they are resistant to the enzymes and continue reactivating the receptors over and over, extending the “high” and increasing euphoric feelings, as well as the likelihood of dependence.
Many things can trigger the release of endorphins. Though many triggers are known to exist (which we’ll discuss in a moment), the primary triggers are stress and pain. When your hypothalamus detects pain, it issues several orders, one of them being, “Quit telling me it hurts!” (Another one? “Quit touching the hot stove!”)
The hypothalamus is the command-and-control center of your endocrine system. It decides when you need to eat, when you should begin puberty and when you need a big dose of endorphins, among many other functions. It keeps tabs on every part of your central nervous system, and hormones are released to other parts of the body when the hypothalamus wants to make an adjustment.
When this part of the brain calls for endorphins, it initiates a chain of messages by chemically prompting the pituitary gland to release its own chemicals that then make their way to glands throughout your body and on down the line until endorphin-containing neurons release them. These endorphins then find their way to the brain’s opioid receptors.
Endorphins are produced throughout your body and requested by the hypothalamus, but what else besides stress and pain triggers the release of endorphins?
- Exercise— The “runner’s high” really exists, but you’ll need to work for it. Heavy weightlifting or intense aerobic activity that includes periods of sprinting or increased exertion will trigger the greatest response.
- Meditation or controlled-breathing exercises— Tai chi, Pilates and yoga are believed to trigger endorphins.
- Childbirth— Giving birth to a child is clearly a subcategory of both pain and stress.
- Alcohol— Light to moderate drinking stimulates endorphins, but heavy drinking doesn’t. Drugs that block the attachment of endorphins to receptors have been shown to eliminate cravings in alcoholics.
- Chili peppers— Capsaicin, which puts the burn in chilies, also triggers the body to release some fire-quenching endorphins.
- Bodywork— Both acupuncture and massage therapy trigger your inner drug dealer.
- Ultraviolet light— This may explain why some users of tanning beds achieve something of a “runner’s high,” and why others may overuse them at the risk of their health
Increase the Endorphins In Your Brain
Endorphins…trigger a positive feeling in the body similar to morphine. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as “euphoric.” That feeling…can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life. – WebMD
Endorphins are classified as an “endogenous opioid neuropeptide.”In other words, these brain chemicals boost our overall mood and outlook similar to morphine and other more powerful (and harmful) drugs. The bottom line: we can trigger enhanced endorphin production which, in turn, will help us feel much better without the nasty side effects and risk of dependence.
To aid in this endeavor, we’re going to describe eight different ways to boost endorphins in the brain. In following these recommendations, we can all experience an elevated mood and a more positive outlook in life.
HERE ARE EIGHT WAYS TO BOOST ENDORPHINS THE BRAIN:
ENDORPHIN BOOSTER #1: LAUGH
Laughter truly is powerful. Various research has shown that laughter can help: boost immunity, reduce stress hormones, produce a sense of well-being and, of course, release endorphins. The depressing side of this is that we laugh much less frequently as we get older. Consider this: children laugh upwards of 300 times a day, while most adults laugh about five times daily. It’s time that us adults help to narrow this gap.
ENDORPHIN BOOSTER #2: GET INTIMATE
Evolution has placed a premium on the act of reproduction, although it’s not necessary to reproduce to enjoy the health benefits of intimacy or sex. Research has shown that acts of intimacy – touching, massaging, and intercourse – helps to drastically reduce levels of stress hormones. Such intimate moments are not only essential to a close, loving relationship, but to our health and sense of security. Furthermore, intimacy stimulates the release of “feel good” endorphins in the brain.
ENDORPHIN BOOSTER #3: EAT SOME CHOCOLATE
In case we needed any more reasons to enjoy a piece of delectable chocolate, we’ve added another one to the list. In addition to the myriad health benefits of chocolate – promoting heart health, lowering cholesterol, reducing inflammation, etc. – chocolate also initiatives the release of endorphins. Other positive news is that we only need a small amount, about one or two small squares a day, to realize these benefits.
ENDORPHIN BOOSTER #4: EAT SPICY FOOD
Ever wonder why some of us continue to engorge on spicy food despite the runny nose and watering eyes? Well, it may be due to the release of endorphins. The “pain” produced by spicy food is somewhat offset by the feelings of wellbeing created by the rapid discharge of endorphins in the brain. In addition, spicy food assists in the killing of pathogens and other bacteria while enhancing immune system function.
ENDORPHIN BOOSTER #5: LISTEN TO SOME MUSIC
Music has a distinct way of boosting our mood, and now we understand the scientific reason behind this phenomenon. Playing our favorite jams helps us feel better because of the instantaneous release of endorphins in the brain. Obviously, this effect is far more pronounced when we listen to music that matches our preferences. Those that love country music probably won’t experience an intense release of feel good chemicals while listening to 2Pac, in other words.
ENDORPHIN BOOSTER #6: SWALLOW SOME GINSENG
Recently, the benefits of ginseng have manifested into a number of scientific and medical studies. Those who are fatigued and stress-ridden have continuously sang ginseng’s praises. Physiologically, ginseng supports various organs through measured release of stress hormones, and has been shown to increase endurance. In addition, ginseng is thought to aid concentration and cognitive performance, treat certain cardiovascular conditions and stimulate the release of certain feel good chemicals, including endorphins.
ENDORPHIN BOOSTER #7: INHALE VANILLA OR LAVENDER
Turns out that there is something behind the “aromatherapy” thing after all. Some aromas have been show to help lift the moods of people by releasing endorphins into the body. In one particular study, patients that were ordered to undergo MRI’s who inhaled vanilla reported a reduction in anxiety by 63 percent. By the way, it turns out that a proliferation of research exists that further supports the benefits of aromatherapy. “Don’t knock it ‘till you try it” is what we always say.
ENDORPHIN BOOSTER #8: WORKOUT WITH OTHERS
For those of us who prefer solo workouts, this may come as somewhat of a surprise. There is no doubt that exercise triggers the release of endorphins, but recent studies have shown that those who participate in group workouts may receive a little extra endorphin boost. Regardless of one’s preferences, any type of exercise – with or without a group – causes the release of endorphins and other happy brain chemicals. For those still reluctant about participating in group cycling sessions, a solo period of jogging, aerobics, calisthenics or weight lifting will still do the trick.
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