Endorphins are small, protein molecules that are produced by cells in your nervous system and other parts of your body.
An important role of endorphins is to work with sedative receptors that are known to relieve common pain.
These analgesia-producing receptors are located in your brain, spinal cord, and other nerve endings.
Endorphins are not a single molecule, but actually come in several forms, and can be anywhere from eighteen to five hundred times as powerful as any man-made analgesic.
And, they are non-addictive.
Endorphins have been shown to . . .
Control persistent pain
Control the craving for chocolate and potentially addictive substances
Control feelings of stress and frustration
Regulate the production of growth and sex hormones
Reduce symptoms associated with eating disorders
Because they are naturally produced by the body, endorphins are possibly the best (and most legal way) to achieve a natural high. Chemically speaking, endorphins are polypeptides, which are able to bind to the neuro-receptors in the brain to give relief from pain. They are one reason why soldiers wounded in battle can continue to fight or have the strength to save someone else; it also accounts for the so called runner’s high, or why some people are drawn to dangerous activities like car racing, sky diving and bungee jumping.
Endorphins are polypeptides containing 30 amino acid units. Opioids are considered stress hormones like corticotrophin, cortisol, and catecholamines (adrenaline, noradrenaline), and are manufactured by the body to reduce stress and relieve pain. Usually produced during periods of extreme stress, endorphins naturally block pain signals produced by the nervous system.
The human body produces at least 20 different endorphins with possible benefits and uses that researchers are investigating. Beta-endorphin appears to be the endorphin that seems to have the strongest affect on the brain and body during exercise; it is one kind of peptide hormone that is formed mainly by Tyrosine, an amino acid. The molecular structure is very similar to morphine but with different chemical properties.
While many people are vaguely aware that the blissful feelings one experiences after sex may be endorphin related, few are aware that endorphins are naturally produced by a wide range of activities like meditation, deep breathing, ribald laughter, eating spicy food, or receiving acupuncture treatments or chiropractic adjustments. Fewer still know that endorphins are actually good for health, and can play a role in helping drug and alcohol abusers overcome their addiction. Let’s explore some of the dynamics of endorphins and how they affect our daily lives.
Although more research needs to be done, endorphins are believed to produce four key effects on the bodymind: they enhance the immune system, they relieve pain, they reduce stress, and postpone the aging process. Scientists also have found that beta-endorphins can activate human NK (Natural Killer) cells and boost the immune system against diseases and kill cancer cells. In contrast to short-intensity workouts like sprinting or weightlifting, prolonged, continuous exercise like running, long-distance swimming, aerobics, cycling or cross-country skiing appears to contribute to an increased production and release of endorphins. This results in a sense of euphoria that has been popularly labeled the “runner’s high.”
Endorphins may also contribute to what some athletes call a “second wind.” Rather than feeling pain and exhaustion while running, endorphins may help us actually feel limber and energized towards the end of a race. According to William Straw, M.D., a team physician for the San Jose Sharks, “at some point you may feel a little more energetic and you can kick-in when you did not feel like you could kick-in before.”
Endorphins release varies according to the individual: one runner may have an endorphin rush (experienced as a second wind) after running for ten minutes, while another may need to run for thirty minutes before feeling a second wind.
The blissful feeling one often experiences after making love is due to the body’s production of endorphins: in fact, endorphin production can increase 200% from the beginning to the end of sexual activity. Recent studies, beginning with those of Candace Pert, Ph.D. of Johns Hopkins University, have documented the connection between orgasm and endorphins, although ongoing physical contact, and not just sex alone, also helps produce endorphins, along with the hormone oxytocin. Together, they are like natural opiates and help stabilize a relationship between a loving couple by inducing what famed obstetrician Michel Odent, of London’s Primal Health Research Center (whose book, The Scientification of Love, was published in England in 1999 and available through http://www.amazon.co.uk ), calls “a drug like dependency.” Although there are many reasons why two people choose to maintain a close and loving relationship, endorphins may be a factor.
A connection between good sex, endorphins and staying young may exist. In a 10-year study involving 3500 people, Dr. David Weeks, a neuropsychologist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital and author of Secrets of the Super Young (Berkley, 1999) found that men and women who have sex four to five times a week look more than 10 years younger than the average person, who has sex twice a week. Dr. Weeks believes that the pleasure derived from sex was a crucial factor in preserving youth. “It makes us happy and produces chemicals [endorphins and oxytocin] telling us so.” However, he found that indulging in promiscuous sex did not have the same benefits of enjoying loving sex in a long-term relationship, and it was more likely to promote the aging process rather than reduce it.
Many mothers can testify that labor can be excruciatingly painful; however at the same time, the body offers a reward for this exertion in the form of powerful painkilling endorphins and other chemicals that give the mother a genuine “high” during the birthing experience. By contrast, epidurals and other painkilling procedures prevent the production of endorphins for both mother and baby. Some researchers believe that this can actually cause harm to both mother and child, especially regarding mother-child bonding and the ability of the baby to adapt to a new life outside the womb. Adjuncts to natural birthing techniques (including exercise, massage, water, movement in labor, hypnosis, breathing and visualization) can increase the production of pain-killing endorphins for both the mother and her baby.
It has become well established that certain foods increase the body’s natural production of endorphins. Although my 90-year-old great aunt was not aware of the scientific research showing that chocolate causes an endorphin rush, she frequently remarked that eating several ounces of chocolate every day made her life a lot more enjoyable. Chocolate is by far the most popular endorphin-producing food on earth. Known by the Greeks as the “food of the Gods,” chocolate is derived from cacao beans that were revered by the Aztecs, who believed that eating chocolate would confer wisdom and vitality. In addition to sugar, caffeine and fat, chocolate contains more than 300 different constituent compounds, including anandamide, a chemical that mimics marijuana’s soothing effects on the brain. It also contains chemical compounds such as flavonoids (which are also found in wine) that have antioxident properties and reduce serum cholesterol. Although the combined psychochemical effects of these compounds on the central nervous system are poorly understood, the production of endorphins are believed to contribute to the renowned “inner glow” experienced by dedicated chocolate lovers.
In contrast to chocolate, which is smooth and luscious, chili peppers provide a stimulating heat and “bite” that increases the body’s production of endorphins. Many popular ethnic foods, including Tex-Mex, Mexican, Cajun, Indian, Chinese (especially Szechuan) and Thai, are renowned for their spiciness, and the resulting endorphin rush keeps diners coming back for more.
Chili peppers are not all created equal: red peppers are generally more pungent than green ones, and hotter chilies grow at higher altitudes and warmer temperatures. Chilies also release their heat differently; some are experienced as “hot” immediately, or their pungency is released over time; some chilies cause a burning sensation in the back of the throat, while others affect the tongue or the lips. And while chili peppers vary as to flavor, texture and color, they all provide important vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, calcium and vitamin C.
Although all hot chilies produce endorphins, they vary in pungency: the hotter the pepper, the greater the ability to stimulate endorphin production, When measured in Scoville heat units or Shu (a standard measurement of pungency in chilies) ancho chilies contain 900-1500 Shu, jalapeno peppers have 2500-6500, cayenne peppers can contain between 30,000 and 50,000 units, while the hottest of all – the habanero – pack between 200,000 and 300,000 Shu.
Several popular healing modalities have been found to stimulate the body’s production of pain-killing endorphins. They include acupuncture, massage (including shiatsu), local electrical stimulation (electrotherapy), chiropractic and hydrotherapy, which can involve underwater massage with jets of water (hydromassage), alternating hot and cold showers or baths, hot and/or cold compresses, steam baths, far infrared saunas, colonic irrigations, or applying jets of water under pressure to various parts of the body.
One of the first to document the healing power of laughter was Norman Cousins in his book Anatomy of an Illness. Later research found that powerful, ribald laughter triggered the release of endorphins which not only relieve the pain of accident or illness, but can actually enhance the healing process by helping us develop greater optimism and joy. The manifold implications of this research highlights the body’s psychosomatic network and its potential for healing. Pain clinics use creative visualization and deep breathing to increase the body’s endorphin production for pain-relief, as well as the creative use of placebos, which are also related to endorphin production.
Music has always exerted powerful physical and psychological effects on humans, but scientists have only recently made the connection of different types of music with the production of endorphins. Although music affects each individual differently, research has shown that classical, rock, heavy metal, and even the music in elevators produces specific physical and psychological effects. By judiciously choosing the types (and pieces) of music we most enjoy, we can enhance endorphin production in our everyday lives.
Scientists have recently found that in addition to calming the nerves and reducing blood pressure, the regular practice of meditation (as well as the ancient Chinese practice of Qigong and yogic breathing) help the body produce endorphins for a feeling of well being.
Recent studies have shown that chronic stress, anger and depression cause the body to manufacture chemicals that can inhibit the healing process and shorten life expectancy, while euphoria protects us from stress, illness and premature death. While apparently unscientific, these findings are promoted by Candace Pert and other neuroscientists. Some of the major ways that we can experience a greater sense of joy and well being in our lives: becoming conscious, daily relaxation, enjoyable exercise, “pointless” recreational activities, tapping into our dreams, guiltless goofing off, experiencing pleasure in little things, public and private displays of affection, sex without guilt, greater laughter and additional sources of merriment.
Recent studies have found that nutritional and biochemical imbalances, rather than lack of will power or character, may increase the potential for substance abuse. Specifically, alcohol and drugs give temporary relief for a depleted endorphin level, which is one reason why they produce addiction. Although more research needs to be done, scientists believe that certain individuals may be genetically predisposed to alcohol abuse because they lack the ability to produce their own endorphins. In addition to counseling, support and 12-Step programs, people who are alcohol-dependent need to address problems linked to nutritional imbalances, like candida, food intolerance, hypoglycemia, stress and thyroid dysfunction in the treatment of addiction. The use of vitamin and mineral supplements, especially vitamin C, E, selenium and amino acids like glutamine, taurine and tyrosene may be helpful as well.
Molecules of Emotion by Candace B. Pert (Simon & Schuster, 1997)
I’d Kill for a Cookie by Catherine Christie (Penguin, 1998)
Messengers of Paradise by Charles F. Levinthal.(Doubleday, 1988)
Love and Survival by Dean Ornish, M.D. (Harper Perennial, 1998)