Endorphin -- a feel good hormone
Endorphins are endogenous opioid peptides which are produced endogenously by the pituitary gland, spinal cord and hypothalamus. In other words, they are morphine like substance originating from within the body. They function as neurotransmitters, which mean that they transmit the signals throughout the nervous system. A receptor is a molecule that transmits signals and an endorphin binds to a receptor that morphine and other opioids gravitate to. It is known as opiate receptor. The neuron receptors, endorphins bind to, are the same ones that bind some pain medicines. In contrast to the action of morphine, the endorphin activity doesn’t lead to addiction or dependence.
The primary action of endorphins is to relieve pain but they can also trigger feelings of euphoria. High concentrations of endorphins in the brain produce a sense of euphoria, enhance pleasure and suppress pain, both emotionally and physically.
Some people are born with low levels of endorphins, which make them more vulnerable to emotional injury. Such people are oversensitive as a child and teenager. When endorphins are low, people feel anxious; they are also more aware of pain. They have an appetite for fat and fatty foods, such as fries, cheese, creamy sauces, margarine, butter, fried chicken, potato chips, and chocolate. Upon eating some fat, they will notice a change in mood, feeling more pleasure. This feeling is related to a higher concentration of endorphin.
Women have naturally low endorphins levels as compared to men unless they are performing regular strenuous exercise.
There are certain activities that boost the production of naturally occurring opioid – endorphin – in the body.
- Exercise – During exercise, endorphins are released and this produces a feeling of euphoria and a general state of well being. It is also responsible for a state of so-called runner’s high. The endorphins produced can be so powerful that they actually mask pain. Physically active people recover from mild depression more quickly. Physical activity is strongly correlated with good mental health as people age. Any exercise will release endorphins but the best type of exercise for this purpose is aerobics. Even if one does moderate exercises for a short period of ten minutes, one’s mood will improve. However, to obtain all the benefits from exercise, not just the mood improving aspect, you should do at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day. Exercise is also a great stress reliever. Many have labeled it a meditation in motion.
- Laughter – Laughing with friends releases endorphins since laughter is a social activity that is 30 times more likely to happen in a social context than when alone. On an average, watching about 15 minutes of comedy in a group increased pain threshold by 10 percent. Participants tested alone showed slightly smaller increases in their pain threshold. Long series of exhalations accompanying laughter cause exercise of abdominal muscles which in turn release endorphins. That is the reason why so many laughter yoga clubs are mushrooming everywhere because the body can't distinguish between 'fake' laughter that people just start doing on purpose.
- Smiling – It cannot be verified that smiling produces release of endorphins since a smile is a facial expression formed by flexing the muscles near both ends of the mouth and contracting the muscles at the corners of the eyes. But if a smile originates from an emotion of happiness, it may be associated with the release of endorphins. Albeit, the release of endorphins from smiling may be subtle, they could mean the difference between being in a good mood or a bad mood. Staying positive keeps endorphin flowing. This needs further validation from studies.
- Activities that relax – Activities that relax the body and mind such as a full body massage, head massage or even just a shower massage helps release endorphins; in fact, the activities that produce a blissful feeling produce endorphins though the quantity released may vary from activity to activity.
- Activities that thrill – Activities that cause thrill by putting an individual in a risky state such skydiving, bungee jumping, swimming with sharks, riding amusement park rides or watching an intense sporting event can dramatically increase the endorphin level in the brain, allowing one to achieve a natural high.
- Dancing – Dancing to a slow and steady rhythm causes feeling of happiness as a result of release of endorphins. From a purely physical standpoint, dancing is an aerobic activity, which increases production and release of endorphins. In addition to being enjoyable, dancing is therapeutic as well. There are professional therapists, who use dance as a means to treat everything from simple tension to unspeakable trauma in their patients. Properly administered and channeled, dance therapy can provide relief from many forms of mental and physical illness.
- Spicy foods – Eating spicy foods releases endorphins in the body. When capsaicin, the element of chili peppers that cause the "spicy" sensation, comes into contact with the tongue, the body is tricked into believing that it is in pain and releases the pain-relieving endorphins. The spicy food can become somewhat addictive. There's no reason to worry about this spicy food addiction. One will never have physical withdrawal symptoms. It's a benign addiction and given the many health benefits of spicy food, a healthy one.
- Music – You can release the mood enhancing endorphins by singing and drumming. Some researchers have reported that people who have been playing music have a higher tolerance for pain as their bodies are producing endorphins, whereas some others researchers have concluded that it is the active performance of music that generates the endorphin high, not the music itself. It has been also found that found that people who sing or move in rhythmic unison tend to work together more cooperatively afterwards. This explains the presence of music in church services and military ceremonies. What’s the trigger of this spirit of community? it may be the release of endorphins.
- Falling in love – When two people fall in love, the body will release a plethora of endorphins. Attachment in the form of human bond is mediated internally by the release of endorphins in the brain. That is why some people develop a sense of increased security when their closest relationships seem stable. The endorphin fix is hard to shake, because they are not only addictive but they make us happy, energized, feeling strong and alive.
- Sex – There occurs endorphin release with sex, masturbation and during orgasm. That is why, having sex regularly makes one feel closer to the partner and contributes to the health of the relationship.
- Emotional states -- The majority of emotions and memories are processed by the brain's limbic system, which includes the hypothalamus, the region that handles a range of functions including emotional response. The limbic system is also rich with opioid receptors. When endorphins reach the opioid receptors of the highly emotional limbic system, one experiences pleasure and a sense of satisfaction. Endorphins may also be responsible for heightened states of rage or anxiety. If the hypothalamus misreads the endorphin cue, one could be flooded with "fight-or-flight" hormones at the slightest hint of trouble or worry. Endorphins may be responsible for the "placebo effect," due to the response of endorphin-release prompted by a tricked hypothalamus, which creates a sense of well-being after consuming a placebo sugar pill, or even after simply anticipating something pleasurable.
- Chocolate consumption – There is a good amount of research showing a positive link between chocolate consumption and endorphin release. Perhaps this can explain the public obsession over chocolate.
- Meditation -- Meditation stimulates the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus, thus releasing endorphins. One can achieve the euphoric “runner’s high” from meditating, without ever leaving the comfort of your own mind! That is why meditators are generally happier, more centered and less prone to anger and frustration than non-meditators. Prayers filled with intense emotions also release endorphins and so do the religious or spiritual discourses and mantra chanting.
- Other activities – The research has shown that other activities such as video game playing, stroking pets, receiving ultra-violet light rays and inserting acupuncture needles into specific body points may stimulate endorphins.
The endorphins have powerful, diverse characteristics such as the ability to relieve pain and stress and postpone aging. They also help the immune system resist diseases and provide unfavorable environment for cancer cells.