Endorphins are neurotransmitters, meaning they are part of a class of chemicals that transmit information in your brain. Neurotransmitters play the facilitator role in the whole chemical process, helping to suppress information or to pass it along in our nervous systems. When endorphins are present in that process, they have a narcotic effect. That’s right – narcotic! They’re our body’s very own opiate.
Endorphins are thought to be responsible for the processing of pain and pleasure in our brains. They are created in our spinal cords and brains and react with brain receptors to enhance pleasure, induce euphoria and block pain signals. They are referred to as our body’s feel-good chemicals.
Endorphins Help Your Health
If these endorphins are not a funky cousin of the dolphin, as I first thought, and are actually something my body creates to make me feel better, how do I get them? Who is my body’s drug dealer, so to speak? Does my Dr. Feelgood have one of those great ‘80s monikers like White-boy Rick or Dr. Delight-o? Unfortunately, no. Endorphins are controlled by the hypothalamus gland.
The organ thought to be most responsible for regulating endorphin production is the hypothalamus, which is part of your brain’s limbic system. The limbic system has much to do with the processing of emotions and pain. Many other bodily functions, from breathing to hunger, are also partially controlled in the limbic system of the brain.
The hypothalamus, specifically, is thought to be responsible for telling our brain when to stop eating because we are full or to take our hand out of a hot flame because it hurts – if all is working properly. When sufficient levels of endorphins are present during the brain’s transmission of information, the information is modified by the endorphins.
Endorphins make all the difference in the world to how we feel and what we experience, both physically and emotionally. Appropriate levels can suppress pain as effectively as morphine and induce euphoria much better than drugs or alcohol. When endorphins are scarce in the brain, however, it is thought to be at least partly responsible for certain kinds of mental illness like obsessive-compulsive disorder and self-destructive behaviors such as drug use and cutting.
How Do We Know That?
Endorphins were first discovered in the 1975 when doctors were trying to understand how chemical pain suppression worked. Scientists were trying to determine exactly how opium, morphine and heroine blocked pain signals in the body. What researchers at the University of Aberdeen found during this study was astonishing. Not only does our body produce its own generic opioid – endorphins – our brains are pre-wired for their transmission. There are specialized receptors for the neurotransmission of opiates already in our brain just waiting to be activated.
That’s why narcotics work on humans. They are chemical copycats of endorphins and fit into the same receptors in our brains that endorphins do.
Pre-Wired for Pleasure
Endorphins’ effect on the brain is extremely similar to what we experience from any kind of opiate. Just like morphine and other opiate-based painkillers, endorphins will stop or reduce pain when present and make us high when it is not. Unlike its chemical twins, however, endorphins are not addictive. We are free to make and consume as many as we can convince our hypothalamus to make. We can’t overdose or die from enjoying them too much.
Endorphins don’t cost money, they aren’t addictive and they can stop pain or simply make us feel wonderful. What’s not to love about that? Endorphins are a chemical gift from our brains when we need it most. I don’t know about the rest of you, but they had me at hello!
How Do I Get Some?
The answer seems to be exercise. You can increase your brain’s supply of endorphins by running or dancing or any sustained physical activity. The so-called runner’s high has been attributed to the release of endorphins, as well as the afterglow that comes with orgasm. Laughing, yoga and meditation have been shown to increase endorphin levels, but then again, so have mountain climbing and skydiving. Whatever floats your boat, intellectually or emotionally, gets the endorphins rolling.
It’s All up to You
Studies suggest that the hypothalamus is most generous in releasing endorphins when we are physically active and mentally engaged. We are rewarded with an endorphin rush after vigorous and rewarding activity – a feeling of euphoria; nature’s high. When we are hurting physically or emotionally, endorphins are created to suppress or stop our pain. They can reverse depression and ease withdrawal from addictive chemical wannabes.
Find out everything you can about the miracle antidrug, just waiting for you to produce, deep inside your brain. Endorphins are there to help you. If you want to turn on nature’s feel-good drug, you’ve got to move.
A good dose of something side-spitting and laugh-out-loud funny can’t hurt, either. Finally! Justification for watching “Dumb and Dumber To.” Then again, maybe not.