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Get the Endorphins Flowing!
Posted on Aug 08, 2013 by Bridget Greenlee (G+)
How endorphins can benefit your health this summer.
We’ve all heard of endorphins, but what are they really? Endorphins are peptides; produced by the pituitary gland (a pea-sized gland located at the base of the brain) and the hypothalamus (a part of the brain responsible for a variety of functions, like the nervous and endocrine systems) as the result of exercise, excitement, pain or eating spicy foods. Endorphins reduce pain and produce feelings of well-being in a person.
That’s pretty amazing: a naturally produced chemical that can reduce pain and create pleasure.
Endorphins are so powerful that they have been said to act like opiates, morphine or other drugs in their pain-reducing effects on the body. Who wouldn’t want to chase after natural highs this powerful? Endorphins can even help fight issues like depression and chronic pain.
Learning different ways to regularly encourage the body to release endorphins is a great way to stay healthy and improve mood. And instead of resorting to illegal drugs, prescribed medicine or other less healthy options, why not first seek out an endorphin boosting activity?
Runner’s high is a well-known example of what happens when the body experiences exercise-induced endorphins. Exercise is one of the best ways to release endorphins because it has so many other health benefits too. Weight loss, overall health, reduced stress and depression, improved self-esteem, improved sleep, increased strength and energy, lowered blood pressure and a number of other physical and mental health benefits can be obtained through exercise. Studies continue to show how important exercise is to mental as well as bodily health, proving again and again that physical activity should be a part of everyone’s routine.
Endorphins are released once a person exercises strenuously enough to hit an endorphin release threshold. This can come from most types of intense and endurance exercises; not just running. Even some less active exercises can trigger endorphins, like yoga, tai chi and Pilates. One caution: be careful not to overdo it. Endorphins come from prolonged physical activity and, once they are released, they reduce feelings of pain, making a person more susceptible to injury since she cannot feel the pain as intensely. There are reports of people having stress fractures and even heart attacks due to overexertion during long bouts of running.
Endorphins are also said to come from exciting activities that trigger the flight or fight response. The flight or flight response happens when someone is in a situation that is perceived as dangerous or a threat to survival. The mind goes into flight or fight mode and has to make a decision very quickly; choosing whether to attack or escape a situation. This is a primal response that occurs in animals to help them survive; when a wild animal encounters a predator, the flight or fight response kicks in to help that animal decide whether to run and hide or fight back.
The fight or flight response can happen in people who are faced with a real life dangerous situation (an encounter with a bear on hike, for example) or a perceived threatening situation (skydiving, which feels scary but is a controlled activity). These events all release endorphins to help ease the stress and/or pain of the situation. While it is not recommended to try to encounter a bear in everyday life, exhilarating situations like roller coasters, rock climbing, bungee jumping or whatever a specific person finds exciting and challenging can have these positive endorphin effects.
Pain & Stress
When the body experiences pain or stress, endorphins are released to negate these uncomfortable feelings. Endorphins can prevent an injury from being overwhelmingly painful, and also help a person feel better when under a great deal of stress. Childbirth, a pretty extreme example of both pain and stress, also induces these endorphin responses in the body. Perhaps this is part of how women in the past managed to give birth without the aid of modern drugs.
Although we certainly don’t suggest that you seek out pain or stress in order to get an endorphin rush, understanding the body’s own curative mechanisms can serve as something of a comfort when you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed with work, family or your social life.
The ingredient in hot peppers that makes them burn, capsaicin, is another endorphin production trigger. Your body wants to quench the fire in your mouth; it is a pain-triggered release of endorphins. But painfully spicy foods are not the only ones that can get your endorphins pumping. Eating chocolate actually produces endorphin-related calming effects that are the same as the effects of marijuana. It is no wonder people sometimes equate eating chocolate to the feelings of being in love. Proteins like fish and meat, and carbohydrates like macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes are commonly thought of as “comfort foods,” and these dishes really can comfort a person, thanks to an associated release of endorphins.
Being in Love
According to research, being in love can produce the hormone oxytocin. Some even refer to this as the “love hormone” because it helps a couple bond. But this hormone does even more than that. Oxytocin, like so many other things, also triggers endorphins, meaning that pains may lessen or disappear entirely. Like exercise, there are also other health benefits to being in love, such as better sleep, a lessened chance of cancer, less stress, and better heart health.
All of the positive effects of endorphins can help fight some diseases and conditions. Depression and chronic pain are two problems that can be fought with endorphins. If you are feeling down or continually experiencing pain, try going for a run, practicing yoga, skydiving or eating a spicy meal to get the endorphins flowing, the pain subsiding, and the good mood coming on.
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