Elaine Doll-Dunn, Psy.D.

I love endorphins. It takes me four miles to access them, but it’s worth the time and effort. The “runner’s high” is a reality…in varying degrees, but most runners do experience a sense of euphoria after a certain number of miles into a run. It ranges from a simple sense of well-being to an, “I can solve the world’s problems and have time left to write the Great American Novel…probably all this afternoon!” I don’t often reach that level, but I do get the I-feel-good, I-can-run-forever, great-ideas-flooding-my-mind- and words-aligning-themselves-in-delightfully-poetic-precision often enough to keep me running. It doesn’t usually last much past my post-run shower (the words; euphoria dissipates before I reach home!), but it’s fun while it lasts. Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University, New York City, says, “That (creative) part of your brain opens up when you are engaged in repetitive movement. Whatever books and or articles or speeches I have written or given, they are frequently conceived of during runs.” Ditto for me, at least the nucleus of the idea is usually born on the run…

Endorphins are chemicals produced in the brain in response to a variety of stimuli, and may be nature’s cure for high levels of stress. Discovered in 1975, endorphins are among the brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters, which function in the transmission of signals within the nervous system

Stress and pain are the two most common factors leading to the release of endorphins. They interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain, having a similar action to drugs such as morphine and codeine. Unlike drugs, however, activation of the opiate receptors by the body’s endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence. (Well, maybe that’s true, I believe adrenaline is addictive {better known as starting line fever}, but the jury is still out on endorphins!)

In addition to decreased feelings of pain, secretion of endorphins leads to feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite, release of sex hormones, and enhancement of the immune response. With high endorphin levels, we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress. Endorphins have been suggested as modulators of the “runner’s high” that athletes achieve with longer runs, and while the role of endorphins and other compounds as potential triggers of this response has been debated extensively in the literature, it is known that the body does produce endorphins in response to prolonged exercise.

And here’s more good news. Certain foods, such as chocolate or chili peppers, can also lead to enhanced secretion of endorphins. In the case of chili peppers, the spicier the pepper, the more endorphins are secreted. The release of endorphins upon ingestion of chocolate likely explains the comforting feelings that many people associate with this food and the craving for chocolate in times of stress. (Works for me, stress or not!)

If you’d rather not participate in strenuous activity to get your endorphin “fix”, you can also try other activities that increase your body’s endorphin level. Studies of acupuncture and massage therapy have shown that both these techniques can stimulate endorphin secretion. Sex is also a potent trigger for endorphin release. Interestingly, the practice of meditation can increase the amount of endorphins release in your body.

And finally, smile. Just the simple act of smiling releases endorphins into the blood stream that make you feel better. Really! Try it. Even if you don’t feel all that happy, turn the corners of your mouth up, crinkle your eyes, and voila! You will feel better. An added benefit; smiles are reflected back by all you meet, which makes everybody feel better. Standard counseling procedure in my office; just ask any middle school kid. Cheaper than Prozac and quicker than a run.

So there you have it. Endorphins from a variety of sources. Chompin’ chocolate or rippin’the road…feeling good is a run away.

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