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Unread 01-28-2011, 10:35 PM   #1
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Default Article: Endorphins, the gift you give yourself

Hey Survivors Just another article I found to be informative. I think everyone will find this one interesting and relatable too! About the important role of endorphins, and how to activate them! Wanted to share, ~Erika

Endorphins; The Gift You Give Yourself
By Lorrie Klosterman

"If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, atone us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant...then, it seems to me, all our problems (and not merely the one small problem of discovering a novel pleasure) would be wholly solved and earth would become a paradise."
—Aldous Huxley, from "Wanted, a New Pleasure," 1931

As the days shorten and the sun skims a lower arc across the sky, those of us who long for brilliant overhead sunlight get a little uneasy about the prospects of a long dark winter ahead. People with SAD (seasonal affective disorder) dust off their full-spectrum lamps to augment those specific solar wavelengths that cue the brain to keep pumping out serotonin—one of the brain's "feel good" neurotransmitters. But there are other neurochemicals, dancing in a complex relationship within the brain, that enhance a sense of well-being. Among them are endorphins.
The word endorphin is short for "endogenous morphine," referring to self-made chemicals (endogenous) that have morphine-like effects. In fact, the discovery of endorphins directly emerged from studies of morphine's influence on the brain. In 1973, Candace Pert and Sol Snyder published findings that morphine avidly attaches to specific proteins (receptors) on brain cells, thereby influencing the brain's activity, especially in regions allied with mood and pain. Those proteins were dubbed opioid receptors because they bind opiates—morphine and related chemicals from the opium-poppy flower bud (codeine, heroin, oxycodone).
Researchers then reasoned that opiate receptors ought to have naturally occurring neurochemicals that attached to them and induced morphine-like responses. The hunt began, and eventually enkephalins, endorphins, beta-lipoprotein, and other endogenous opioids were detected in brain tissue—in extremely minute amounts, but exquisitely powerful. Beta-endorphin is one of the best studied in the endogenous opioid family. It is a peptide, meaning a short chain of amino acids (30 of them), which is especially prevalent in the brain but also shows up in the nervous system outside the body and in immune cells.
Other similar but shorter molecules, like enkephalins and endomorphins, are potent neurotransmitters as well, and their diverse actions are being elucidated. Together, the endogenous opioid family of today includes dozens of chemicals that modulate mood, block perception of pain, influence hunger, regulate reproduction, and perform many other functions.
Seeking: Endorphins
Endorphins are in the public vernacular in phrases like "That ski run really gave me an endorphin rush!" or "He/she is so hot my endorphins spiked the moment he/she came in the room!" It should be noted that many of the things claimed to flood us with endorphins are not well supported by studies in people. The vast majority of scientific data (and conclusions) about endorphins are from rats and mice, because studying what's happening in the brain usually means killing the study subjects. Studies of people typically measure bloodstream levels of endorphins, not brain levels, with the assumption that there is a biologically relevant relationship between the two (though endorphins do not easily travel between brain and blood). Other studies use the drug naloxone to block opiod action and see what's been altered in human volunteers. This method is a useful, if not direct, way of probing what endogenous opioids do in people. In addition, PET scans are now showing activation of the brain's endogenous opioid system more directly, such as while receiving painful stimuli or exercising.
Hurts So Good
One of the best-supported activators of endorphins is pain. Like morphine, endorphins are analgesic, replacing pain with a relaxed, calm, and sometimes "euphoric" feeling. They dampen the perception of pain signals that reach the brain, and may also tame the frequency of signals sent to the brain by injured tissues. Note that things not inherently delightful to some people but which trigger a tolerable level of physical pain, may be sought by others who experience a euphoric response. Presumably endorphins (or other opioids) encourage such pain-seeking activities, but the body's other stress-induced neurochemicals, like norepinephrine (adrenalin), may be involved.
But endorphins are released within the brain by more than overt injury. Vigorous exercise, childbirth, bodywork, and acupuncture also tweak brain endorphins. For some, like childbirth, the physical stress is obvious. But even something as simple as eating hot chili peppers has been shown (in rats, by direct application of a chemical extracted from peppers to nerve cells) to trigger brain endorphins, and is assumed to do the same for chili-pepper lovers who crave the afterglow.
Vigorous exercise is a stressor on the body. Endorphins are clearly released under certain conditions to produce that famous "runner's high," a biochemically measurable phenomenon to which athletes attest.
"It feels so peaceful," says Dorothy Hamburg, an exercise physiologist and certified exercise trainer who owns Personal Strength and Training in Rhinebeck. "The runner's high, being in the zone, is real. I've been in races where I find myself struggling, then all of a sudden it just becomes easy, fun. Instead of 'oh, no, I've got to run another hour,' it becomes effortless. There is no struggle."
Hamburg, who has enjoyed endurance athletics and marathons for years, explains that endorphins are released when exercise level is moderate to high, "at the point when you are going from aerobic to anaerobic exercise." A clue as to when that's happening is "when you wouldn't be able to have a comfortable conversation while exercising." Short bursts of activity like weight-lifting or sprinting, don't trigger endorphins enough to be measured in the bloodstream, but might boost brain levels, and they help condition the body for more exertional activities. Also, studies do show that an hour or more of even modest exercise can elevate endorphins.
Most of Hamburg's personal training clients are women wanting to get exercise back into their lives as their bodies change in middle life. The endorphins are not a goal, but a perk, and the exercise can be just plain enjoyable for many reasons. "The most important thing is to find what you like doing. If you don't like it, you won't do it." It could include a combination of things, like gardening, walking, and yoga, for a total of half an hour a day. "Start with gentle effort. Learn the movement patterns, see how you feel, then increase in duration, intensity, and frequency."
Hamburg also suggests a one-on-one consultation with a trainer or coach. "Look for someone with education in the health fitness industry, a sports medicine background, or who is certified by the National Strength Conditioning Association [NSCA], American Council of Exercise [ACE], or the American College of Sports Medicine [ACSM]."
There are many other beneficial physiological changes induced by exercise, such as deeper breathing, revved-up blood circulation, better lymphatic drainage, and increased cellular metabolism, each of which have complex interrelations with brain chemistry and influence mood, alertness, physical sensations, and overall health.
Bodywork And Acupuncture
Physical treatments that stimulate nerves directly or indirectly (through muscle manipulation) also release endorphins, says Dr. David Ness, certified sports chiropractor in New Paltz. "Very simply, whether it's acupuncture, chiropractic, or bodywork, in addition to the therapeutic value, you get both the emotional and endorphin effects."
Chiropractic releases endorphins through its impact on the nervous system, he explains, adding that all bodywork releases endorphins. "Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, any of those modalities improve overall health—physical, spiritual, and mental. They are part of the wellness revolution," meaning the shift away from medicalized treatment of ailments to maintaining wellness and taking responsibility for one's own health and well-being. That once-a-week class isn't going to be much help, though. "If you are going to use it for an exercise, it needs to be done more than once a week," Ness encourages.
Bruce Pomeranz, PhD, at the University of Toronto, was the first to propose that acupuncture, commonly undertaken to relieve pain, does so through endorphins. After attending a 1975 conference at which the discovery of endorphins was announced, he theorized that acupuncture needles inserted at key locations in the body (which correspond to points on the meridian) stimulate nerves that trigger endorphin release within the brain (d'ai chi, meaning twisting the needles, is key to the effect, he says). There, the endorphins block the brain from registering the sensation of pain.
He then spent 20 years collecting data to disprove that (as proper science is meant to proceed). But diverse studies of his and other researchers indeed support this "westernized" medical explanation of why acupuncture is analgesic (versus that of traditional Chinese medicine, which explains it in terms of chi energy flowing through meridians). Bottom line: Acupuncture works and endorphins help make it happen.
Mind Over Body
Endorphins may also be behind the placebo effect, which is a measurable improvement in a person's condition, like pain, without any specific treatment being given. The placebo effect often is explained as the power of the mind to create physiological changes in the body, but some researchers argue that a placebo effect can be explained by study design instead; an example is the likelihood that, in any study of illness or a health condition, some people would be getting better on their own anyway.
But researchers at the University of Michigan implicated endorphins as a player in the placebo effect in a study earlier this year. They used PET brain scans of volunteers to record changes in activity of the brain's opioid system while the volunteers received a painful injection. The scans showed markedly increased activity of the endorphin/opioid system after the volunteers were told they were being given something that might ease the pain (though they weren't). The volunteers reported feeling less pain as well. This suggests that the idea of relief triggered the brain's natural pain-reliever (endorphins), which lowered the sensation of pain. "The mind-body connection is quite clear," the study's authors concluded.
Weak Evidence, But Who Cares?
Does having sex increase endorphins? The belief that it does is much more prevalent than any real data. A search of the Library of Medicine's database of thousands of biomedical journals produced a glaring paucity of studies relating endorphins and sexual activity in people (the more abundant data for rats offers mixed conclusions). There is reasonable evidence implicating the endogenous opiod system somehow in sexual behavior, however, and in reproduction, but in complex ways that include the two neurochemicals more reliably linked to sexual behavior: dopamine and serotonin. Similarly, there is almost no data to support the notion that laughter's emotional high is mediated through endorphins.
But who cares what's behind the warm and fuzzy aftermath of sex or out-of-control belly laughs? Something's definitely going on in that cranium. Plus, both have whole-body health benefits as cardiovascular exercises that increase blood and oxygen delivery and give muscles a workout, including those that other forms of exercise don't seem to get to.
The preceding brief review of endorphins suggests there surely is much more to them than we currently know. An annual review of endogenous opioids, published in the scientific journal Peptides in 2004, included sections on their relation to pain, stress, learning and memory, eating and drinking, drug abuse, sexual activity, development, mental illness, mood, neurological disorders, digestion, kidney and liver function, the cardiovascular system, respiration, thermoregulation, immunity, and more (though, again, most information is from studies in lab animals).
Just Do It
Mark Wilson of Woodstock is founder and president of the Hudson Valley Triathlon Club and a triathlon coach. "It doesn't take much to enjoy the benefits of endorphins via exercise," he says. "Literally 10 to 20 minutes of activity can release the natural drugs into your system, which creates a sense of well-being and joy that cannot be felt by sedentary folks. Brief, quick efforts up stairways or down the block can trigger the release of endorphins and possibly keep you from buying that cup of joe on the way to work, not to mention the doughnut! Bottom line, keep moving your body; it likes that!"
Are there any endorphin downsides? Some things that trigger them might become harmful, like overindulgence in highly sweet or fatty foods or a body-wracking exercise schedule, and they are implicated in addictive and obsessive behaviors like eating disorders and alcoholism. For example, alcohol triggers endorphin release; drugs that block endorphin attachment to receptors can decrease cravings. Interestingly, there appear to be inherited differences in brain endorphin levels, which are associated with susceptibility to alcoholism (naturally higher levels induce alcohol cravings).
Still, some of the best things in life are endorphin-friendly (or suspected of being so) and generate many health and social benefits. Even if scientific studies don't prove everything yet, how these activities make us feel is a good bottom line. No one really can tell what's going on inside our heads as well as we can. Plus, as a drug of choice, endorphins are very safe, and you'll never run out.

Last edited by erikanh80; 01-28-2011 at 10:50 PM..
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