Even if you’ve never laced up a pair of running shoes, you’ve probably heard the term “runner’s high,” a phrase that describes the feeling of euphoria some people experience while doing intense exercise. If you’re exercise-adverse, you might be a little skeptical that pounding the pavement can actually make you feel good, but trust us, it’s a scientifically proven thing: that joyful, relaxed feeling is caused by a rush of chemicals in your brain called endorphins. But don’t worry, you can get a boost of these feel-good chemicals from doing (and even eating!) other things, so no running is actually required! But is there a benefit to them past the brief, enjoyable sensation you get from them? How can you increase your endorphin levels? And can you get too much of a good thing?
The Natural Pain Reliever
So, what are endorphins, exactly? Well, the term itself comes from two words: endogenous (which means coming from the body) and morphine (the opiate pain reliever), so the name is actually a pretty good description of what endorphins do. They are your body’s own natural pain reliever, produced by your pituitary gland and central nervous system, and released to act on your opiate receptors in different situations.
The situations in which they are released include pleasurable activities, but also situations in which you’re stressed or in pain; they increase feelings of pleasure and well-being, as well as reduce pain and discomfort. Endorphins, like dopamine, light up our pleasure centers, but while dopamine is more of a “reward” chemical, endorphins move us away from pain and toward pleasurable feelings to keep us going.
The Power of Endorphins
Endorphins have benefits beyond the brief moment of pleasure they give you; they help keep the joy in your life, and help you deal with any stress that is thrown your way. Some of the many positive side effects of these wonder chemicals include:
- Reduced depression
- Reduced anxiety
- Pain relief
- Improved self-esteem
- Regulation of appetite
- Better immune response
It stands to reason that if having a healthy endorphin level is beneficial, then not having enough of them can be detrimental; it’s true that if you have low levels of endorphins, you could end up experiencing:
- An increase in symptoms of depression
- Increased anxiety
- More aches and pains
- Mood swings
- Problems with addiction
So these chemicals aren’t just something that avid runners are chasing, they’re something that we all need to be our happiest, most balanced selves – so how do we go about giving ourselves a healthy boost of endorphins?
Want Some More?
While you can actually get a great rush of endorphins from stressful and painful situations (think spraining your ankle while out jogging in the woods and having the ability to limp to safety despite the pain, or even of the stories you hear of people being able to lift heavy objects like a car after a traffic accident to save someone), you would probably prefer not to have to go through something like that to get the benefits of endorphins. And you don’t have to! You don’t even need to run a marathon or do anything crazy – you can also do other things like:
- Eat dark chocolate – Just one small piece will do the trick!
- Have sex – Get in some exercise AND bond with someone – the perfect endorphin-releasing combo.
- Exercise – The more intense the exercise, the more endorphins you will release, but even exercising moderately for, say, 45 minutes, 3 times a week is beneficial.
- Create or listen to music
- Make some art
- Have a good laugh
- Eat spicy food
- Get a massage
- Sit in a sauna
- Use aromatherapy – Try adding some essential oils to your cleaning products, or using a diffuser in your house. Vanilla seems to work particularly well!
- Watch a drama on TV – Laughter works, but so does getting sucked into a serious storyline.
- Do some volunteer work
- Spend time with friends – Avoid socially isolating yourself, as this can be a real drag on endorphin levels, and lead to a vicious cycle.
These are all excellent ways to release endorphins, but in case you’re wondering what the best ways are, according to Dr. Damian Jacob Sendler, chief of sexology and clinical research at the Felnett Health Research Foundation in New York, “Research shows that sexual activity and playing competitive sports produces the highest level of endorphins in our body. You could think of it as a form of defense mechanism — when we anticipate strenuous exercise, or really want to excel at an activity, the body releases endorphins to help us accomplish this goal.” So, you might want to snuggle up, put on that TV drama, and see what happens…
Too Much of a Good Thing
All of the above sounds great: pain relief and boosts of pleasure – and you can get it all by eating chocolate, having sex, or binge watching a great drama? Yes, please! But is there a dark side to endorphins? Well, unfortunately, like all good things, yes – you can actually get too much of them and, in fairly rare cases, become addicted to them. Again according to Dr. Sendler, “On a basic chemical level, endorphins have very similar properties to opiates that we use to treat pain. This is, in fact, one of the reasons why there is an opioid epidemic going on – we get easily ‘hooked’ on their analgesic effect. The same happens with endorphins and their particular ability to influence our sensation of pleasure.”
While there is no risk that you’ll need more and more of them to get the same reaction, like with opioid drugs, you could seek out the feeling endorphins give you in unhealthy ways, like:
- Self-harm – Self-harm refers to hurting yourself to relieve emotional pain or distress; as we’ve seen, the body’s natural response to pain is to release endorphins, so some psychologists believe that the endorphin rush can become an addiction, leading to a cycle of self-harming because of the need to feel that emotional release. At any rate, the release of endorphins most likely means that those who self-harm do not experience a lot of pain when harming themselves, and some even say that they feel a “rush” or “high” from the act.
- Exercise addiction – Some people can actually become addicted to exercise, and, although there are probably many complicated reasons behind this addiction, endorphins can certainly play a part – in fact, some people can end up exercising for hours a day, just to feel the effects of endorphins, which is more harmful than helpful for their bodies.
But, interestingly, there is a way to avoid endorphin addiction – according to Dr. Sendler, it’s roller coasters. Roller coasters? Yep. “This is actually the safest way of quenching our thirst for endorphins,” says Sendler. “While riding a roller coaster, our body experiences excitement and fear, prompting release not only of endorphins but also adrenaline. [Riding them] creates a cycle of fear, excitement, euphoria, all in a controlled environment and happening within a span of just a few minutes. Therefore, for most people, a day spent at places like Six Flags is more than enough to give them so much rush of endorphins that they are calmed for an extended time.”
Sendler adds, whatever you do to boost your endorphins, “try to space it out so you can maintain a healthy addiction to your activities. When you begin to break down barriers of fear too fast, at some point, you might start engaging in activities that are truly unsafe and dangerous for health.” And remember, if you’re engaging in self-destructive behavior, it’s important to speak to a mental health professional.
Our bodies are truly amazing: we produce chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins to keep ourselves feeling healthy levels of joy and manageable levels of pain and stress. And the other amazing thing is, if we’re starting to feel low, stressed, or achy, we can actually do something about it: get out there and boost our endorphins! So grab some dark chocolate, do a happy dance, paint a picture, laugh with some friends, go for a run, or even get busy with that special someone, and you’ll be feeling like yourself again in no time!