Exercise and working out can be natural endorphin boosters for anybody, particularly for individuals in recovery from addiction. Endorphins are the body’s natural mood booster, sometimes going to extremes to find the next sport or activity to provide a rush. The brain and body are designed to create natural highs. Learn more about how endorphins work and ways to increase access to this natural mood enhancer.
What are Endorphins?
Neurochemicals called endorphins are produced in the brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland when the body is under stress or experiences pain. Endorphins are similar to morphine, which are considered natural painkillers. Endorphins are involved in the natural reward circuits related to activities such as eating, drinking and maternal behavior.
The notion exercise creates a rush of endorphins entered popular culture nearly 40 years ago. Long-distance running became popular in the ‘70s, around the same time endorphins were discovered. Many reports of ‘runner’s high’ from running came from research which suggested pain could be suppressed with the release of endorphins along with feelings of euphoria. Blood plasma endorphin levels do increase in response to stressors or pain but endorphins levels were not found to increase until about an hour after a workout. Endorphins cannot pass the blood-brain barrier which means there is probably little connection between exercise and euphoric feelings.
Since endorphins are not responsible for the feel good effects of a workout, it is likely serotonin or norepinephrine are responsible. When a person exercises, the brain increases production of neurotransmitters which send messages throughout the nervous system. Studies have linked low levels of serotonin and norepinephrine to depression. Exercise can lead to an increase in both chemicals which may reduce depression and stress. Working out may also help keep depression and stress at bay by enhancing the body’s ability to respond to stressors in the environment.
Endocannabinoids are a naturally synthesized version of THC, the chemical responsible for the buzz marijuana produces. The most examined cannabinoid produced in the body (anandamide) is believed to create feelings of calmness. Endocannabinoids can be made by pretty much any cell in the body which means they have the potential to make a bigger impact on the brain. One of the best ways to trigger the feel good release is to run at 70 to 85 percent of an age-adjusted maximum heart rate. For a person who is 30 years old, that would be approximately 142 to 161 beats per minute.
The natural release of chemicals in the brain and body are a natural way to experience feel good emotions without turning to drugs or alcohol. Addiction and drug dependence can have serious consequences for the brain and body. Releasing the body’s natural ability to experience calmness and good feelings is the key to feeling well naturally and staying healthy long term.
Addiction can strike anyone regardless of age or socioeconomic status. If you or a loved one struggle with addiction to drugs or alcohol, The Villa can help. We provide programs and support to help treat addiction and get you on the road to recovery.