After a bad day in the office or in life, a good sweat can be one of the best ways to turn a frown upside down. Endorphins have been popular with people who are athletic for that post-workout blissful feeling. People love to feel good but endorphins get all the credit while much more is going on behind the scenes. Find out how endorphins impact mood and why it is not all related to exercise.
The Role of Endorphins
When the body comes under stress or experiences pain, neurochemicals called endorphins are produced in the brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Endorphins are a natural painkiller which activate opioid receptors in the brain to help minimize discomfort. Great feelings of euphoria and well-being are also emitted. Endorphins are involved in natural reward circuits related to feeding, drinking, sexual activity and maternal behavior.
Exercise was thought to create an endorphin rush some 40 years ago. Long-distance running gained in popularity in the mid-1970’s which was thought to be the source of euphoric feelings following intense bouts of exercise. Blood plasma endorphin levels do increase in response to stressors and pain but exercise can have a similar effect although endorphin levels may not increase until an hour post-workout.
Studies on the Brain
Some recent studies have looked into the endorphin-brain connection. While endorphin levels are higher following a run, endorphins cannot pass through the blood-brain barrier which means endorphins probably don’t have much to do with experiencing an exercise high. What impacts the brain is likely a neurotransmitter called anandamide, elevated post-workout which travels from the blood to the brain. While some studies show exercise can lead to elevated endorphin levels in blood plasma, no consistent findings have been found to conclusively decide that exercise does, indeed, lead to an ‘endorphin rush.’
What is Going On
While a person may be a serotonin or norepinephrine junkie, which can elevate mood, a rush is likely not caused by a flood of endorphins. Exercise may actually help ward off depression and anxiety by enhancing the body’s ability to respond to stressors. Studies have linked low levels of serotonin and norepinephrine to depression and anxiety. While the science behind why a person feels a rush post-workout may be complicated, it does not mean the runner’s high is not a real feeling. In fact, a person can feel great after a workout for many reasons even if science has not conclusively related it back to elevated endorphin levels. Staying healthy, losing weight, feeling more confident and trying new things are all positive side effects of exercising so why not get out there and give it a try. It just might kick those blues and bring feelings of joy and peace in the meantime.
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