Nature's Own: The Feel Good Hormone
Nature's Own: The Feel Good Hormone
Sex feels good, that is why people do it for more than simply procreation. Laughing is enjoyable, for that reason people search for things that amuse them. Touch is pleasing, therefore the massage business thrives. These things can become addictive due to the pleasurable effect that they produce. People have been exercising obsessively for a long time but only recently was an idea postulated as an explanation. Laughter often begets laughter and in large doses, has the ability to make one feel high. We do what makes us feel good; human beings are naturally pleasure seekers. It is said that with drugs your first high is the best and never able to be duplicated. What keeps people using drugs, despite the downfalls associated with use, is that eternal quest for that ethereal feeling that they experienced the very first time. Pleasurable activities, like exercising, sex, laughter, touch, etc. can all become dangerously addictive. Some people will do anything and everything for 'that fix".
So what is it that makes people search for the next high, or feel good experience? Exercise, sex, laughter, and touch all produce positive effects within the body via chemicals in the brain. These chemicals are called endorphins, a mixture of the two words endogenous, meaning from within the body, and morphine, a powerful pain fighting drug that is also used and abused for recreational purposes. Endorphins are the body's internal pain regulators. The drug opium has been used recreationally as early in the ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures. British physician, Thomas Syndenham brought opium to the public to be used for medicinal purposes around sixteen-eighty. By the end of the seventeen-twenties opium was outlawed in China, due to it's high level of recreational use and abuse. This led to the Opium Wars between the China and England. Opium was also used throughout the Civil War to treat battle wounds and in surgery (1).
Credit for the discovery and abilities of endorphins are given to various different people, at different times in history. In the mid nineteen-sixties Berkeley professor, Choh Li, discovered the analgesic, or pain reducing, significance of a certain pituitary hormone, which he named B-Lipotropin (2). Upon attempting to figure out why opium affected people the way that it does, scientists, Solomon H. Synder and Candace B. Pert at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Lars Tereniun of the University of Uppsala, and Eric J. Simon of the New York University School of Medicine discovered the receptor-labeling technique and stumbled upon the idea of the opiate receptor in the brain (3) These receptors are the sites upon which drugs, such as opium, morphine, and heroin, target and affect the user's behavior and mood. These research teams found that the opiate receptors seemed to be consolidated in the portions of the brain included in integration and perception of pain and emotions. If the body is in pain, opiates will diminish the discomfort. If the body is not in pain, a feeling of euphoria will come over the body and take the user to a different level of consciousness, the "high". Endorphins are the body's natural "feel good" drug.
In nineteen seventy-five, John Hughes and Hans W. Kosterlitz of the University of Aberdeen managed to isolate peptides found occurring naturally within the brain. These peptides were called endorphins, meaning morphine from within, and were found to have pain reducing effects (4). Endorphins are now known universally as stress, or catecholamine, relieving hormones which act much like the opiate drugs opium, morphine, and heroin. When stress is detected by the brain, it sends out signals, or opiates, which bind at the receptor sites, and the pain is alleviated. Feelings of euphoria follow and soon become apparent.
Endorphins, much like the drugs that they mimic, have the phenomenon of eliciting either the fight or flight syndrome and/or the reward system, which is why abuse is possible. It is known and quite obvious that structures in the body have evolved through the decades. Evidence of the change within the brain's structures are apparent in the way that humans learn to adapt to situations and survive situations of pain. An endorphin rush allows an person to either stay and fight or run away, either choice quite beneficial to survival of the individual. Afterwards, endorphins also allow the person to be able to work with the pain its body is feeling and recover. These ground-breaking studies opened many doors for the scientific community to be able to study various angles of pain, depression, happiness, abuse/obsession potential, and homeostatic processes, such as eating and exercise, many angles which were previously barely understood.
The checks and balances system of endorphins physically consists of chains of amino acids, which make up the chemical messengers known as neuropeptides. The transmission of pain and/or pleasure feelings exist within the brain due to nerve impulses. These impulses are relayed via neurotransmitter chemicals thus causing the release of neuromodulator chemicals, such as endorphins (5). These messengers differ from neurotransmitters in the fact that they modulate feelings of pain and pleasure, rather than convey the actual feelings. In order to change the feelings of pleasure and blockage of pain, the endorphins must reduce activity in the thalamus and cerebral cortex. This occurs by the neuromodulators effecting the dopamine pathway by binding to a specific opiate receptor site. Endorphins "shut off" the nerves in the frontal lobe, inhibiting feelings of pain, and allows this area to flood with dopamine, hence the feelings of euphoria (6)
It has not been possible to fully synthesize endorphins due to the fact that enzymes exist whose sole purpose is to degrade the modulating neuropeptide once the endorphin has server its purpose (7) It is so far impossible to adequately produce a synthetic version of the body's natural pain fighter. Products and theories have evolved, with hopes of opening the door to a totally new, incredibly profitable way of marketing concepts to control and eliminate pain, safely and legally. Nerve stimulation devices(TENS), herbal remedies, drugs, and amino acid combinations such as Endorphins, all promise secure ways of promoting endorphin flow and good health (8).
Despite modern technology, I believe that our bodies, without being chemically altered, knows best. Opiate receptors naturally occur in the body for a reason. Pain exists and therefore the body needs to learn how to deal with it. Hence, it adapted the structures in the certain sections of the brain that deal with pain. Pleasure is a desired thing amongst humans, the brain also adapts in order to utilize pleasing acts or feelings. Rather than waste our bodies and money on mind altering drugs and studies of them I think it would be more beneficial to figure out how to best utilize what our bodies naturally give us. A perfect example of the human body taking care of itself is during childbirth. A woman goes through excruciating pain during labor and delivery, yet many women are able to experience all of the highs and lows without the aid of drugs. "Natural childbirth" leaves the regulation to the body's own painkillers, endorphins. These natural hormone levels rise during active labor contractions and reach their highest peak immediately following delivery (9). This explains the way that a mother, right out of delivery is able to forgo sleep and care for her infant, following such a draining experience. The endorphin rush following labor and delivery also aids the stimulation of themilk ducts and it is believed helps boost bonding and interaction between the mo ther and child (10)/ Unlike the narcotics that are often administered to women in pain, endorphins present during labor and delivery grant a more natural ebb and flow of feelings and original painkillers that the body has tooffer.
The efficacy of endorphins are said to reduce with age, so then I believe we should be more active and engage in activities that promote endorphin flow. Chile pepper enthusiasts have made "mouth surfing" popular and into a conterculture. It is said that chile peppers offer an non-hallucinogenic type of high which has the ability to alter one's consciousness. Chile lovers state that the fiery peppers "fool the mouth" into thinking it is in trouble with an often searing pain, only to be rewarded with a euphoric rush. They claim that their mouths were never truly in danger, despite the leftover tingling effect (11) This is a whole lot safer, yet supposedly produces much of the same effect of the psychotropic counterparts that others dabble with, drugs that have the ability to permanently alter one's mental state and cause even other serious problems.
Personally I can attest to the healthy and healing powers of exercise. When I am in season, I am a much happier, healthier, more focused person. Despite the fact that crew practice is stressful and physically demanding, I find it to be a time during the day that I refuel my body both physically and mentally. I feel depleted in so many ways due to my crazy school and work schedule that working out makes my focus much clearer. A good row totally clears my head and often leaves me feeling tingly and as if I am floating. Endorphins have also aided me in pushing me past mental barriers that have been imposed upon the level to which I used to think my body could perform up to. The absolute team cooperation aspect of the sport of rowing has also had a big impact upon this; during a race or even very intense practice piece, it is impossible to quit before the team as a whole decides to end. Of course it is possible although not only the mental letdown, but also the possible physical harm of quitting before the rest of the human machine does, weighs heavy in one's consciousness. There is something about the fact that everyone is depending on the next person to keep going which aids the endorphins in each system to push past the body's point of termination. Once the body flies past that burning point, it almost seems as if you could go on forever. This rush of endorphins keeps circulating to create more and more of a support to induce more of the pleasurable activity. The body craves positive feelings and humans will do anything to get that rush. The object of the game is to find the best way to maximize the natural high and push the body's limits without jeopardizing the individual's delicate, natural balance needed for survival.
11/22/2005, from a Reader on the Web
After reading Nature's Own: The Feel Good Hormone by Nicole Stevenson, I had to laugh. She compares the natural ability of the brain's reaction to stress in relation to overcoming adversity to A ROWING SPORT. She states how all the answers are in the nature of the brain itself, and how easy it is to overcome a difficult situation by utilizing the brain's natural resources--being tired from rowing. Although you noted a good point, how easy it is to compare a rowing sport to "suffering" and the brain's natural chemistry. How easy for her. I recommend you write about people that have endured years of stress and abuse, then see what your findings are. Maybe then you can state how the natural brain can help or not help a person cope by using such techniques as exercise, medidation, etc. Until you've walked in that person's shoes, you have no clue. No amount of education can teach you this, and that is why academia and government officials should have more life experience with poverty, drug abuse, mental illness, and dysfunction. Until people with these experiences are including in positions of authority, things will never change. Good luck with your studies.