An endorphin is a neuro-transmitter – essentially, it is a chemical messenger that passes along a signal from one neuron to another. Endorphins are a part of the nervous system and are released from mainly the pituitary gland, as well as the spinal cord. They primarily interact with receptors in cells within the brain which handle emotion and restrict pain; however, they are also responsible for delivering feelings of bliss, joy, and contentment.
Allow me to explain endorphin release into the body in a language that I understand well from my background as a police dispatcher: the language of law enforcement. If an officer were to arrive on the scene of a call and realize that the situation was escalating, that officer would quickly radio and ask for backup – code 3! Essentially that is what the body does. If the hypothalamus (the officer in charge) senses pain it will request endorphins be released – a ‘Code 3’ (lights and sirens) response. Another situation when endorphins may be released is during times of high stress (also known as a critical incident- this one usually will require a sergeant for paperwork or a ‘debrief’ of some sort afterwards). We are all well aware of the stress response. Usually too aware.
The most widely known way to release endorphins other than pain or stress is exercise. If you have ever seen the movie “Legally Blonde,” you might remember that during a cross examination, it is emphasized that ‘exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.’ It is true that exercise releases endorphins, but if you live in a world of dysautonomia and exercise intolerance, rest assured there are other ways to release endorphins:
♦ Laughter – No matter the reason, laughing increases the release of endorphins. Watch a funny movie, stand-up comedian, or even just Youtube videos and you can choose the topic.
♦ Music – Incorporate music into your day- whether it’s playing an instrument or just turning on music that makes you happy. Do it!
♦ Vitamin D – Get a dose of vitamin D- being outdoors in the sunlight, even just for a few minutes can do wonders for your body. One benefit is that endorphins are increased quickly after being in the sun. Of course use caution to avoid overexposure and sunburn and stay hydrated if you’ll be out for longer periods.
♦ Fun – Have good old-fashioned fun- play a game with a friend, child or pet. Work on a craft or project. (A word of caution: DIY home improvement and décor projects can be very satisfying if they turn out well, but can also be very frustrating if they do not… just my words of advice from a wife who has done both successful and unsuccessful projects with her husband.)
♦ Help someone – this can be referred to as a ‘helper’s high’. Taking the focus off of yourself and your situation can help drive you towards a goal of helping a friend or even a stranger in need. (Don’t show up unannounced though, you never know which neighbors wear pants regularly and which don’t.)
♦ Fall in love – if you are currently not in love, I doubt my ordering you to fall in love will make it happen. However, Phenyl ethylamine is produced in the brain when you fall in love there is a major release of endorphins. I have good news though. Phenyl ethylamine is also found in dark chocolate, because really, dark chocolate is love. If you can’t fall in love, fall in dark chocolate.
♦ Spicy foods – hot peppers include a component known as capsaicin which provides the heat feeling. The brain can interpret this as pain which automatically causes a release of endorphins.
♦ Alcohol – in moderation it can also increase endorphins; however, with dysautonomia it can be a double-edged sword. Yes, it may release endorphins, and it may also cause increased or drastic symptoms.
♦ Serotonin – another mood boosting chemical released from the brain is serotonin. Interestingly enough, if you crave certain foods that may be an indicator that you are low on endorphins and serotonin. People who desire carbohydrates and fats, may be in need of an endorphin release. While fats and sugars can deliver endorphins, it may be in your best effort to try some other items from the endorphin list rather than to reach for the cupcakes.
No, I can’t work out like I used to, but I can put together a care package for a friend. I can make time to play with my dogs or get out a board game for a Friday night in. I can spend time in the sun and have a dark chocolate iced mocha to keep my endorphins and Phenyl ethylamine levels up. Surely, I am responsible enough about my health to find activities that will increase those needed endorphins.
It seems to me that it would be better for us to stop focusing on what we can’t do for our health and start focusing on what we can do!
P.S. This article was recently featured in the quarterly newsletter for Dysautonomia Information Network.