Euphoria — a feeling of intense happiness or excitement — is something all people crave, and on some level need from time to time. When a person is addicted to alcohol or drugs, they are seeking that intense feeling of joy over and over again. Endorphins are the brain chemical that lead to euphoria. Addictive substances artificially tap into the brain’s production of endorphins. The problem is that the way drugs and alcohol work on endorphins can alter the way the brain functions and lead to dependence. The good news is you can harness your brain’s natural endorphins to stay sober. To do this, you need to understand better the connection between endorphins and addiction.
What Are Endorphins?
Endorphins are neurotransmitters that send information throughout the brain. Specific stimuli such as pain, stress and/or fear will produce endorphins. They work to reduce pain and control emotions during a challenge, usually by causing feelings of pleasure. Endorphins primarily affect other neurons called opioid receptors. These special receptors are found in the brain, spinal cord and digestive tract. Endorphins attach to them and producing feel-good sensations. One type of endorphin, beta-endorphins, has been shown to have a greater pain-reduction and pleasure-inducing effect on the body and brain than morphine. Beta-endorphins relieve pain without the addictive properties. This is because naturally occurring beta-endorphins are broken down in the body and recycled. But the effects on endorphins created by drug or alcohol use are very different.
How Do Drugs and Alcohol Work On Endorphins?
When drugs and alcohol attach to opioid receptors, they release feel-good sensations too. The problem is they do not break down in the same manner. Because they do not break down, the drugs or alcohol are able to reactivate the receptor repeatedly. This extends the length of euphoria and makes addiction more likely. Since the brain responds differently to stimuli in different people, some people have more intense responses to opioid receptor activity than others. This makes certain people more vulnerable to endorphin-driven addictions than others. Small amounts of alcohol can release endorphins to produce pleasure, reduce depression and increase motivation and focus. The problem is consuming even a little too much alcohol can have the opposite effect. The slightest bit too much alcohol can cause your brain to turn off endorphin production and introduce feelings of depression and lethargy.
How to Pursue Natural Highs (Endorphins Without Addiction)
The good news is there are ways you can release endorphins naturally, without the use of drugs or alcohol. The following evidence-based methods release endorphins at a variety of levels.
- Exercise naturally releases endorphins into the body. Exercising 20 to 30 minutes, three times a week, can produce beta-endorphins that help improve mood, increase feelings of pleasure and reduce overall body aches and pains. Exercise such as running, dancing, weight-lifting, gardening, walking, swimming and a variety of other forms of physical activity are all helpful. Simply choose the activity that you like and get moving.
- Laughter has been shown to reduce stress hormones and produce beta-endorphins. Even the anticipation of laughter works. Attend a comedy show, read the comics, watch a funny movie or find other ways to incorporate laughter into your life. It is an effective, healthy and low-cost way to release endorphins and feel good.
- Aromatherapies can be very effective in releasing endorphins in the body naturally. The sense of smell is one the most powerful human senses. Stimulation of scent causes immediate changes in the body, including heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and brain activity. Inhaling specific scents can activate the release of endorphins as well as other neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine to cause immediate changes in mood, pain levels, stress and anxiety. Some commonly used scents include vanilla, jasmine, sandalwood and lavender.
- Food can also release endorphins naturally. Chocolate, your favorite food, spicy foods and foods high in antioxidants — which can help fight free radicals that can affect mental health — have all been shown to activate the production of endorphins at varying levels. Additionally, foods containing omega 3s and other “good” fats help produce endorphin-promoting hormones called eicosanoids. But be sure to stay away from processed foods that can interfere with brain chemistry and function.
- Human touch, especially hugs, can release endorphins as well as a chemical known as oxytocin. It helps improve bonding, social interaction and lower stress responses. So rather than give your friends a hearty handshake when you see them, why not go in for the hug and get a dose of natural feel-good?
- Sex, or more specifically orgasm, also stimulates oxytocin and endorphin release.
Naturally releasing endorphins can help reduce pain, increase pleasure and improve overall sense of well-being without the unwanted and dangerous side effects that are associated with drug and alcohol use and abuse. This is the basic relationship between endorphins and addiction. So enjoy your natural highs and stay sober. Sources: Understanding Endorphins and Their Importance in Pain Management [beta]-Endorphin and HGH increase are associated with both the anticipation and experience of mirthful laughter The Effect of Mirthful Laughter on Stress and Natural Killer Cell Activity The Effectiveness of Aromatherapy in Reducing Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis Healing Scents: An Overview of Clinical Aromatherapy for Emotional Distress