Endorphins are your body's natural painkillers. First discovered in 1975, they are proteins that work in a similar way to the painkiller morphine. The word 'endorphin' is actually an abbreviation of the words endogenous (meaning produced by the body) and morphine.
As we all know, laughter is the best medicine and endorphins are often described as 'happy hormones'. They affect your mood and emotions, and may be responsible for your body feeling pleasure, even euphoria. It is certainly true that when you are feeling good about yourself, the endorphins flow.
Yet, exactly how endorphins work is not completely understood. Several types of endorphins have been discovered, each with slightly different chemical structures and they have been linked to a whole host of bodily functions. The obvious surmise is that it differs with each unique individual.
As well as regulating pain and mood, endorphins affect other hormones and the heart, while endorphin responses have been associated with other aspects of the body too, including exercise and even eating certain foods.
However, endorphins are not only linked to pain. They may be released in your brain when you eat flavoursome food. This is thought to be one of the reasons why chocolate seems to improve your mood. Some also claim that the burning pain from chillies, caused by a chemical called capsaicin, may cause endorphins to be released.
Endorphins are among the brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters, which function to transmit electrical signals within the nervous system. At least 20 types of endorphins have been demonstrated in humans. Endorphins can be found in the pituitary gland, in other parts of the brain, or distributed throughout the nervous system.
Stress and pain are the two most common factors leading to the release of endorphins.
Endorphins interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain and act similarly to drugs such as morphine and codeine. In contrast to the opiate drugs, however, activation of the opiate receptors by the body's endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence.
In addition to decreased feelings of pain, secretion of endorphins leads to feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite, release of sex hormones, and enhancement of the immune response. With high endorphin levels, we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress.
Studies of acupuncture and massage therapy have shown that both of these techniques can stimulate endorphin secretion. Sex is also a potent trigger for endorphin release, as is the practice of meditation.
However it is not only external events that can trigger endorphins. It is possible to learn to trigger the production of your endorphins at will, by creating pleasurable conditions within your mind.
William Bloom’s book, “The Endorphin Effect”, teaches strategies to do just that. He relates the fable of The Wild Strawberry and interprets this tale to mean that, however bad your situation, there will always be a “strawberry” somewhere; i.e. something to connect you to the beauty and wonder of life. The strawberry represents anything that has truly pleasurable connotations for you; it can focus you away from your current, unpleasant circumstances and connect you with a more benevolent reality.
So prepare yourself to pick your strawberry and then be ready to access your endorphins. Try it; it really does work!