You’ve heard the saying, “Endorphins make you happy.” What if I told you that this idea that endorphins make you happy is a bit misleading? It’s not that you’ve been told a lie. Endorphins are one of the 4 happy hormones, along with serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. It’s that their primary function isn’t to make you feel happy, it’s to block pain.
I’ll tell you more about endorphins role in your workouts and why you have that euphoric feeling after a workout in this post.
Endorphins are an interesting brain chemical, and the topic of endorphins is near and dear to my heart.
I’ve spent the past few months researching the effect endorphins have on the human body and the many roles they play. As a matter of fact, my graduate thesis is hypothesizing that synthetic endorphins could speed up alcohol and drug addiction recovery by lessening the withdrawal symptoms. My hypothesis is based on endorphins’ chemical properties and how they interact with your brain’s neurotransmitters.
I’ll spare you a lot of the scientific verbiage, but I did want to share with you a few interesting points about this all important hormone.
Endorphins Role in Exercise
Endorphins are your body’s natural painkiller. Essentially, endorphins are natural morphine. When you exercise or put your body through stress, your hypothalamus and pituitary gland literally floods your body with endorphins. The more intense that your workout is, the higher the amount of endorphins that are released.
How this works is very complex, but it’s pretty easy to understand.
Let’s say you go on a 3 mile run at an average pace. The average speed for a man is 5.9 miles per hour and 5 miles per hour for women. Running causes moderate stress on your joints and muscles.
Your brain recognizes this pain and sends the alerts the hypothalamus to signal the pituitary gland to release enough endorphins to block that pain. Once endorphins are released, these chemical messengers travel to your brain and attach to the receptors that cause you to feel pain. This is exactly how morphine and opioids function as synthetic pain killers.
If you run 10 miles at the same pace, your brain will sense its under a higher level of stress and release more endorphins. This is what causes the “runner’s high.”
I’ve seen this phenomenon in action as a fitness instructor and as a student. While taking a bootcamp class, my friend’s foot got red and began swelling, which was an inflammatory response to injury.
I asked her after class if she felt pain and she said she didn’t. That’s because the exercise was triggering her brain to release endorphins that kept her from feeling pain, while the inflammatory response protected the injured area in her foot.
The after effect of this endorphin release is happiness and a general feeling of well-being.
Hormones and Exercise
You likely never think about what’s going on chemically in your body while you sweat it out at your favorite gym or in your favorite fitness class. Your body release several hormones during exercise such as insulin and glucagon from the pancreas, cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) from your adrenal glands, and testosterone and estrogen from your reproductive glands.
Each of these hormones preform different roles in your body. For example, cortisol and epinephrine are released in response to the stress you’re putting your body through during a workout. Insulin and glucagon are released to regulate glucose in your blood. Testosterone helps protein synthesis and estrogen helps to tell the body to burn carbs or fat during intense exercise. Men and women both produce testosterone and estrogen during exercise.
Your body also releases a trio of happy hormones – Serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. Let’s briefly talk about each hormone.
Serotonin levels increase the more you work out and helps regulate sleep and the amount of cortisol in your bloodstream. It’s what makes exercise pleasurable. It’s also why you crave healthy food after you exercise.
Dopamine also helps regulate your appetite and weight gain. It’s a pleasure hormone that gives you the feeling of pleasure when you eat ice cream or something sweet, have sex, or any other activity that you find pleasurable. Exercise increases the level of dopamine. It’s been found that core workouts, leg exercises and pelvic exercises drastically increase levels of dopamine.
Have you ever noticed that if you go a long time without working out that you feel down or maybe depressed? Your body may just need a shot of endorphins.
If you engage in intense workouts regularly, you can become addicted to the euphoric feeling after such exercise. Don’t worry, the euphoria from a rush of endorphins is harmless. Remember, endorphins are a natural hormone your body produces to kill pain. Due to their morphine-like properties, endorphins give off a feeling of exhilaration and happiness. This harmless “high” only lasts a few minutes.
Ways to Release Endorphins
The benefits of endorphins include increased self-esteem, sense of happiness, reduced anxiety, and a stronger immune system. So, how do you get more? Here are my favorite ways to get an endorphin release.
The tried and true best way to get that endorphin rush is exercise. The more intense, the better the rush. Running and aerobic exercise (i.e. cardio) will release more endorphins than weight training. I suggest 45 minutes of moderate intensity exercise three times a week to get optimal levels of endorphins.
If you’re a chocolate lover, you are in luck. Just one piece of dark chocolate can cause your hypothalamus to release endorphins. You might be asking, “but if endorphins are released to kill pain, how will dark chocolate help?” It’s because dark chocolate also triggers the release of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Together, this foursome is what gives that feeling of happiness that comes from dark chocolate.
Sexual intercourse is physical activity. You aren’t going to get the calorie burn that you do from jogging or cardio, but you do burn calories having sex – on average 21 calories each time you engage in sex. Because it’s physical activity, your brain releases endorphins and oxytocin. Oxytocin is released during orgasm while endorphins are released to relax your body and create feelings of intimacy.
Do a Pleasurable Activity
Listening to music, dancing, creating art, watching television all trigger the release of endorphins. These are activities that bring us pleasure and relaxes our brain. Pleasurable activities trigger the release of endorphins.
Do Some Self Care
Stepping in an infrared sauna, getting a massage or acupuncture, taking a hot bath can raise your endorphin levels. Acupuncture stimulates the pain receptors in your brain, which crave endorphins.
The next time you engage in strenuous exercise, take note of how you feel afterwards. Do you feel confident or generally happy? Maybe you’re getting an overwhelming feeling of euphoria? This is the endorphins working in your body.
It’s important, however, to not exercise through pain or injury. It’s very possible to become addicted to exercise to the point it can be harmful. Give your body time to rest and don’t work through pain or injury. Listen to your body.
I’ll share more about my graduate research in a later post and why I believe endorphins are could be the answer to overcome substance abuse and addiction. However, I did want to share the misconceptions many people have about endorphins and their important role in exercise.
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