What Are Endorphins?
Before I give you the ways to increase endorphin levels, I’ll reveal a little background on these feel-good brain chemicals. I want us to be “on the same page” about what endorphins exactly are. It is surprising how many people think endorphins are the same as a brain chemical called dopamine; dopamine is actually a different feel-good brain chemical. Now, let’s discuss endorphins and why you might like them!
Endorphins rock—That’s how I’ll start this. Endorphins are brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters transmit electrical signals within the nervous system.
When your body experiences stress or pain, endorphins are released by the brain’s pituitary gland, spinal cord and other parts of the nervous system.
There are over 20 types of human endorphins. Endorphins can be found all throughout the nervous system.
They are natural painkillers because they activate opioid receptors in the brain. Endorphins also help bring about feelings of general wellness and even euphoria. Euphoria is a good thing, right?
Endorphins and emotions:
The brain’s limbic system processes your emotions. This area includes the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus handles all sorts of fun brain functions. It keeps you breathing, supplies sexual satisfaction, hunger satiety, and emotional gratification. The limbic system is laced with opioid receptors. When endorphins reach the opioid receptors of the emotional limbic system, you experience a satisfying feeling of well-being. On the flip side, however, endorphins may also be responsible for heightened states of anxiety or even rage.
If your endorphins “overdo it” or the hypothalamus misreads the endorphin cues, one could be flooded with “fight-or-flight” hormones when there is only the slightest “alarm bell” going off, rather than the coveted well-being state. This is a rare situation. I wouldn’t worry about it unless you see a relationship between these activities and the feelings just mentioned. For the most part, endorphins affect us like narcotics such as codeine or morphine.
The “high” isn’t as much, but the addictive nature of endorphins can be similar to that of narcotics, causing mood withdrawal symptoms rather than actual physical withdrawal. I remember how great it felt to finish a long run and, for sure, understand this. Do you?
The runner’s high:
Exercise is one of the best ways to increase endorphin levels naturally as I’m sure most of you are aware. You are likely familiar with the term “runner’s high.” This, of course, refers to the euphoric feeling one sometimes gets when exercising. The term was obviously coined by long distance runners and (again) I sure remember the feeling from my triathlon and marathon days. Research reveals that light-to-moderate cardiovascular exercise or weight training is not intense enough to produce endorphins. Only using real bodybuilding techniques with heavy weights or cardio training that incorporates sprinting or other anaerobic exertion will “do the trick.”
When your body crosses over from an aerobic state to an anaerobic state, it’s a big change. Your cells, especially your muscles are now operating without enough oxygen to satisfy normal metabolic requirements. This is precisely when the “runner’s high” occurs. Skiers, surfers, football players, tennis players, hockey players, swimmers and others all have endorphin “highs.” They describe these highs as times when they feel they are working to their maximum potential; they feel “on top of the world.”
As mentioned above, the primary triggers for endorphin release are pain and stress. When your hypothalamus detects pain, it tells your nervous system to make you aware that you have pain. Then, endorphins enter to dull that pain. Endorphins act as analgesics meaning they diminish the perception of pain. They also act as sedatives. The hypothalamus is the control center of your entire hormonal system.
It decides when you should eat, when you need a dose of endorphins and when you need to release hormones. Next, I’ll discuss all the best exercises for increasing your endorphins. Do take a moment to realize how much exercise does for your health. When exercising next, you can feel good about what it’s doing for your health and get your endorphin rush! If you are not “up to exercising” due to medical issues, don’t worry! There are still ways you can work out which I’ll reveal further on.
Meanwhile ice baths or cold showers or even cold exposure will increase endorphin levels. Eating spicy foods or chocolate (containing DL phenylalanine) will raise them. So will taking DLPA supplements and be careful on dosing here. Sex increases endorphins. Lastly, promising evidence for CBD oil and even more promising evidence for low-dose naltrexone will be covered on other blogs. More modalities will be listed later. Now let’s hone in on exercise and how to use it to max out endorphins.
Benefits of Regular Exercise:
Regular exercise will reduce stress, improve sleep, stave off anxiety and depression, boost self-esteem and help reduce body fat. It is one of your weight loss solutions as I’m sure you know. In addition, exercise will lower blood pressure. It even increases blood flow to the layer of skin where elastin and collagen reside causing more cellular proliferation and just plain overall skin appearance.
Exercise strengthens and builds bones. It increases energy levels. It strengthens your heart. Exercise also makes you look fit and healthy. It even improves your overall brain health. The list goes on and on! Ready to get moving? If you’re sitting and reading, please stand up; stretch, pump your arms for 30 seconds and then sit down to resume. Get used to moving more. It won’t increase endorphins, but it will make you more likely to want to exercise.
Exercises to increase health and endorphins:
One of the easiest ways to get your body to release large quantities of endorphins is to do an intense workout. You can perform the following workout in 30 minutes or less. Remember; this workout is specifically designed to trigger endorphin release in your body. Unlike most other exercises I’ve mentioned, this one does not target a specific muscle group or area of the body.
You will get a feeling of mild euphoria after completing it—I promise you! Please perform these exercises in the exact order they are given because the key is to increase your muscular intensity as the workout progresses gradually. If you have not been a regular exerciser, do get medical clearance!
Treadmill (or other aerobic machine):
First, do a 5-minute warm-up at a comfortable speed. Then, every 3 minutes, increase both the speed and difficulty. Incline the treadmill one degree and increase the speed. If you are on a bike, increase the resistance and maintain the same cadence. If you choose a rower, increase the resistance. Do this 4 times so that you perform the 5-minute warm-up followed by 12 more minutes of ever-increasing intensity. When you’re done, you should be “feeling it.” Move to the bench press next. You want to do this whole routine so that you are not short of breath nor are you able to carry on a normal conversation.
Grip the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Perform 10 reps with close to your one-rep max. This means use a weight that will totally exhaust these muscles after 10 repetitions.
If you’ve learned the benefits of partial rep training, you’re better off doing all reps with this method because you can use more weight. Using more weight means releasing more endorphins. Rest for 15 seconds, then perform a second set “to failure.” When you first switch to training this way you might need 30 seconds after each set of exercises. Try not to take it. However, don’t let me see you “gasping for air” out there!
This is a great exercise if done with the right form. If done wrong, you can hurt your back. If you have never done these, do it with an advanced bodybuilder or a trainer the first time, please. Grip the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Do 10 reps with the heaviest weight you can manage. Rest for 15 seconds, then perform a second set “to failure.”
Leg press (or squats):
If squats are something you can’t live without, go ahead and do them. Just do NOT go past 90 degrees because you will “squish” your knee cartilage. The amazing truth is, however, that leg presses are actually more demanding on the large muscles of the legs. They are also far less prone to cause injury. So, load up the leg press with the maximum amount of weight you can handle for 10 reps. Rest for 15 seconds, then perform a second set “to failure.” Rest for another 15 seconds, then perform a third set “to failure.”
Believe it or not, that’s the entire workout! You are done! You have worked all of your endorphin-kicking large muscle groups “to failure.” This can be a once per week workout to kick-start your large muscle movements. Do it twice and add in something for your lats and smaller muscles. You might want to try my quick and easy full body workout. Many women message me that as they age, they notice “saggy skin” on their legs. Well, ladies, get in the gym. Getting those quads kicking up in mass is an excellent way to tighten thigh skin!
I personally train: one set to near-failure, full-body, but have been doing this for years and don’t want to encourage this unless you are versed in what is called the “super slow” method. Follow the previous link to my exact workout. At any rate, 30 minutes after completing the workout, you will feel a mild sense of euphoria and a higher energy level. You will also sleep better that night and have greater energy levels the next day.
8 more ways to increase endorphin levels:
Everyone has now heard of the runner’s high I mentioned earlier. Again, it can be described as the amazingly overwhelming sense of happiness you feel when you run really really hard. By now you know this is endorphins at work too. The good news is that you don’t have to run a marathon to experience this high. Those of you with fatiguing illness or chronic illness will have low endorphin levels, leading to more pain. This situation is common in mitochondrial function disorders. Here are additional ways to signal your nervous system to make more endorphins. (I’m still going after the “can’t exercise right now” crowd.)
Ways to Produce More Endorphins:
Take a group fitness class—A British study found that athletes who rowed together could tolerate twice as much pain as athletes who rowed alone. Work out with others to improve your endorphin flow and prevent workout “pain.” This also includes gentle classes such as yoga.
Eat your favorite foods— All foods which you find to be delicious make your brain release endorphins to elevate your mood.
Chocolate—Cocoa contains a mood-boosting substance called phenethylamine, an organic compound that gives your body an endorphin boost.
Eat hot peppers—Even if you love the taste of spicy foods, your body senses the heat and responds the same way it response to pain; with endorphins!
Laugh out loud—When you do laugh, your body releases endorphins!
Have sex—Sex releases a flood of endorphins plus a concoction of other feel-good brain chemicals such as oxytocin.
Music—Listen to it, but there’s more. Your brain produces, even more, endorphins when you actively take part in creating music. If you’re not a trained musician, tap, hum, or dance along to your favorite songs.
Get acupuncture—Research suggests the pain of the needles sends a message straight to the brain, which then releases endorphins.
Get a massage—Yes, it’s not just a feel-good-at-the-moment activity. A good, strong, muscle-kneading massage increases endorphins.
Use a TENS or STIM unit–Get a prescription from your doctor or ask your Physical therapist to recommend one for this purpose.
Get some sun—I’m not asking you for a long unprotected UV exposure, but 5-10 minutes of direct sunlight will increase ATP (energy) levels and endorphins too. Don’t get arrested taking my advice, but the more skin you can expose, the better.
Take low-dose-naltrexone: This is slightly controversial but the mechanism of action for pain is that it binds to endorphin receptors and “fools” the body into making more. More info about this and other forms of natural pain relief can be found in the article just linked.