After aerobic exercise such as running or calisthenics, it's common to experience “runner’s high,” a sense of well-being, diminished anxiety, and resistance to pain. Doctors and researchers have long attributed this sensation to endorphins, opioid peptides that affect mood. More recent findings indicate that the brain’s endocannabinoid system, which is also activated by THC in marijuana, acts with these peptides to produce runner's high.
You might not know that endorphin receptors also make active the effects of heroin, morphine, and other pain-killers, as well as provide the "rush" from eating chocolate. During a vigorous workout, when you're accumulating soreness in limbs and lungs, nerve impulses tell your brain "no big deal," that the body will make it through. Endorphins are capable of heading off signals from the brain by lining up in synaptic gaps between neurons.
The electrochemical impulse crosses the synaptic gap, binds to endorphin receptors, and soon you are treated to euphoria and pain reduction. The neurotransmitter jumps across the synapse, into an adjacent neuron's dendrites. These neurons have stress- and pain-managing receptors for endorphin. Triggered by the terminal button at the neuron's end, pain-blocking engages.
What are some ways to influence endorphin production?
It has long been known that various fragrances enhance mood, and stimulate endorphins. The scent of vanilla has been shown in a study at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to reduce—by as much as 63 percent—anxiety levels in patients during MRI scans.
Herbs such as ginseng and St. John's wort are known to help balance secretion of stress hormones, and very likely assist production of endorphins. As some body builders and long-distance runners know, ginseng bolsters their endurance. This probably can be attributed to ginseng's influencing muscles to retain energy during exercise. Another interesting study demonstrated that people who work out with others experience more of the "feel-good" sensation than those going it alone, although all exercise is beneficial. The repetition of running, walking, dancing, aerobics and other exercise puts us in a positive trance-like state conducive to self-reflection, and endorphin release.
Other methods of triggering endorphins are perhaps not so obvious. Research clearly shows that laughter might very well be the best medicine. A night at the local comedy club, beyond boosting well-being, can reduce blood pressure and stress-inducing hormones. Sexual activity also produces these effects, as well as a sense of healing intimacy and comfort.
If you enjoy fiery food, you might be gratified to know that capsaicin—the "heat" element in chili peppers—acts on pain receptors in the mouth and nose. Nerve endings signal the brain, and you feel a burning sensation. This is rewarded with a cascade of endorphins, which goes some way in explaining the appeal of spicy cuisine. The peppers, also called chiles, are rated in Scoville Units, with the mild Pimento a mere 100 and both the Carolina Reaper and Trinidad Moruga Scorpion an infernal 2,000,000.