While many people are vaguely aware that the blissful feelings one experiences after sex may be endorphin related, few are aware that endorphins are naturally produced by a wide range of activities like meditation, deep breathing, ribald laughter, eating spicy food, or receiving acupuncture treatments or chiropractic adjustments. Fewer still know that endorphins are actually good for health, and can play a role in helping drug and alcohol abusers overcome their addiction. Let's explore some of the dynamics of endorphins and how they affect our daily lives.
Q: What are Endorphins?
A: First discovered in 1975, endorphins ("endogenous morphine") is one of several morphine-like substances (opioids) discovered within our brains as recently as thirty years ago. Endorphins are polypeptides containing 30 amino acid units. Opioids are considered stress hormones like corticotrophin, cortisol, and catecholamines (adrenaline, noradrenaline), and are manufactured by the body to reduce stress and relieve pain. Usually produced during periods of extreme stress, endorphins naturally block pain signals produced by the nervous system. The human body produces at least 20 different endorphins with possible benefits and uses that researchers are investigating. Beta- endorphin appears to be the endorphin that seems to have the strongest affect on the brain and body during exercise; it is one kind of peptide hormone that is formed mainly by Tyrosine, an amino acid. The molecular structure is very similar to morphine but with different chemical properties.
Q: What do they do?
A: Although more research needs to be done, endorphins are believed to produce four key effects on the bodymind: they enhance the immune system, they relieve pain, they reduce stress, and postpone the aging process. Scientists also have found that beta-endorphins can activate human NK (Natural Killer) cells and boost the immune system against diseases and kill cancer cells.
Q: Are endorphins related to the famous "runner's high"?
A: In contrast to short-intensity workouts like sprinting or weightlifting, prolonged, continuous exercise like running, long-distance swimming, aerobics, cycling or cross-country skiing appears to contribute to an increased production and release of endorphins. This results in a sense of euphoria that has been popularly labeled the "runner's high." It also may contribute to what some athletes call a "second wind." Rather than feeling pain and exhaustion while running, endorphins may help us actually feel limber and energized towards the end of a race. According to William Straw, M.D., a team physician for the San Jose Sharks, "at some point you may feel a little more energetic and you can kick-in when you did not feel like you could kick-in before."
Q: Is a prescribed amount of exercise needed before endorphins are released?
A: Endorphins release varies according to the individual: one runner may have an endorphin rush (experienced as a second wind) after running for ten minutes, while another may need to run for thirty minutes before feeling a
Q: What about endorphins and sex?
A: The blissful feeling one often experiences after making love is due to the body's production of endorphins: in fact, endorphin production can increase 200% from the beginning to the end of sexual activity. Recent studies, beginning with those of Candace Pert, Ph.D. of Johns Hopkins University, have documented the connection between orgasm and endorphins, although ongoing physical contact, and not just sex alone, also helps produce endorphins, along with the hormone oxytocin. Together, they are like natural opiates and help stabilize a relationship between a loving couple by inducing what famed obstetrician Michel Odent, of London's Primal Health
Research Center (whose book, The Scientification of Love, was published in England in 1999 and available through www.amazon.co.uk), calls "a druglike dependency." Although there are many reasons why two people choose to maintain a close and loving relationship, endorphins may be a factor.
Q: Is there a connection between good sex, endorphins and staying young?
A: Such a connection may indeed exist. In a 10-year study involving 3500 people, Dr. David Weeks, a neuropsychologist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital and author of Secrets of the Super Young (Berkley, 1999) found that men and`women who have sex four to five times a week look more than 10 years younger than the average person, who has sex twice a week. Dr. Weeks believes that the pleasure derived from sex was a crucial factor in preserving youth. "It makes us happy and produces chemicals [endorphins and oxytocin] telling us so." However, he found that indulging in promiscuous sex did not have the same benefits of enjoying loving sex in a long-term relationship, and it was more likely to promote the aging process rather than reduce it.
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