Do you ever wonder why you feel better after a long run, a roll in the hay or a good laugh? It's not just because you've relieved exercise guilt, had a wham-bam orgasm or heard an absolute knee-slapper. That elated feeling, which can last up to 12 hours for some people, has a scientific explanation. It comes from a release of endorphins.
"Endorphins are neurotransmitters produced in the brain that reduce pain," says Alan Hirsch, MD, neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. "They have also been known to induce euphoria." Drugs such as morphine, heroine and cocaine are classic endorphin-releasing entities, according to Dr. Hirsch. But luckily for us, there are less addictive ways of experiencing such sweet rhapsody.
Eat a Chili Pepper
Some say eating hot peppers is an addiction. The rush you get after holding one on your tongue is likely due to your body's protective response. "Chewing a hot pepper can release endorphins centrally and on the tongue," says Dr. Hirsch. Why? To reduce pain, of course.
Endorphin factor: 1 to 3, depending on how hot you can stand 'em.
Think Positive Thoughts
"When people take a placebo and they believe something's helpful, it often works," says Joel Fuhrman, MD, family physician and author of Eat to Live. That's a direct result of the power of positive thinking, which can release endorphins that may actually ease pain even if a medication is physically ineffective.
Endorphin factor: 2. Hey, that's an instant feel-good moment just by the power of perspective.
People who jog regularly often talk about a "runner's high," which is a release of endorphins that happens when they hit a certain point in their workout. Dr. Fuhrman notes that the science of endorphins-from-exercise is controversial, and that some medical professionals believe the positive feeling you get when you meet a physical challenge, rather than the exertion itself, is what stimulates the endorphin release. But whatever the cause, exercise has been proven to enhance mood. Dr. Fuhrman recommends prolonged activities such as cross-country skiing, swimming, tennis or a long cardio workout for the best effects.
Endorphin factor: 2 to 4. It's all about intensity and duration.
Have an Orgasm
"I personally think that having an orgasm is a great way to get a rush of endorphins," says Dr. Fuhrman. "You may have to run for an hour to get a runner's high, depending on your body. Sex is less effort." (And, ahem, much more fun.)
Endorphin factor: 5 — even if it's a quickie.
We're not talking about packing up and renting a U-Haul. Dr. Fuhrman says that viewing beautiful art, watching a touching dramatic scene or even listening to an inspiring piece of music can produce endorphins. "A person who gets pleasure in life, from whatever source, will keep endorphins at a healthy level," he says.
Endorphin factor: 2, unless you're overwhelmed with emotion (think swooning, tear-filled eyes and a quickened heartbeat); that counts for 3.
"Putting needles into the body is a release," says Dr. Fuhrman, "and it may trigger endorphin production." Also, acupuncture patients benefit from a placebo effect — they believe that the process is working, so it really does, says Dr. Fuhrman. Talk about the brain's power.
Endorphin factor: 3. People who practice acupuncture tend to be positive thinkers, which adds to the effects.
We knew that the cocoa bean had an addictive quality. "The food closest to a drug is chocolate," says Dr. Hirsch. "It actually has an impact on your brain that triggers an endorphin release." But there's no need to wolf down three bars in one sitting; a bite or two will cause the same response.
Endorphin factor: 1 — but such a sweet one!
Ever hear friends say they like being scared? Whether you're watching a horror movie with your hand over your eyes or feeling a rush of wind in your hair as you plummet down a steep incline on a roller coaster, fear causes endorphin release. Why do you think extreme sports are so popular? No one wants to get hurt; it's just fun (in a twisted kind of way) to cheat death. "The thrill of a high-speed ride induces a positive mood state that can leave you giddy," says Dr. Hirsch. And Freddy Krueger can do it for you too. Who knew he was such a heartthrob?
Endorphin factor: 3 to 5, depending on the personal fear factor.
Worship the Sun
Researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center have found that ultraviolet (UV) light can trigger endorphin production, which may be why some bathing beauties are reluctant to give up their tanning time, even given the dangers of skin cancer. A few minutes of exposure is enough to harm your skin, so doctors recommend sunscreen at all times. But with the placebo effect working for you, just knowing it's sunny outside can boost your endorphin production — and your mood.
Endorphin factor: 2, because you know you're protecting your skin (and you're happy it's warm).
Have a Giggle Fit
Whether it's a quick joke that tickles your funny bone or a long, hilarious romantic comedy, having a laugh produces endorphins that will increase your immune function and make you more resistant to disease, according to Dr. Fuhrman.
Endorphin factor: 2 to 3. Ever hear the phrase "Laughter is the best medicine"? Hello — get thee to a comedy show.