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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Getting High on Risky Business: Youth and Endorphins

A child exposed to risk factor faces the distinct likelihood of abusing drugs. What are some elements that increase the risk? Adolescents are prone to peer pressure and often experience times of stress when their raging hormones can lead to extreme aggression and to poor decisions. Many live in poor conditions and lack parental supervision for support.

And, it's a simple fact that young people are risk-takers. Research suggests a combination of hormonal factors, an inability to perceive risks accurately, and the need to impress peers help explain why youth take huge risks. All of these influences seem to peak in the years between 10 and the mid-20's.

Of course, those who use heroin and other opiates take significant risks. Here are some findings from the National Institute of Drug Abuse and the National Center for Health Statistics:

* 1 in 15 people who take non medical prescription pain relievers will try heroin within 10 years.

* In 2004 1.4 million people abused or were dependent on pain medications and 5% used heroin. In 2010, 1.9 million people abused or were dependent on pain medications and 14% used heroin.

* Heroin users are 3 times as likely to be dependent.  14% of non medical prescription pain reliever users are dependent. Yet, 54% of heroin users are dependent.

 * Enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for one month.

* On average approximately five people die each day in Ohio due to drug overdose.

Endorphins are the body's natural pain medication hormones. Endorphins flood the space between nerve cells and usually inhibit neurons from firing, thus creating an analgesic effect. On a lower level they can excite neurons as well. When endorphins do their work, we feel good, high, or euphoric, and we experience relief from pain [analgesia].

When endorphins are naturally released, it makes us feel better, improves our mood, increases pleasure, and minimizes pain. For example, Serotonin, also known as hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is commonly referred to as the “feel good hormone” because in appropriate levels it can make us feel positive and balanced. Oxytocin is another hormone believed to ease stress and improve mood.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine says one of the biggest reasons people become addicted to opiates is their effect on the brain:

“Addiction is not about drugs, it’s about brains. It is not the substances a person uses that make them an addict; it is not even the quantity or frequency of use. Addiction is about what happens in a person’s brain when they are exposed to rewarding substances or rewarding behaviors, and it is more about reward circuitry in the brain and related brain structures than it is about the external chemicals or behavior that “turn on” that reward circuitry.”

The active ingredient in all opiates -- morphine -- has a chemical structure similar to endorphins. Like an evil twin, the morphine molecule locks onto the endorphin-receptor sites on nerve endings in the brain and begins the succession of events that leads to euphoria or analgesia.

This imposter is more powerful than the body's own endorphins because the organism can actually control how much of the "feel-good" chemical hits the brain. Since we are all pleasure-seeking organisms, the motivation to self-administer such a drug is easy to understand. Opiates release 2 to 10 times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards do. The result of such drug abuse can be dependency, then addiction.

But ... 

Why don't we fuel young desires for risk taking and pleasure seeking with worthwhile activities and meaningful experiences? It's time to quit passively accepting the tremendous influence opiates have on youth. It's time to quit expecting hoping and praying alone will satisfy the psychological and physiological needs of adolescents. It's time to realize that making youth aware of the dangers of drugs does not keep multitudes of them from accepting the risks of drug abuse while basking in the chemically induced "feel good" pleasure of ingesting the chemicals.

In short, it's time to take matters into our own hands and expose young people to supervised, healthy, adventurous activity. It's time to introduce them to reality and natural risks.

Let me give you a little more information about things that can naturally release endorphins that lead to happiness, to pleasure, and even to euphoria.

* Exercise

When we exercise, our body releases endorphins in the blood. The brain may perceive exercise as a type of pain and therefore it releases serotonin and other endorphins. Another possible theory is that the rise in fatty acids caused by exercise may acidify the blood, triggering endorphin release. And, of course, improved self-esteem is a key psychological benefit of regular physical activity.

* Sunlight

Endorphins affect our need for the sun. The sun plays a vital role in every function of the mind and body. We are wired with an evolutionary drive for sunlight exposure as a means to synthesize vitamin D. We’re programmed to like the feeling of the sun because it ensured that our ancient ancestors got their vitamins. 


Controlled breathing, Tai Chi, Yoga and other forms of meditative exercises are believed to trigger endorphins in the body. People who regularly meditate have considerably increased levels of the neurotransmitters GABA. GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) is one of the major inhibitory neurotransmitters in their central nervous system. It‘s best known for stabilizing mood disorders. Anxiety, tension, insomnia, and epilepsy are believed to be due to the failure to produce adequate levels of GABA.

Meditation can also provide a dramatic boost in DHEA hormone levels. DHEA enhances memory, alleviates depression, and causes a remarkable improvement in our sense of psychological and physical well-being. It is also provides strong support to the immune system. 

* Eating "Endorphin Food"

Chocolate releases endorphins like anandamide, the chemical that copies the relaxing effects of marijuana. Maybe that's why some of us have equated the feeling from eating chocolate to feeling like they are in love.

Eating spicy foods, such as hot peppers, is said to release endorphins. This relationship is thought to be due to capsaicin, a chemical compound responsible for giving spicy food its “hot” quality.

Even eating some so-called "comfort foods" does, indeed, comfort us by increasing serotonin levels which can make us calm and relaxed. Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and pasta all provide an endorphin-rich comfort zone. 

And, even smelling vanilla is known to release endorphins. According to a study at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, patients undergoing MRIs who breathed vanilla-scented air reported 63 percent less anxiety than those who breathed unscented air.

* Laughing and Smiling

The simple act of laughing is an everyday, immediate way for us to achieve an endorphin rush.

Dr. Lee Berk, an immunologist at Loma Linda University's School of Allied Health and Medicine, has studied the effects of mirthful laughter on the regulation of hormones since the 1980s. Berk and his colleagues found that laughter helps our brains regulate the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. They also discovered a link between laughter and the production of anti-bodies and endorphins

Humor also helps us regulate the brain's dopamine levels, reported a Stanford research team in the December 4, 2003, issue of the journal Neuron.

True smiles, called Duchenne smiles, result in the production of endorphins, giving mood a boost. A Duchenne smile is one that engages our entire face, including our eyes. It's almost impossible to fake, and it only happens when we're really feeling happy. 

* Having Sex

I don't have to relate that being intimate with someone releases endorphins that make us feel great. In fact, endorphin production can increase 200 percent from the beginning to the end of sexual activity. Be it masturbation or actual intimate sex with a partner, these forms of exercise also release endorphins, especially when orgasm is reached.

Recent studies have documented that ongoing physical contact and not just sex alone also helps produce endorphins. That is good news for those of us in close and loving relationships. Although there are many reasons why we choose to maintain those close and loving relationships, endorphins may be a factor. Endorphins also produce a general sense of well-being, including feeling peaceful and secure.

* Love

That feeling we get when a loved one walks into a room is the result of a mini flood of endorphins. Adding more love to our lives is a great way to improve our happiness level. Phenylethylamine, or PEA, is an amine that naturally occurs in our brain. It is a stimulant, much like an amphetamine, that causes the release of norepinephrine and dopamine. This chemical is found when we are falling in love. It's responsible for the head-over-heels, elated part of love.

Humans need to feel they are loved. American psychiatrist wrote in his book, The Chemistry of Love (1983), when people feel socially isolated or cut off from familiar figures, the brain shuts off endorphin production. Thus, according to Liebowitz, “as most adults feel some anxiety when separated from important figures in their lives, and some sense of increased security when their closest relationships seem stable,” attachment, as in the form of a human chemical bond, is mediated internally by the release of endorphins in the brain. 

* Massage / Acupuncture

Both of these treatments release endorphins, relieve stress and make us feel better all over.

In addition to soothing tired and tight muscles, massage also has the ability to induce the release of endorphins in our body. This explains the slightly groggy effect, lightheaded, sense of well-being. Recent studies suggest that endorphins enhance the immune system, relieve pain, reduce stress, and retard 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.

Acupuncture and electroacupuncture (EA) as complementary and alternative medicines have been accepted worldwide mainly for the treatment of acute and chronic pain. Acupuncture releases endorphins. For example, EA of 2 Hz accelerates the release of enkephalin, β-endorphin and endomorphin, while that of 100 Hz selectively increases the release of dynorphin. A combination of the two frequencies produces a simultaneous release of all four opioid peptides, resulting in a maximal therapeutic effect. (Ji-Sheng Han. "Acupuncture and Endorphins." Neuroscience Letters. 2004) 

* Music and Brainwave Entertainment

To put it simply, Brainwave Entertainment refers to the tendency of the brain to synchronise - or entrain - with the frequency of certain stimuli, such as isochronic tones, binaural beats or monaural beats.

Brainwave entrainment recordings designed for endorphin release consist of sound frequencies that synchronize brainwaves to the same range of frequencies of the sounds. By shifting brainwaves, it is possible to naturally bring our brain into a state where it releases endorphins.

Studies show listening to music can help us recover from pain and reduce the need for post-op medications. Another study reveals music can reduce our anxiety just before surgery. Many patients say music's ability to alter their mood can be quite beneficial.
Dr. Peter Crookes, heals for a living but says modern medicine can only bring people so far. The rest depends on the patient and he believes music helps.
"It may cause the release of endorphins and that is one of the postulate mechanisms. Anything that will open the patient's mind to other dimensions of life helps them to cope with it," said Dr. Crookes.

* And, RISK

Taking some types of risk is also a good way to get the endorphins flowing. While the flight or fight syndrome might have us going crazy in line for the roller coaster, it’s the endorphin rush we feel as we drop down the first massive hill that keeps us coming back for more.

Stress, worry and sadness completely disappear when we are doing something we like. Young people like the feeling of taking risks to experience a satisfying rush. I doubt if this will ever change. Instead of letting adolescents find themselves in situations that are too risky, even deadly, we should structure activities that provide significant "highs" for them.

I honestly believe these natural highs reduce feelings of needing to experiment with heroin and other opiates that eventually betray youth and destroy them.

Look again at the list above of things that offer great, natural endorphin releases. Exercise, sunlight, sex, love, food, laughs, music, meditation -- activities that put young adults in contact with each other while working and/or playing together represent learning situations that not only offer excitement but also reinforce the importance of dependence for survival.

The "glory days" of adolescence must include tons of natural endorphin-releasing commitment.

I worked several summers for the Youth Conservation Corp of Ohio, and I can tell you that nothing solidifies brotherhood and dedication between young men and women like working, learning, and playing together in situations that, quite frankly, were challenging and dangerous. Tight supervision by adults -- college age and above -- helped meld these groups of teens into a happy, thankful, dependable corp.

Does this sound ridiculous to suggest to you that we should encourage young people to cut trail, build structures, paint, dig, plant, camp, rappel, canoe, spelunk, hike, orienteer, swim, dance, and learn to love each other? I can assure you young people crave contact that engages their minds and bodies.

How to take self-satisfying risks with all the necessary mental preparation and physical exertion is something we must teach our children. Of course, we must choose activities that limit the severity of danger, but we should also help young people build their skills to advance and to achieve rewarding behaviors on their own. This involves tremendous nurturing and exacting building of skills.

I see the zombie interest, the haunted house interest, the "live in a fantasy world" interest as indications that kids (and, a certain segment of adults) crave to be challenged and put into situations with elements of risk that allow them to experience insecurity and to overcome their fears. In addition, I think ingesting and injecting drugs is an acceptable endorphin substitute to many who don't understand that the real "rush" is found in living an adventuresome reality and maneuvering through exciting, uncharted waters.

Young people need to get high. They need experimentation to feel the exhilaration and the thrill of encountering risks. We, as parents and grandparents, need to be sure they are involved in bold activities that keep endorphins flowing throughout their bodies and that build lifelong interests to engross them in wonder. There are a million such compelling interests available. All adolescents have "switches" that can be "turned on" to positive, rousing settings.

Left to their own devices, many young adults will seek pleasure through chemicals. They will find their fix only to chase the artificial high forever. Expending minimum effort to take drugs, they will languish and never learn how to achieve natural highs that pay lasting dividends.

For God's sake, we must help them find safe gratification while realizing they have bodies and minds full of endorphins and new ideas.

The ultimate risk is to assume youth become contented, independent people on their own. They don't. Almost everything they do on their own is risky, too risky to face without excellent guidance and faithful companionship. Dealing with the experience of falling in love alone makes for a plateful of teenage responsibility. Adults are meant to be stewards to make smooth transitions possible.

Kids must love, live, and find satisfaction with or without us. And, isn't "the real thing" what we all hope we can achieve together?


By Henry Van Dyke

Let me but live my life from year to year, 
With forward face and unreluctant soul; 
Not hurrying to, nor turning from the goal; 
Not mourning for the things that disappear 
In the dim past, nor holding back in fear 
From what the future veils; but with a whole 
And happy heart, that pays its toll 
To Youth and Age, and travels on with cheer. 

So let the way wind up the hill or down, 
O'er rough or smooth, the journey will be joy: 
Still seeking what I sought when but a boy, 
New friendship, high adventure, and a crown, 
My heart will keep the courage of the quest, 
And hope the road's last turn will be the best.

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