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Why endorphins are so important

Most people have heard of endorphins – the magic feel good chemical released by our bodies which can improve mood, memory, energy and sense of wellbeing. But where do they come from, how do we get them and how can we make best use of this phenomenon?

The word endorphin comes from putting the word “endogenous,” (meaning from within the body) and “morphine” (an opiate pain reliever) together. In other words, endorphins are a natural pain reliever produced by our bodies.

Produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland, they act on the opiate receptors in our brains reducing pain and boosting pleasure, resulting in a feeling of well-being. Endorphins are released in response to pain or stress, but, significantly for us  they are also released during other activities, such as eating, socialising and exercise.

From an evolutionary standpoint, we are naturally predisposed to seek out pleasure as opposed to pain. Because of this endorphins are important to us from a ‘feel good factor’ point of view and we can, to a certain extent, become a reliant on their effects. When they are not there, we seek out ways of getting this boost elsewhere, and eating is the one of the most common.

If your endorphin levels are low, you might begin experiencing symptoms such as:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • moodiness
  • aches and pains
  • trouble sleeping

The way we are currently living our lives means it is harder to get the endorphin hit we have become accustomed to, but exercise is a fantastic healthy way you can give your body and mind a boost, but it can be a bit of a minefield; how much exercise should I do, how hard do I need to work, can I work too hard, how often should I exercise  and what type of exercise should I do?

I’m going to  simplify it as best I can and put it into some simple practices and ideas that might help, as it doesn’t need to be too complicated. Try to follow these guidelines:

  • Low intensity exercise will produce endorphins, but it will take longer to happen, so if you are walking, try and up the length of time you walk for to perhaps an hour or more.
  • Moderate intensity exercise is best – this gets your heart rate up and releases the optimum amount of endorphins needed for the ‘high’. Cycling, running, fast walking are all great options.
  • High intensity exercise releases endorphins quickest, but there is a slight warning attached, it can also lead to negative feelings due to the increases in pain associated with this, so just be careful to build up to this and understand your limits.
  • Try and do something everyday to improve the cumulative effects.
  • Do something different – the feeling of achievement is very important.
  • Pick what you enjoy – whatever the exercise, if you enjoy it, you will do more of it and it will be easier to keep up the routine.