How Neuroscience Isolates The “Feel Good Factor”
You know that feeling of wellbeing after you exercise? Or that “natural high” you can not explain? Or the way that laugh looks to be like a tonic for your body?
Well, neuroscience has gone a long way to isolating that that is and, in particular, the release of the neurochemicals dopamine and endorphin, which we look at below.
What are Dopamine and Endorphin?
Endorphins or the “runner's high” are essentially the body's natural painkillers and have been known by science since the mid 1970s.
They are like natural opiates in that they produce analgesa and a general sense of well-being. Produced in the pituitary gland and hypothalamus, they are released when the body is exposed to stress or excitment.
Dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter produced in several areas of the brain and in the hypothalamus where it is a neurohormone that inhibits the release of prolactin from the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland.
It can increase heart rate and blood pressure. Within the brain, dopamine production and release affects many things including behavior, cognition, motor skills, motivation, milk production in females, sleep patterns, general mood, attention levels and learning abilities.
Effects of Low Dopamine and Endorphin Levels
The importance of these neuro-transmitters can be seen by looking at the effects when their levels in the body are low.
Studies have shown that shortcomings can be linked to depression and fatigue, as well as links to some “negative” types of behavior – which may be the body's way of raising levels; remembering that endorphins are produced by exciting and painful situations, as well as other healthy activities like exercise, may help explain the way people act in some situations.
There is even a condition that some people call Endorphin Deficiency Syndrome (EDS).
Raising Neurological Levels
Some prescription medications aim to re-dress the balance of neurochemicals in the body – notably dopamine and serotonin (ever hear of Prozac, Sarafem or Fontex?) But these have limited benefits, may have side effects and can lead to dependence.
Alternately, there are some dietary and lifestyle changes most people can make to boost neurochemical levels naturally, under medical guidance.
Laughter, for example, is a trigger for the release of endorphins, so that it becomes not only a response to something that we find entertaining or funny, but a physical “workout” that produces a positive chemical response to our bodies and makes us feel better and reduces stress.
Certain types of meditation can even “up” the levels naturally; aerobic exercise, love making, extreme sports and eating spicy food or chocolate are other examples of activities that have been shown to naturally release these chemicals and they may help to explain some of people's “addictions” to certain types of behavior or foods.
For example one study showed that, when a group of overeaters was given a drug to block the release of endorphin, they no longer craved to eat chocolate, suggesting that it was the body's need for the neurochemical that prompted the potentially health-damaging behavior.
One wonders if there are links to drug abuse and other serious addictions in our society.
Neuroscience is unlocking many of the secrets of human behavior and allowing us to better prepare individuals and organizations for enhanced performance .