I first learned about endorphins from Ms. Jody Lynn Musio on June 6, 2000. Jody was a wonderful laser-therapist and she was the key to helping me quit smoking forever… well over 125,000 un-smoked cigarettes and $55,00 after-tax, un-spent dollars ago. As she was administering the laser treatment to me, this is what she told about what happened to me when I smoked a cigarette; “When you inhale smoke from a cigarette, you take a highly addictive drug called nicotine into your system. The cigarette is essentially just the vehicle that delivers the nicotine.
Once the smoke is inside your system, Mr. Nicotine tells your brain to release some endorphins into your system. Endorphins… they make you feel good. Real good.”
According to Wikipedia, endorphins (contracted from “endogenous morphine”) are endogenous opioid neuropeptides and peptide hormones in humans and other animals. They are produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland. The term “endorphins” consists of two parts: endo- and -orphin; these are short forms of the words endogenous and morphine, intended to mean “a morphine-like substance originating from within the body. The principal function of endorphins is to inhibit the transmission of pain signals; they may also produce a feeling of euphoria very similar to that produced by other opioids.
As it turns out, endorphins have been developing and evolving inside us since the beginning of time and possibly for several years before that. They are part of our genetic coding. One of their functions is to be released into our system whenever we do something that enhances or enriches the survival of our species or our own personal well-being. In other words, endorphins are nature’s way of genetically telling us, “Well done, sir (or madam).”
When ancient man stood up over a vicious animal that he had just slain in order to protect or feed his tribal family, he felt good and that was all due to his central nervous system releasing its genetically developed endorphins to say, “Good job there Mr. Flintstone.”
It also begs the question, “Was Mr. Flintstone hunting for the food or for the endorphin hit?”
It’s a hierarchy of needs thing… I think. Sure, you eat the food but does that feel as good as the thrill of victory? I guess the answer to that would depend on how hungry you were.
After Jody’s treatment, I understood my problem with nicotine as a simple quest for endorphins. After all it was much easier to light a cigarette to get my endorphin hit that it was to slay a tiger or run a marathon.
There are lots of ways that produce endorphins naturally. Basically, anything you do that leaves you with a good feeling is due to the presence of our good friends, the endorphins.
But man - being the crafty bugger that he is - figures, “Well, maybe there’s another way to get the endorphin party thing going without all the work. I feel pretty good when I drink a bottle of wine. I feel pretty good when I smoke this stuff. I feel pretty good when I snort this, and I feel great when I stick a needle in my arm and shoot this stuff into it.”
Those are the unnatural ways to produce endorphins. Think of it as an end run around Mother Nature… and you know what Mother Nature says about that right?
“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”
So, Mother Nature throws in this new thing called: addiction.
To understand that we need to understand: Homeostasis.
Homeostasis is our body’s optimum state of functioning, and homeostatic mechanisms are the way our bodies achieve this balance or harmony. Our bodies achieve this state by neutralizing any source of detriment to it.
For example, when we eat a candy bar, our blood sugar goes up and our pancreas then releases insulin to help us metabolize the carbohydrate and balance the glucose levels.
If we exercise and our body heats up, sweat is released to help cool it down again. By the same process, if we take a stimulant like an amphetamine, our body will counteract the change by producing sedative-like chemicals to return us to normal. However, as our body gets better and better at counteracting the disruptive effects of a drug, we experience less and less of the drug’s effects because our body is essentially learning how to cancel out a great deal of those effects.
The problem is that users don’t typically say at that point, “Well, this isn’t doing much for me anymore, so I guess I’ll stop.” Instead we take increasingly larger or more frequent doses (smoke more cigarettes – kill more animals) to keep the party going which escalates into a terrible race with yourself. If this race continues long enough, your body will commit a desperate act of self-protection; it will get used to the drug; that is, it will shift from normal functioning (without the nicotine – or the alcohol – or the opiate) to a new level of tolerance.
The moment your body becomes accustomed to life with the drug, the lack of it is going to be felt as a disruption. So now if you don’t get the drug, you’ll feel symptoms of withdrawal.
Once you shift to this new level of tolerance, you will find yourself taking the substance just so you can avoid the withdrawal symptoms.
That’s when you can consider yourself to be addicted.
In his interesting book The Hedonism Handbook, author Michael Flocker gives probably the simplest explanation of the physical nature of endorphins I have seen yet:
“In both humans and animals, the brain is hard-wired to experience pleasure from activities that sustain the species. That’s why sex feels good, water quenches thirst and food alleviates hunger. It’s Mother Nature’s way of ensuring that we repeat these behaviors and keep the biological party in full swing. It is the stimulation of certain neural circuits and the release of dopamine (an endorphin) that reinforces the behaviors and this in turn sets in motion a pattern of repetition.”
“Tests have shown that nicotine, alcohol, stimulants and opiates stimulate this same circuit of dopamine production. Addiction can be extremely powerful because it can take hold at a very deep and primal level, at a level on par with our instinct for survival. And that is why a coked-up rat will forsake food, sex and anything else to press on a bar to the point of exhaustion just to get another fix.
The rat truly believes he can’t survive without it. And it can get just as ugly for a human. When the avoidance of the pain and discomfort of withdrawal begins to feel like a fight to survive and when the desire to use feels close to a thirst, a hunger or an overwhelming drive, you are in way too deep and need to make that phone call.”
That was a huge thing for me to learn. It made quitting smoking a lot easier to do because now I understood what was going on and what I needed to do in order to solve my problem. I also learned that victory over a deadly addiction is a huge endorphin producer one that has lasted 18 years… so far.
After that, I realized that I still had lots of good feelings and they felt a lot better knowing that I didn’t have all the bad feelings about smoking to mess up my now legitimate endorphin hits that were now earned from things like achieving a goal, riding my bike, working out, long walks, writing a good story, listening to music, time with my friends and family, beam reaching in a big wind in a sailboat, taking a good picture, solving a problem, laughing, coming up with a good idea, a sunny day, hanging out with Sylvia at her pool, and as my young friend Colin just found out in Las Vegas – a royal flush.
Winning medals at the Olympics is right up there too. It’s a national endorphin party as we collectively experience our success as a country on this planet.
I found it interesting to note that Norway leads the world in winter Olympic medals. Not just this year but in history with 329 medals. The USA is in second place with 282 medals and Canada is 6th with 170. I used to write that off as a population thing and that kept me feeling good about what we did win. One of those, “Not bad for a small country,” things.
But get this, Norway has a population of 5.2 million people!
Metropolitan Toronto has a population of 5.9 million people.
So, what does that tell us?
Well… in light of Mr. Trump’s recent question about why more Norwegians don’t move to the USA, I would have to say the answer is obvious.
“Not enough endorphins man.”
And what are the people who do move there looking for?
It’s still the same old story… a fight for endorphins.
Now that is merely my opinion, I could be wrong. But that answer feels good… really good and I’ve got the endorphins flowing through my veins to prove it.