Addiction to these activities is a common response to depression or, more precisely, to the deficiency of brain chemicals and nutrients that lead to depression. When we don’t have enough endorphins – the happy chemical – we seek highs to increase endorphins and manufacture happiness.
We can get that extra lift from refined carbs, drugs, sex, or extreme sports.
Depression can take years to become outwardly obvious, especially in children. As a parent, it is important to know what traits – many of which seem perfectly normal – are a sign of a biochemical deficiency which can lead to depression and destructive behavior.
What Is Endorphin?
Endorphins function as neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals that transmit electrical signals throughout the nervous system. This complex of amino acids is released when we are under stress, in pain, or feeling pleasure.
- Endorphins deliver our feelings of contentment and euphoria. They are responsible for that warm and fuzzy feeling we get when we’re in love.
- Endorphins numb the pain in times of physical or emotional stress. They are the reason why soldiers wounded in battle are able to keep on fighting. The are the reason why family members manage to make funeral preparations for loved ones despite the agony of loss.
- Endorphins help to regulate appetite, release sex hormones, and enhance the immune system.
Subtler experiences also release endorphins. The smell of roses, a beautiful sunset, and hugs and kisses all make us happy by way of endorphins. Frequent pleasurable experiences can help maintain a consistent elevated mood.
Experiencing beautiful things, having sex, laughing, eating spicy foods, touching, meditation, moderate exercise, and sunlight all contribute to a general positive outlook. On the contrary, spending too much time inside a cubicle with angry, worn out co-workers, coming home to a television and bitching wife, and living a generally dull life all contribute to a low mood. To be happy, we need to give our brains a chance to release endorphins.
Primal man would not have been lacking in opportunity. Beauty is all around us in nature and beauty is impossible not to notice when life is simple.
In our modern world, however, things get complicated. Not only are we too busy to experience beauty but many of us experience so much pain that we drain our stores of endorphins or require so much to numb the pain that we cannot keep up with the demand.
Are You Low On Endorphin?
You might be low on endorphins if you:
- Cry easily. Sad movies are sad, yes, but they don’t usually warrant tears.
- Cannot bear grief. Of course we should feel sad when we lose a loved one but the pain should pass and the bad memories should fade.
- Can’t bounce back. When stressful events occur and you just can’t seem to get life back to normal.
- Feel sad for no reason. Sadness strikes us all sometimes but when you’re sad and you don’t even know why, you can bet that you’re low on endorphins. This is not a normal human experience.
- Put up a tough or jovial veneer.
- Often are referred to as “too sensitive”.
- Have a tendency to eat “comfort foods”.
- Are a thrill seeker or substance abuser. Drugs and thrill seeking activities produce the biochemical in large amounts.
A consistent stream of endorphins is what makes joyous people so annoyingly joyous. I’m talking about the real ones, not the ones who pose as happy to hide the pain beneath. The real happy people are simply high all the time – high on endorphins. They probably inherited a hefty store of endorphins from their mothers but they also take care of their endorphin stores. They give their bodies the building blocks needed to make plenty of it and they rarely expend too much of it at one time.
Some people experiencing low mood will benefit from some pretty simple life changes. Adding the pleasurable activities mentioned above may just be enough to boost mood and feel happy again. Try it and see what happens.
But if you’re one of the many people who are depressed and do not get much lift from the little things, you may already be seeking bigger rushes of endorphin from unhealthy places. People with deficiencies use vigorous exercise, tobacco, drugs, alcohol, violence, wild parties, gambling, scary movies, and any kind of thrill-seeking activity just to feel a few moments of pleasure – pleasure that they should experience on a regular basis. All of these activities and substances release an enormous amount of endorphin and set a person up for depletion.
How We Drain Our Endorphins
Unresolved emotional pain and PTSD
Too much emotional pain is draining on endorphin levels. Unresolved emotional pain such as denial of some big trauma requires that a person use a constant supply of endorphin to cover up an almost constant feeling of pain.
Years down the road, after we’ve been living with unresolved post traumatic stress, our endorphin levels can get so low that suddenly we might feel horrible pain for something that happened long ago. At this point, with no natural sedatives, if we don’t face the pain, we will have no choice but to turn to drugs, alcohol, or junk foods to further block it out. Since those endorphin bursts don’t last long we will need it with increasing frequency.
Eventually these people become bitter and then it becomes a vicious cycle of hate and pain.
Physical accident or trauma
Car accidents or sports injuries will drain a person of their endorphins in order to ease the physical pain. When the pain is severe and enduring, the need for endorphins is too high. As endorphins are depleted the physical pain endures. Additionally, the emotional stress that is usually accompanied with missing work, caring for children, financial hardship, etc. also needs to be soothed by endorphins.
An abusive situation
Usually women but men too can end up in an abusive relationship. The emotional and physical pain requires a pain killer just to make it through the day – and that means endorphins. Children whose parents fight all the time are forced to numb the pain with endorphins. We should protect our children from undue stress and pain to save them from later endorphin depletion.
Faking the happy life
The rules we impose upon ourselves can cause long term stress for some people. Some people love college, but for those who hate it, spending 12 years at med school can be enough to deplete endorphin stores, yielding one stressed out, unhappy doctor.
People in bad relationships who refuse to divorce for religious or social reasons wear a mask throughout their marriage until finally they just can’t wear it anymore. They have lost thier ability to pretend that everything is ok and they are now chronically unhappy.
Abusive or neglectful parents
The saddest thing of all is to see a child’s face when his mother abandons him, or the little girl whose deadbeat dad misses another scheduled custody meeting, or the kids who live with nannies because the parents are too busy working to spend time at home.
Rejected children can seem like they’ve got it together in the early years. They are told to accept it and so they use endorphins to mask the pain, but in time they can’t keep up the facade unaided, and they turn to sex in the dorms or late nights out with wrong crowd.
What Happens When Endorphins Get Depleted
When we become deficient in endorphins (maybe it happened to you as a child or maybe it’s happening to your children) music, exercise, and nature no longer produce that warm and fuzzy feeling. We don’t feel much pleasure from the simple things in life and we start reaching out to more extreme sources of endorphin highs
We might become addicted to carbohydrates or start extreme sports. We might go out each weekend to wild parties and clubs. We may have sex with one or more partners or get addicted to pornography because of the endorphin high we get with each orgasm.
When we stop producing our body’s natural pain killer, we take pain medications. When we’re tired of our abusive spouse and our screaming children, we hit the bottle. When all of life has finally beaten us down and our own resources are tapped, we look to drugs.
While this may sound pretty hopeless, our endorphin supply can be rebuilt. For the most extreme case this is not an easy task but it can be done with the help of food an supplements.
Endorphin Producing Foods and Supplements
Protein is the king here. Endorphins are composed of at least 15 different amino acids and meat contains all of the aminos necessary to make endorphins. (Vegetarian foods don’t. Food combining offers limited aminos when extra support is required.) A person low on endorphins needs to eat protein with every single meal.
The question of whether or not to eat carbohydrates when mood disorders are present is a hot debate in the Primal community. I like the way Emily Deans of Evolutionary Psychiatry questioned it in this blog post today.
Stanford offers a good list of foods to help manage stress.
Often, supplementing with endorphin boosting foods and supplements, and removing the false-endorphin stimulants would be enough to eliminate things like chronic back pain, arthritis, and migraines.
Some of the nutrients which encourage endorphin release are fats, B vitamins, and vitamin C. Magnesium promotes protein synthesis and is depleted very easily after any stressful event (even a very loud noise or concert!).
Amino acids which will help restore endorphins are a combination of D and L phenylalanine. In health food store you would probably find this as DLPA. For those sensitive to the L form, i.e. you get hyper, use the D form alone.
Julia Ross’ book, The Mood Cure, is a great resource on the topic.