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 manufacture happiness.
We can get that extra lift from refined carbs, a runners high, or extreme sports. If we’re really depressed, we will need to go to really extreme measures to manufacture happiness with dare devil stunts, sex, drugs, or alcohol.
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.
If you or your children have any type of mood disorder I urge you to read Julia Ross’ book, The Mood Cure.
Personally, I read the book a little late. My diet wiped out all of my disorders without my even expecting it. It took years, though – not having the knowledge of how to speed up recovery. For me reading the book gave me a deep understanding of why I acted as I did all those wild years. And it also gave me the tools to help others understand what is going on with them.
Reverse the Deficiencies Before It’s Too Late
Nobody ever thinks things will ever spiral so far out of control. When we’re precious little kids, no one ever thinks we’ll be anything but precious.
My sister was a precious little kid. She was smart, pretty, and talented with art and language. Her childhood was good although she always felt she was somewhat neglected, being the second of five kids. She also felt like she didn’t fit in too well. She turned into a bit of an awkward teenager – beautiful, but awkward. She was shy, but strong and always positive.
In her early twenties she married a man that didn’t jive with her personality. They had two kids and were quite abusive to each other. She lived out in the central valley of California (small town farms) with her family. She felt alone there, especially being a city girl and not having wanted kids to begin with.
The two of them finally divorced but then things just got harder. She hadn’t really ever worked and hadn’t finished college so making ends meet was difficult.
She kept trying, though, always being so strong and so tough. She skateboarded her kids to school because she didn’t have a car, sometimes had to pick the zucchini from the kindergarten garden when she couldn’t afford groceries, sometimes cooked her dinner on the fireplace when PG&E got cut off.
She made boyfriends that were never too much better off than she. One of those boyfriends drank a lot. I remember the day when she started drinking. She and that boyfriend stayed together for some years but after they broke up, and she was on her own again, the drinking really took off.
She and I had always been best friends but when she started drinking we started to drift apart. I couldn’t really fault her for drinking. She suffered from serious back pain and fibromyalgia and her circumstances were just so hard. But I also didn’t quite relate.
Some years went by and alcohol didn’t lift her mood quite like it used to. One night she was terribly mean to me – this was so unlike her. The next morning she vowed to quit drinking. And she did! It was quite a victory, or at least it seemed to be at the time. But without anything to support her failing emotions, she was still in need of a pick-me-up. Addiction is a biochemical deficiency and she had to supplement it somehow.
The next pain relief was to be Vicoden and some cocktail of psychotropics.
We weren’t close like we used to be during this time because I lived out of state and because I just didn’t relate anymore.
When I moved back to Colorado last year it was hard to believe what was happening to her. Hard to believe and hard to help. I didn’t realize how badly our system had failed us until I witnessed her addiction to prescription drugs. I didn’t know what to do. She had always been my best friend, my mentor, my idol.
I talked to her about diet. She had been a bit of a hippie in the 70s and got into the whole vegetarian thing throughout most of her life but when I talked she tended to listen so when I discovered Paleo, she tried to go along with me. She understood that her diet and lifestyle were much to blame but she had NO endorphins left. Nothing she did gave her pleasure (except when she taught my daughter to paint. I think those were her only happy moments). She tried to do the diet a little bit here and there, but was just too addicted and too depleted.
I wish I had known then what I know now about mood disorders – about endorphins, about serotonin, and about how all of those things are wholly responsible for a mind gone wrong. If I had known that her brain was simply starving I could have intervened and saved her. She finally died of a drug overdose in October of last year.