“Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t kill their husbands. They just don’t,” said Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in the movie Legally Blonde. The number of times I’ve quoted that line to my husband as I leave him with three screaming children so that I can go for a run must number in the high three digits. But veiled threats and screaming children aside, is Elle Woods right? Do endorphins really make us happy, and if so, how?
To start, endorphins are neurotransmitters, which pass along information and signals from one neuron to the next. The primary job of endorphins is to block pain. I spoke with Dr. Kara Reynolds, an Emergency Room physician with Pinnacle Emergency Physicians in Bakersfield, California about the way endorphins affect our mind and our body. Dr. Reynolds noted that endorphins are actually our body’s natural pain reliever. “Endorphins are endogenous morphines that our bodies release to help us through incredible circumstances. As ER doctors we see the effects of endorphins in the most extreme circumstances. I just recently treated a patient with an open leg fracture, and he refused pain medication for over an hour — his body had released enough endorphins to relieve him of pain. Of course this effect wears over time — but our bodies are amazingly capable of protecting themselves.”
The primary job of endorphins is to block pain.
When our body is under stress or experiencing pain, our hypothalamus sends out the call through the body for endorphins. I’m assuming the call is something along the lines of “we need to stop this pain,” and not “ we need to feel happy!” Obviously, neurotransmitters aren’t actually saying words, but this is the gist of the message. Additionally, our body calls for an endorphin release to let us know when we’re experiencing pleasure. Now, pleasure is widely associated with happiness, but actually many scientists believe that pleasure is an indication of satisfaction or satiation. Basically, endorphins send the message through the body that all is well — we’ve accomplished what we set out to with regard to how much food we’ve consumed, how much sex we’ve had, or even how long we’ve washed our hands or vacuumed the floor. Endorphins send out the “it’s all good!” feeling through our bodies which help us know we can conclude an action, and the memory of them eventually encourages us to do it again.
Because all people have different amounts of endorphins and release endorphins in different quantities at different times, what creates a big endorphin rush for one person may not have the same sense for another person. For example, my husband has a high endorphin response to eating hot peppers (lots of people do), but I don’t. For me, the peppers are just hot, my brain keeps telling me to stop, and my endorphins all seem to be on vacation. Meanwhile, my husband sits down with a bowl of spicy ramen, adds chili peppers, and eats the whole thing without taking a drink of water because — obviously — that would be cheating, and cheating isn’t nearly as fun. Clearly, his endorphins are sending out a message that mine are failing to deliver.
So what about exercise? For years I’ve been parroting Elle Woods and believing in my endorphin-inspired runner’s high, but as it turns out, the rush from running and other aerobic workouts might have a few different sources. According to a recent interview with J. Kip Matthews, Ph.D, a sport and exercise psychologist, “While there have been some studies to show that exercise can lead to elevated endorphin levels in blood plasma, there have been no consistent findings that, indeed, exercise leads to that famous ‘endorphin rush.’” Apparently, in the case of exercise, the endorphin increase in the blood actually doesn’t affect the endorphin levels in the brain, which would be necessary for us to experience the psychological impact of a “high” from running or working out. However, aerobic activity does help increase our serotonin and norepinephrine levels, which help us handle stress better. Exercise can also activate a dopamine response, which sends a message to the “pleasure circuit” in the medial forebrain. Add in an exercise-related oxytocin release, and I’m bound to be feeling pretty good after a workout.
It seems that happiness is more like a cocktail and less like a shot of endorphins straight up.
It seems that happiness is more like a cocktail and less like a shot of endorphins straight up. While endorphins play a role in our overall wellbeing by warding off pain and perpetuating pleasure, they alone do not create a rush, a high, or a burst of happiness. Serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine mixed with endorphins are truly what make us happy. Well, that and an actual cocktail.
The truth is that we can’t give all the credit to our endorphins. All of our neurotransmitters are working together to create balance, stability, and happiness. So is Elle Woods right? Sort of. I know that exercise makes me happy because I feel happy when I’m doing it, which means that my body has released that cocktail of neurotransmitters throughout my blood and my brain to provide pleasure, satisfaction, satiation, self-love, and a sense of accomplishment. As a result I deal better with stress and have a more positive outlook. Endorphins are a part of this equation, but they are not the only factor. Regardless, I’m going to keep on running.