A Perilous Relief: Bliss From Within – The Glory of Endogenous Opioids

For better or for worse, I tend to have pretty high stress levels. It comes from an eventful past, as well as a busy present, and the intense drive to realize my deepest desires for my future. Certainly, it’s not much fun having to constantly “quality control” my thoughts and my actions, so I don’t get myself in trouble over post-traumatic stress that has nothing to do with what’s really going on around me. I certainly don’t want my energy and attention to get pulled down by old stuff that still makes me jump when an unidentified figure appears out of the corner of my eye. And it’s no fun “melting down”

But being highly stressed isn’t as bad as it might sound. In fact, there is a side to my typically high levels of stress that feeds me. And I love it. After years of being down on myself for being “over-stressed,” I’ve come to terms with that shadow side of myself. And I’ve learned to love my stress.

Here’s why:

In addition to these classic “fight-or-flight” responses to get you going, the little almond-shaped gland in the brain, the amygdala, triggers the brain to release endogenous opioids (opium-like chemicals that originate in your own system) which help your system function adequately in high-demand situations.

These endogenous opioids are a built-in part of our naturally functioning system and they are ever-available in varying quantities. Endogenous literally means “from inside”. And endogenous opioids are magic opium-like potions our systems create on their own (it’s been discovered that the human body actually produces morphine in small amounts). Yes, Virginia, there is a way to get high on your own steam, as the biochemicals our brains produce are of the same type as the illegal, intensely addictive stuff you can buy in a plastic baggie from some sleaze who will take sex as payment for the goods instead of money. They’re just a little different, so they match our body chemistry better. And they aren’t usually available to our bodies through our brains in the intense concentrations that leave overdosed junkies dead on the street.

In particular, these internal substances can have a hypoalgesic or analgesic (pain reducing) effect on the body, which helps you deal instinctively with whatever threat is in front of you, without having to deal with pain, as well. I’ve read that endogenous opioids serve to suppress the “lick response” in injured animals, so they can escape. (An animal, when injured, will instinctively stop to lick itself and tend to its wounds, but if it’s been injured by a predator this instinctual response makes it easy prey for its hungry attacker. By suppressing the pain – and the lick response – this natural impulse lets the animal ignore its wounds and focus on escaping to live to see another day.)

The same holds true with us humans. Imagine how short-lived we would be in crisis situations, if we were distracted by pain and other heightened sensations. We’d be too busy going “Ow! Ow! Ow!” and checking to see what bone we broke or what piece of flesh we tore, to get out of the way of the oncoming rockslide, tidal wave, or speeding bus, or haul ourselves out a burning car and run to safety before the gas tank explodes. The adrenaline rush and sudden biochemical cascade of pain-numbing opioids makes it possible for us to do important things like rescue each other, even when the rescuer is injured… to pull ourselves from danger, even if we’ve been hurt… and do things that would be utterly impossible, if we had to deal – for real — with intense pain. Endogenous opioids may well have been what let that tech guy save himself from dying on an ill-fated hike through the California wilderness by hacking his arm off below the elbow with a pocket knife.

Now, these endogenous opioids are truly wonderful things. Among them are Endorphin, Enkephalin, and Dynorphin. More research keeps trickling in about these substances — and others like them. It seems implausible that we could know so little about these important biochemicals until recently, but some of these have only been identified and studied since the mid-1990’s. And by the time I write (and you read) this, much more will probably be known about these substances, and how they interact with our sensitive systems.

It’s my understanding that the reason that artificial opiates work is because they are so much like the opioids we produce in our own bodies. Like a copy of a master key fitting into a lock, artificial/man-made opiates “open the same doors” that our own bodies normally have closed… and then open, when properly prompted by our biochemical “keys”. If you consider how strongly heroin and morphine can affect the human system, and if you consider that the only reason they work is ‘cause they mimic the qualities of opioids we already have in our own brains/brains, you can begin to understand just how powerful our own biochemical systems intrinsically are.

Yes, these endogenous opioids have the same sort of effect on us as opiates. They cut pain. They give us a euphoric feeling. They help clear our minds. They do amazing things to make life worth living. Lenny Bruce, the heroin addict, said of his addiction, “… it’s like kissing God.” If you consider that endogenous opioids can work the magic of relieving/inhibiting pain, imparting euphoria, and making us think better, it explains how human beings can sometimes perform at super-human levels irrespective of pain, danger, stress, or other normally stymieing influences (like, for example, the voice in their head urging them (in vain) to keep a low profile).

These magic potentialities we have in our brains have recently been getting more “air time” from scientists like Irving Biederman, who studies perceptual and cognitive pleasure. According to Dr. Biederman, we’re not only wired to survive — we’re wired to enjoy ourselves in the process. A lot. Things like learning new things, encountering novel situations, looking at innovative art, “tickle” the parts of our brains that release endogenous opioids into our systems.

So, under the worst and the best of circumstances, endogenous opioids are about as close to a gift from God as you can get. Not only do they buffer our bodies from the ill effects of extreme duress, but they also reward certain kinds of behavior (learning, in particular) with a pure shot of unbridled joy.

Kind of makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it?

A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents

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