Beta Endorphin Story
I have been fascinated with the beta endorphin story for many years. Learning that sugar evoked beta endorphin made perfect sense to me... Sugar as a pain killer seemed so resonant with what my molecules knew. But I hadn't really thought of sugar as an emotional pain killer. Reading that first scientific article about sugar reducing "isolation-distress" knocked my socks off. When baby chicks were given sugar, they didn't cry as much after being taken from the momma hen. This wasn't about physical pain, this was a whole different story. I wanted to piece it together.
We know that children of alcoholics have lower levels of beta endorphin. What does this mean in real life? Beta endorphin cuts pain. Lower levels of beta endorphin mean we feel pain more deeply. We may be more affected by going to the dentist. We may hurt more if we get banged up in a game of tag football. We may cry more at the movies. Because we have less of the brain chemical that protects us from pain, we are more "sensitive." More sensitive, for better or for worse, we feel more deeply. I suspect also that it is lower levels of beta endorphin that make us more aware, more tuned in to the subtlety of what we are experiencing and perhaps more vulnerable emotionally.
Beta endorphin affects self esteem. Confidence, optimism, a sense of connection, a sense of elation all come with high levels of beta endorphin. The euphoria of the "runner's high" is very real. That sense of being on top of the world is a by product of the beta endorphin flood... By the same token, low beta endorphin can have a profound effect on feelings. Self esteem eludes us — even though it seems as if we should be feeling terrific, we don't. We are successful , we have enough money, we have loving supports and inside we are convinced it will soon disappear and we will end up as a bag lady with nothing.
We feel disconnected from those around us. Even though our mind tells us that we have a loving partner, an attentive husband, devoted children, caring parents, or loving friends, we still feel isolated and alone. Sometimes we shake our heads in disbelief. "How can this be?" we ask. It makes no sense to us. What is even stranger is that we don't feel this way all of the time. Sometimes we feel clear, optimistic and ready to take on the world. Other times, the bag lady sits at our feet clucking her disapproval of our life. This unpredictability of self esteem can be crazy making. The illusive quality of our confidence makes no sense — until we begin to see our life through the filter of beta endorphin.
When we have naturally low levels of beta endorphin, our brains try to compensate for it by increasing the number of beta endorphin receptor sites. More receptor sites will work to catch as much of the beta endorphin as possible. If something (like drugs, alcohol or a big helping of sugar food) causes a big hit of beta endorphin, the extra receptor sites will cause us to have a "WOW!" reaction, the infamous "rush." So when people with low beta endorphin do something to create the rush, they get a bigger WOW!
Let's focus on the sugar effect. We have low beta endorphin, have sugar and feel really good. We feel confident, hopeful and excited about our lives. We banish the bag lady with a flash of the hand and pronounce our enthusiasm for life and its demands. We feel great! For a little while. And then, in the middle of a conversation, at a board meeting, on a date, the sense of possibility slips away. Doom comes back and we are back to square one. The flood of beta endorphin has receded and we are left with all those extra receptor sites sitting empty and forlorn.
So what evokes beta endorphin? Are there good things? and bad things? Don't we want the "rush?" If our beta endorphin is low, don't we want to do things which get us more? Here's the key, we don't want the "rush" because it's the spike and the rush which cause the difficult after affects. We want a steady stream beta endorphin which keeps us in a steady state of optimism, higher self esteem, confidence and relation. We want to enhance the natural production without the dramatic up and downs which have been such a part of our lives. In some ways our healing process may be hard. We may not like the idea of giving up the "rush" effect. Life without it may seem "boring" (to use my own words from early recovery). It seemed as if I was willing to endure the pain of the down side in order to have the thrill of the up side. This, in a nutshell, is the seduction of addiction. We forget the down side and only remember those few moments of glory, of confidence streaming. We will endure anything, seek forever to return to the state of WOW!
Trust me on this one, though. Many years later, my body, my mind and my heart all know now that a steady state of clarity and self esteem is so much better than the illusion I carried around for all those years. Enduring and consistent confidence is a thousand times better than those few moments stolen on the back of a sugar high. I didn't know this until I did it and did it over time. But I do now, and there is nothing better in the world than living from this place.
(c) Kathleen DesMaisons 2006 All Rights Reserved