Many of society’s favorite psychoactive compounds, both legal and illegal, work by hijacking our own neurotransmitters and brain receptor sites. In other words, they aren’t creating something out of nothing nor are they necessarily imposing an alien influence. They only work because our brains are set up to get high and feel pleasure.
Why does pleasure exist? Pleasure is the carrot dangled by the body to get us to do the things we need to survive and prosper. It helps us reach important survival goals. But we’re not ascetics. Experiencing and appreciating pleasure as its own entity is necessary for true happiness and life contentment. Our genes expect us to feel good, not just do the tasks that feeling good compels us to complete.
So today I’m going to tell you how to get high and hit these pleasure centers, Primal style. If that sounds like it involves a shaman, some cactus cuttings, and monotonous chanting over a fire, I don’t blame you. That’s absolutely one way to get high and it’s probably similar to how Grok did it, but this isn’t an ayahuasca recipe post, a review of peyote churches, or a guide to “Choosing the Right Fat-Busting Entheogen For Your Body Type.” This is a post discussing the ways our bodies can naturally achieve mind-blowing, consciousness-expanding levels of elation and euphoria.
It’s popularly known as the runner’s high, but you don’t have to run to feel high from exercise. The best known, mother of all natural highs can have you skimming the clouds. Its soaring yet soothing effects are some of the reasons I stuck with endurance training for so long despite the other negative effects it was having. The latest research indicates that the high is probably mediated by two endogenous chemicals: beta-endorphin, an endogenous opioid involved in pain reduction and relaxation; and anandamide, an endocannabinoid responsible for pain reduction and euphoria.
The exercise high probably influenced human evolution, helping promote the highly active lifestyle necessary to dominate the environment. When the going got tough (like when a saber tooth tiger was right on their heels or when they were chasing down dinner), euphoria and pain reduction would have been invaluable.
Studies indicate that it takes about an hour of endurance training for beta-endorphins to release, whereas short-term anaerobic training produces significant levels of the opioid (the more intense the better). In another study, an acute bout of Olympic weightlifting caused elevations in beta-endorphin. This was low-volume resistance training, no more than ten or fifteen seconds of actual honest work, but the intensity was high enough to provoke the exercise high. Overall, it’s high intensity anaerobic work that produces the biggest endorphin rush. As for the endocannabinoids, intensity is key there, too.
Just as exercise itself can spur a euphoric state, exercising with others may offer a different and arguably better high. One study found that rowers’ pain thresholds were greater after training as a team than after working out alone. Since pain sensitivity is a marker of endorphin release, the group workouts produced more of a high. In another study, players engaged in a high-pressure soccer shootout enjoyed bursts of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” after celebrating. Not only that, but the oxytocin surges were contagious across teammates, bringing them closer to each other and strengthening bonds.
The more our ancestors enjoyed working together, the better their chances of surviving. This may be why CrossFit is so popular, and it’s one more reason to take up Ultimate Frisbee (my personal favorite of course), join that basketball league, or convince a buddy to do some sprint competitions. Check back tomorrow for more on group workouts.
Whether it’s bungee jumping, mountain climbing, snowboarding, cliff diving, sky diving, or base jumping, some of us flock to extreme sports like moths to the flame. The appeal is obvious (even if you don’t personally subscribe to it): extreme sports place the body into remarkably stressful situations. It’s physical exercise, yes, but it’s also mental exercise. When you’re leaping from a cliff or plane, your lizard brain thinks you very well may die. The result is a rush of powerful hormones, including adrenaline, dopamine, and beta-endorphins (which correlate closely with reports of euphoria). Your heart works harder and faster, sending more blood, more quickly to the muscles as well as the brain. Your senses are heightened. Time slows down. Moments linger longer than ever before. It’s all a stop-gap mechanism to help you survive the situation.
Even if you’re not a mindfulness practitioner, extreme sports will force you to savor the moment. Dangerous situations – perceived or real – tend to have that effect. There’s the afterglow, too. After the hormonal explosion has abated and you’re back on solid ground, you’ll feel calm and accomplished and carefree. Stress melts and stays away, because what can compare with flinging oneself off a mountain into open air?
You hear talk of “adrenaline junkies,” as if snowboarders and base jumpers and free climbers are little more than healthy meth addicts – and I think that’s the wrong way to describe what we’re doing out there. What we’re drawn to is the intense, hyper-real focus and awareness that our body produces as a response to the incredible insanity of the situation. It’s not about the risk itself as much as a testing of skill against the very immediate, potent backdrop of survival.
You’re somehow never as in touch with life as you are when you’re walking the edge of it. Was that a Bon Jovi lyric? It should have been.
Think of the spiciest food you ever ate. I’m not talking Tapatio, Tabasco, or Cholula here. I mean the kind of hot that makes you anxious and queasy and regretful.
The kind of spicy that would make a WAPFer chug the nearest glass of ultra-pasteurized A1 beta-casein skim milk to quell the burn. Maybe it was a lamb curry or a Jamaican jerk sauce. Maybe you got caught up in a chile-eating contest in Tijuana. Whatever it was, you never forget what it felt like or how much you wanted to take a fire hose to your insides. And I bet you felt something else when you ate it, not just the heat on your tongue. Didn’t you?
Although the more sensitive among us might have simply been scarred for life by the heat, others who have ventured deep into that hot terrain tell tales of a much mellower after effect, a uniquely pleasurable calm. Chili heads, as they’re known, are experts in this spice-induced serenity. They’ve grown to love the heat from start to finish.
There’s no strong, incontrovertible evidence that eating hot food has psychoactive effects in humans, though some animal evidence suggests that capsaicin (the main spicy component in peppers) can release beta-endorphins and adrenaline. It also has analgesic properties which may be mediated by activation of the central opioid system. Still, there’s usually a physiological justification for odd human behavior. If people are happily eating food that literally burns their mouths and insides, there’s a good chance there’s something in it for them. I suspect that the pain gives way to pleasure, and that cool pool of biochemical pleasure afterward is indeed the result of endorphin release. After the pain/danger has dissipated, an intense calm pervades.
I’m a believer. One morning in Thailand, I met a young backpacker staying at the same place we were. I was in the common area looking for coffee. He was dumping a sack of red powder into a small glass of water. He mixed it together and tossed it back, making a face reminiscent of a teen trying cheap gin for the first time. Turns out he was taking shots of powdered Thai chiles. Said it was better than coffee and offered me a shot. I accepted, of course. It was about two teaspoons of powdered chile (about as hot as cayenne; not to be confused with chili powder) in a couple ounces of water. I took it, shot it, and probably made the same face he did, but it woke me up. It may have been placebo (though I wasn’t expecting much), but I swear I felt buzzed, really calm yet energized for an hour or two after. I’m a longtime fan of spicy food and can take it pretty hot, so your mileage may vary. Exercise caution.
Falling in love is the ultimate high in most people’s book. You’re at times an utter (albeit blissful) fool who’s checked half his/her brain at the door or the pinnacle of confidence and contentment skimming along life, undeterred by any burden or barrier.
And damn, does it feel good. A review of studies demonstrates that no less than twelve different brain regions are activated by the cascade of chemicals like dopamine, adrenaline, vasopression, serotonin, and oxytocin when we fall in love. Endorphins and PEA (the chocolate/love drug) also play a big role in the neurochemistry of love. As a result, we feel happy and dopey. Confused and excited. Anxious and confident. We’re a mess, basically, a hastily thrown together assortment of neurochemicals all vying for agency. But you can’t wipe that grin off your face when you’re in the thick of it, can you?
What if you’re already settled down with someone? What if that heady blast of new love has long since passed?
Value your relationship. Nurture it, feed it. Spoil your partner, act like it is the early days. Experience them in the fullest possible way. Recall those initial romantic days and do it over again. Relish good memories. Make new ones. In a couple words: be present.
Most of us are so divorced from our ancestral home – the natural outdoor environment – that leaving the city and going where the cell towers don’t reach feels like entering an altered state of consciousness. Probably because our consciousness has changed. I know when I’m out there, whether it’s at a secluded beach, deep in the redwoods, or alone on a snowy mountaintop, I feel different. I notice new things. My brain works better. I’m high by virtue of eliminating the extraneous sensory clutter of the city.
Having sex releases a torrent of endogenous drugs, hormones and neurotransmitters so expansive that Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs would raise an eyebrow. During arousal, your body secretes the powerful stimulants adrenaline and noradrenaline. Your heart is racing, your blood pressure rises, all in the service of delivering extra blood to various important body parts. Upon climax, your bloodstream is treated to an intoxicating cocktail of prolactin, oxytocin (a.k.a. cuddle time), phenethylamine (levels of this love and chocolate chemical peak at orgasm), and dopamine (care of primal reward system for all around opiate-induced bliss). During male ejaculation, the (male’s) brain apparently lights up like a heroin user’s right after shooting up, indicating a major role for opioids. Neuroimaging studies on women during orgasm also reveal significant activation of the brain’s pleasure centers.
One more thing: everyone focuses on the orgasm, but don’t forget to savor the journey. Take your time with the foreplay and the actual act of sex. You’ll arrive eventually, no need to rush it.
We’ve all heard – or performed – music that has left us with goose bumps and chills. We’re utterly struck by it, held by it, entranced and touched in such a deep way that we feel moved physically and spiritually. I always think of a concert Carrie and I took in some years ago – a choral performance that ended with a piece so piercing and transcendent that it took my breath away. The hairs on my neck and arms stood up and I was swept up in some collective out of body experience. To this day, listening to the piece catapults me back in time and I feel it in my gut.
Science has confirmed the existence of the euphoric music-induced “chills.” Researchers asked participants to choose music that gave them the “chills” each time they heard or played it. Then they allowed subjects to listen to the music while they monitored their brain activity with PET imaging. (In other parts of the experiment, they listened to other peoples’ musical selections or general noise.) Each participant’s chosen music, the researchers found, exclusively produced activity in brain areas associated with “euphoria-inducing stimuli, such as food, sex, and drugs of abuse.”
The researchers suggest that as humans evolved they developed the ability to experience euphoria from more abstract activities like music. Although unnecessary for hard scrabble survival, music likely contributed to social bonding and the cohesion of human communities, which in turn aided survival. Music is also a way to tap into the rhythm underlying life itself. You won’t find any clinical trials, but there’s real music happening right under our noses every single day. Musicians just reveal it.
Remember how you’d hang out at night with your friends, looking up at the stars, just thinking and talking about how immense and crazy and impossible and possible everything is? Remember when you were filled with wonder? Dreaming is one thing that still gets to me and makes me feel like a kid again. Best of all, we have direct access to it. It’s the great mystery that we get to explore every single night of our lives.
Every night, we enter a fantastical world of our own creation. In this world, time is relative; we can live out entire lifetimes in the span of a single sleep cycle. We become artists, novelists, world-builders and storytellers that put Tolkien, Spielberg, George RR Martin, and Salvador Dali to shame. And we get to live and breathe and act in those worlds as if they were real. It’s amazing.
What’s going on here, chemically? Some researchers think that our brains release very small amounts of dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a powerful psychedelic compound, during sleep. That certainly seems plausible.
Laughter’s a funny thing. It’s contagious. The very act of producing the muscular contractions responsible for laughter release beta-endorphins. And there’s nothing like a belly laugh. The weirdest part of all is that it has a mind of its own and cannot be tamed. If something is really, truly funny, you’re going to laugh and there’s not a thing you can do about it. You know how it is – we all have that memory that makes us laugh just thinking of it. Or that friend in class who could get you to laugh just by glancing at you? Or how about the uncontrollable ten minute laughing fit that turns into an ab workout and feels like you’re possessed by a surprisingly lighthearted demon? It’s insane, in a good way.
Laughter yoga shows that laughter can be consciously performed without anything funny happening and it will still have a positive impact. You can in effect fake it till you make it. But that’s not very funny and I’d suggest going for the real deal. Head out on the town with your funniest friend or kick back with the movie or TV show that makes you laugh until your face hurts.
Thanks for reading today, everybody. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Additions, thoughts, amusing anecdotes? What are your favorite Primal highs?