Tolle Totum – Endorphins & Attention to Beauty: Powerful Medicine to Shift Physiology Along With Perspective
AMY CHADWICK, ND
Adaptability is essential for survival. But responding to stressors, or more importantly, thriving mentally, emotionally, and physically, is not simply a reflexive action of constricted default modes. Adaptability, as we tend to discuss it in clinical practice, is a complex set of physiologic processes guiding initiation, calibration, action, and recovery that support response, learning, growth, and healing. Skillful response requires clear perception, access to known and creative options, and the ability to choose the most useful methods for meeting individual needs. While our bodies have metabolic processes to maintain homeostasis and adapt to internal physiologic changes, the vast majority sensory input that represents a challenge to homeostasis, and therefore affects metabolic demands, come from outside the self. 1
I pose that a daily practice of attention to beauty through our senses builds awareness that we are supported, improves flexibility, and offers opportunities for skillful living, in our bodies, our communities, and our planet. This is not a practice to cure all ills, but one that invites a change of relationship with our pain, with one another, and with the vulnerabilities inherent in being alive. It brings us to a profound alignment with what is alive in ourselves and others. Endorphins, also known as endogenous opioids, represent the underlying biochemical pathways that connect our perception to our experiences. By focusing on the underlying mechanisms of how the brain manages life’s challenges to homeostasis we can help patients build resilience, recover from past trauma, and shift physiology along with perspective.
Perception and Experience
All beings perceive life through their sensory organs. Humans assign perceptions complex hierarchical value, cultivated individually and societally. Distorted perceptions may result in metabolic changes that overtax our resources, leading to chronic adjustments in physiology, symptom development, and disease. Perception, and the ensuing patterns of adaptation, influence how we interact with the world and determine individual patterns of work, play, relationship, and creativity. As Dr Kamyar Hedayat said, “Distorted perceptions and exaggerated emotional responses divert from the real work of being.”1
Humans have the internal mechanisms to support the digestion of experience, to broaden and soften perception, and to modulate and support ongoing adaptability. This internal capacity for harmony, modulated by endorphins, is nourished by beauty. Endorphins, not unique to humans, exist even in single celled organisms.2 But just as humans can create and maintain distorted perceptions, humans also have the power of attention to the sensory milieu. This capacity to attend to our experiences, and to affect change in our responses, is like a gateway to well-being.
The Practice of Being
At the core of compassion and love, being is vital for healing, especially as distorted perceptions have led to disordered adaptation, ecological destruction, injustice, gross inequity, and greater vulnerability to stress-related disease. Being is not an exercise in controlling stress or bypassing what is painful. It is not, for most of us, living sequestered in an ashram or making a life comprised solely of spiritual practice. It is daily interaction with our world. It is utilizing the power of attention to consciously receive the gifts of beauty, channeled through our senses. In this way, being also becomes a practice in cultivating healthy endorphin activity and nourishing flexible, creative, and efficient adaptability.
Beauty and Endorphins
Beauty is the external currency of life that can be experienced with nuance, equanimity, and pleasure. Beauty invites us to see beyond initial perceptions, belief, domestication, or rigid reactivity. It is the transmission of grace in a sunset or the eyes of a loved one, a flower blooming in the cracks of a sidewalk, or the laughter of a child. Beauty invites us to the most profound enlightenment and conscious participation in the oneness of life.
Endorphins are the internal currency of beauty. With receptors distributed throughout the body, they can give a figurative hug to the brain and support flexibility and fluidity of sensation and thought, including signaling during discomfort that we can be “OK.” Endorphins help cultivate a state of evenness, of non-argument with life that allows for clear perceptions of preferences, needs, and the ability to engage in each moment. When the brain and body are supported in this way, there is greater vitality and capacity for choice, efficient action, skillful thought, words, belief, and more appropriate emotional response.3, 4
POMC and its Derivatives
Beta-endorphins, along with enkalphins and dynorphins, comprise the 3 different categories of endorphins found in humans. They are the physical molecules that support a finessed adaptation response, be it psychological, immune, inflammatory, or reconstructive. Pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC), an endorphin precursor, is a pro-hormone primarily expressed in the pituitary and hypothalamus, though researchers have found evidence of its mRNA in peripheral tissues such as white blood cells, endocrine organs, and the skin.5 As a pro-hormone, POMC is altered and/or activated as needed to provide the right action at the right time. Research also indicates it has multiple activated forms that may be tissue specific.5 Through localization and transport, POMC and its derivatives have immediate and prolonged effects on pain perception, immune regulation, inflammatory response, memory, and emotional interpretation.5 Interestingly, POMC can be spliced into hormones which have seemingly opposing actions.6 This potential activity represents POMC’s role in maintaining homeostasis across a wide variety of tissues rather than driving a singular response. The primary hormones spliced from POMC are melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and beta-endorphins. 6
Within the central nervous system, beta-endorphins are primarily produced in the hypothalamus and travel down nerves to axonal terminals at specific target sites.7 Spliced from POMC, beta-endorphins stimulate mu-opiate receptors in the peripheral nervous system, reducing sensations of pain.7 Endorphins are also released from the hypothalamus into the third ventricle and distributed through cerebrospinal fluid to the brain and spinal cord.8 With nerve and CSF distribution pathways, endorphins have far-reaching, prolonged, and profound effects on perceptions of stress, emotional response, memory formation, and physical and mental responses to aggression.
While the list of brain regions affected by endorphins is broad, perhaps most relevant to adaptation and the stress response is how quickly endorphins reach the vagal complex, through the CSF, and influence incoming and outgoing signals transmitted via the vagus nerve.8 What if supporting parasympathetic activity also meant supporting optimal endorphin signaling? And, what if supporting CSF flow allowed for greater endorphin bathing of the brain? The locus coeruleus, which stores and releases noradrenaline, also contains POMC expressing neurons.9 Endorphins may support flexibility in the parasympathetic response, but they also can modulate sympathetic nervous system activity.
Endorphins don’t work alone. They work alongside other POMC derivatives like MSH and ACTH, as well as other neurohormones and neurotransmitters, like oxytocin and vasopressin, to help regulate the body. When the system is working properly, beta-endorphins influence brain activity towards a state of balance and well-being.8
Enhancing Endorphin Flexibility and Function
Our senses are the perceptual pathway for beauty and pleasure.10 While our senses reflexively respond to harmful stimuli, they are, the vast majority of the time, receiving pleasure. Through our senses, we can experience life visually, somatically, auditorily, olfactorily, and gustatorily with profound delicacy and delight. Simply pause and notice what you are sensing. Notice the diversity of input. In all likelihood, none are alerting you to danger in this moment, yet a myriad of sensory experiences are happening. Some may be benign, some more pleasurable. Sensory pleasure does not need to be analyzed by the mind or given language to cultivate a robust endorphin reserve and nourish endorphin flexibility. Daily attention to this gift of life is one of our greatest means for thriving.
Meditation practices have been shown to improve endorphin flexibility and function. Gratitude practices demonstrate improved heart health, which can be considered a downstream effect of endorphin activity. In part, these practices cultivate the type of attention to our senses that both improves our recognition of beauty and magnifies the pleasure we are able experience from it. To specifically work with perception, to open the door to the gateway to well-being, I usually recommend a sensory practice. A sensory practice is like “leaning in” to life. Patients often report unforeseen changes when they begin this practice. My experience is that by cultivating our attention and consciousness, we become engaged simply because life is giving the invitation, every moment, and our physiology is designed to absorb this gift.
A Sensory Exercise:
- Write down each of the five senses – touch, taste, sight, scent, and sound.
- Under each category – write 5-10 experiences that arrive through each individual sense. These can be anything, but try to think of things that bring pleasure, capture your sense of wonder, invite a pause, or perhaps feel like a kiss of grace.
- What takes your breath away? What are the moments when you feel pure awe before your mind has formed any words about the experience? These are the kinds of experiences to focus on. They are also different for each of us, so feel free to be genuine about what you enjoy and to explore this concept over time.
- Notice how awareness of what brings pleasure through your senses accentuates your attention to these sensations throughout the day. Noticing is powerful and often leads to gentle savoring. An inner smile grows. The subtle experiences of life become more profound and enriching.
- Invite the discipline of cultivating your attention every day.
In addition to working with our perception and attention to beauty, there are plants which support endorphin activity. Crocus sativa is a beloved friend in improving adaptability. We can instruct patients to place a pinch of saffron threads in milk or yogurt (dairy or plant-based) and drink in the evening before bed; the color alone is a sensory pleasure. Saffron studies support that this plant can significantly increase AEA, dopamine, and beta-endorphins in healthy males.11 Viscum album also supports endorphin production.12
I have clinically found that supporting endorphin activity is one of the greatest gifts of flower essences. Invite and listen for the essence that most wants to work with your patient. I instruct patients to invite expansive attention to sensory beauty, like the exercise above, while placing the flower essence drops under their tongue. Engaging the senses in our treatment plans can be deeply nourishing.
To deal with the health issues of our patients and of our society, we need efficient digestion of painful experiences, skillful adaptation, creative thought, and wonder. We need curiosity. We need flexibility. Efficient endorphin reserves support us whether we are navigating current challenges, tending to old wounds, or correcting maladaptive habits. It is important for ourselves and for our patients to find sustainable, life-affirming solutions that can allow for greater engagement in daily life. The practice of focusing on our senses, shifting our perception, and attending to the beauty in our lives is only a beginning. Continued exploration of the diverse physiology of endorphin activity and the intention with which we interpret our experiences can bring greater joy, improved adaptability, and even profound insight into every moment.
- Hedayat K. Indexes of the Corticotropic Axis Part 1. Presented at: Learn Endobiogeny; Jan 12, 2022; Chicago, IL.
- Leroith D, Liotta AS, Roth J, et al. Corticotropin and beta-endorphin-like materials are native to unicellular organisms. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1982;79(6):2086-2090.
- Veening JG, Barendregt HP. The effects of beta-endorphin: state change modification. Fluids Barriers CNS. 2015;12:3.
- Bloom W. The Endorphin Effect: A Breakthrough Strategy for Holistic Health and Spiritual Wellbeing. London: Piatkus; 2011.
- Bicknell AB. The tissue-specific processing of pro-opiomelanocortin. J Neuroendocrinol. 2008;20(6):692-699.
- Harno E, Gali Ramamoorthy T, Coll AP, White A. POMC: The Physiological Power of Hormone Processing. Physiol Rev. 2018;98(4):2381-2430.
- Pilozzi A, Carro C, Huang X. Roles of β-Endorphin in Stress, Behavior, Neuroinflammation, and Brain Energy Metabolism. Int J Mol Sci. 2020;22(1):338.
- Veening JG, Gerrits PO, Barendregt HP. Volume transmission of beta-endorphin via the cerebrospinal fluid; a review. Fluids Barriers CNS. 2012;9(1):16.
- Jiang J, Morgan DA, Cui H, Rahmouni K. Activation of hypothalamic AgRP and POMC neurons evokes disparate sympathetic and cardiovascular responses. Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol. 2020;319(5):H1069-H1077.
- Esch T, Stefano GB. The neurobiology of pleasure, reward processes, addiction and their health implications. Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2004;25(4):235-251.
- Moghadam BH, Bagheri R, Roozbeh B, et al. Impact of saffron (Crocus Sativus Linn) supplementation and resistance training on markers implicated in depression and happiness levels in untrained young males. Physiol Behav. 2021;233:113352.
- Heiny BM, Beuth J. Mistletoe extract standardized for the galactoside-specific lectin (ML-1) induces beta-endorphin release and immunopotentiation in breast cancer patients. Anticancer Res. 1994;14(3B):1339-1342.
Amy Chadwick, ND, graduated from NUNM in Portland, OR. After finishing her degree, she completed a fellowship in endobiogenic medicine. Using ancient and modern principles, and recognizing the endocrine system as the manager of physiology, endobiogeny allows for a profound understanding of why repeated or intense stressors, emotions, and belief patterns lead to imbalance and disease. Dr Chadwick currently practices in Carlsbad, CA, and uses her background in endobiogeny to inform her treatment plans and create patient-centered therapies. Specializing in systems biology and integrative physiology, Dr Chadwick also speaks and writes on a diverse range of topics she is passionate about.