Adrenaline comes up often in casual conversation. Extreme sports enthusiasts boast of the adrenaline rush from rock climbing, bungee jumping, and freerunning. The news cycle tells shocking stories of mothers lifting cars off of their children or of people breaking car doors open to rescue strangers, attributing many of these incredible feats to adrenaline. Doctors warn against the dangers of continual adrenaline spurts, but that doesn't lessen the public's fascination with this powerful hormone. Despite the frequent references, there are plenty of things most people do not know about adrenaline.
The more scientific term for adrenaline is epinephrine. The former name comes from the glands that produce this neurotransmitter and hormone. When the body is stressed, the adrenal glands create epinephrine. It is the root of the fight-or-flight response that controls us when we face a potentially threatening or fearful situation. Some neurons in the central nervous system also produce the hormone. It is released into the bloodstream and sends chemical signals to various body parts, including the brain.
A quicked heartbeat is only one aspect of an adrenaline rush. When your body prepares to respond to a potential threat, adrenaline becomes involved in all bodily functions. Blood vessels shrink and redistribute blood to the muscles, and metabolic processes slow so glucose can be sent to fuel the brain. Pupils dilate, vision enhances, and the airways expand to prepare for strenuous activity. In the modern world where life or death situations are less common, we still feel some kind of fight-or-flight response to many stimuli.
A rush of adrenaline not only increases stamina -- it can also block the sensation of pain. The stress hormone noradrenaline or norepinephrine works alongside adrenaline to numb the brain to pain while under duress. Adrenaline can also affect pain by boost the immune system and aid the body in fighting illness.
Some people experience PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder after a traumatic or life-altering event. Experts believe PTSD develops as a way to protect the body and mind from future traumatic experiences. People with PTSD often are in a state of hyperarousal, meaning their body is always preparing to protect itself. This could explain the abnormally high levels of adrenaline in those with the condition.
In addition to physical signs, adrenaline also causes psychological reactions. There is mounting evidence that stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol play a part in the retention of emotionally stimulating memories. People who have experienced trauma that left them emotionally distraught often describe vivid memories of the incident. The understanding of these processes is key to understanding the development of disorders such as PTSD and finding appropriate and effective treatments.
In the heat of the moment, adrenaline could save your life. However, chronic stress can cause the body to produce adrenaline continually, which can be harmful. According to Harvard University, "persistent epinephrine surges can damage blood vessels and arteries, increasing blood pressure and raising [the] risk of heart attacks or strokes." Controlling stress responses is key to keeping stress levels down when adrenaline is not beneficial.
Exercise can help reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels. Instead, the body begins creating endorphins, positive, feel-good chemicals that improve mood and mental health. Exercise can also help lower the high blood pressure that often accompanies a high-stress or -adrenaline lifestyles.
Arousal is a physical and psychological response to stimuli. Studies show that an emotional connection or emotional arousal occurs before physical attraction and that this correlation is stronger in men than women. There is a definite link between an increase of adrenaline and physical attraction. Thus, dates that involve heart-thumping action, such as rock climbing or anything that releases adrenaline, could increase the amount of initial attraction between two individuals!
The human body may react the same way to an external stimulus, but not everyone feels the same adrenaline rush at every stimulus. For example, the sound of a car door slamming may make one person jump three feet and barely turn the head of another. These responses are generally subconscious -- the brain does not have time to process the stimulus but automatically begins to release adrenaline based on the past experience with that stimulus or a similar one. This could be why people who regularly engage in risky sports have an adrenaline rush even before beginning the sport.
Since one of adrenaline's side effects is opening the airways, as epinephrine, it can treat allergic reactions that cause constricting of airways and hinder blood flow. When administered to a person in anaphylaxis, epinephrine opens the airways and pumps blood to the muscles, especially the heart. It works quickly and effectively to reverse the symptoms of anaphylactic shock and people who know they have serious allergies to common substances often carry it with them.
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