In search of a natural high 

Where can you find an altered state that won't harm or alarm? Listen to your body.

It seems that a logical start when writing about "natural highs" would be a brief rumination on definition. My research finds a public-opinion belief that a natural high can be engendered by any number of benign activities that enhance good feelings in people, sans dangerous risk factors. It is not, therefore, about eye-rolling, jaw-clenching, mouth-foaming, staring-into-the-middle-distance or manic reactions.

The phrase, as I recall it, began appearing in mainstream magazines in the 1960s, a time snidely referred to as the "if-you-remember-it-you-weren't-there" decade.

Well, I was there. In San Francisco. And I do remember. Mostly.

In those days, articles often argued that "weed" was a natural, non-addicting little fella that brought the sweet gift of a transitory altered state which could be "snapped out of" instantly, unlike the demon rum that dwelled in the dank bottom of booze bottles and delivered plagues like irreversible brain cell death, stupor, hangovers and alcoholism.

The marijuana-as-a-natural-high philosophy was sometimes even advanced by "ladies" magazines, popular with homemakers who were looking to pop psychology for guidance through an era of social upheaval so traumatic that it's no wonder many of them had Alice B. Toklas' brownie recipe taped to their refrigerators.

Still, for something so "natural," there were decidedly "unnatural" reactions for some who partook: psychological dependency; heart-pumping paranoia; failed memory; anxiety attacks; lung risks on par with cigarette smoking, and munchies-induced weight gain.

Well, damn. Something always has to come along and spoil the fun.

In the 1990s the natural-high quest has not lagged.

Consider herbal ecstasy, an inexpensive, over-the-counter combination of herbs that attempt to mimic the effects of the illegal street drug Ecstasy and which has put billions of dollars in the pockets of manufacturers. Labels such as "Herbal Ecstacy" [sic], "Cloud 9" and "Ultimate Xphoria" promise nothing less than Kubla-Khanian experiences: "euphoric stimulation; highly increased energy levels; tingly skin sensations; enhanced sensory processing; increased sexual sensations and mood elevations."

One youthful user described his experience this way: "I purchased ten Herbal Ecstacy tablets for $20. A friend and I took five tablets each around 8:30 p.m. on a Friday night. Forty-five minutes later I felt [a] tingle of electricity rushing through my hair ... everything around me got a little softer; there was also an increase in the lust levels ... up until 3 a.m. and very alert and had no problem falling asleep. Awoke at 7 a.m. the next morning alert and nicely buzzed; the buzz actually lasted until 5:30 p.m. ."

Twenty-one hours of elevated lust? Natural and safe?


That tingling rush of electricity could have been the business end of electrical shock resuscitation, had the tripper been unlucky; herbal ecstasy is a combination of caffeine and several species of herbs from the genus ephedra, also called ma huang, Chinese ephedra and epitonin. Sida cordifolia is another source. The active chemical in ephedra is ephedrine, a powerful, amphetamine-like stimulant that effects the nervous system and heart. An ingredient in numerous diet pills and teas, it is anything but guaranteed safe, particularly for people with heart conditions, hypertension, or neurologic and anxiety disorders.

When a spring-breaker visiting Florida this past April died from an overdose of Ultimate Xphoria, an ephedrine-based product, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford ordered the country's first sales ban of recreational substances containing ephedrine. Many states have since followed his lead.

"That a product comes from an herbal source or is marketed as ‘natural' is not a guarantee of its safety," he said at the time.

In fact, in the past six years, the Federal Drug Administration has investigated more than 800 reports of adverse reactions to the consumption of ephedrine-based products by young to middle-aged people who were otherwise healthy. Among those reactions: soaring blood pressure, headaches, heart-rate irregularities, heart attacks, insomnia, liver failure, nervousness, seizures, strokes, tremors, even death.

The FDA recently began studying whether there is a safe supplemental level of ephedrine or if its inclusion in appetite-suppression formulas should be prohibited.

And if over-the-counter Natural Ecstacy fails to hold up under FDA scrutiny, so will its natural kin, the ephedrine-based "safe and effective aphrodisiac" 7th Heaven, along with all its heavenly assurance of naturally enhanced desire, performance and sensation. Myriad similar "natural-high" products -- inspirationally named to stir, in particular, youthful curiosity -- are in the wings for government analysis, among them Natural Sex, Aqua, Ritual Spirit, Magic Mushroom, Cloud 9, Sting, Rainbow Serpent, Celestial Peppermints, Nirvana, Trance, Dream Drops, Embrace, Erotic, Isis, Fairy Liquid and, what else, Organic Ecstacy.

Sorry, but the empirical evidence that keeps trickling in decade after decade suggests that the only truly safe, effective and natural highs are not available from herbalists or head shops but from -- and you're probably going to roll your eyes at this -- within you.

An authentic natural high, according to feel-good gurus, does not come from a body-slam of stimulants that makes our skin feel like it's about to crawl off our bones. Nor does it unleash uncontrollable Caligulan libidos. Indeed, a really good natural high is subtler -- a sustainable, deep sense of well-being and optimism. A gentle euphoria. Energy. Sensuality. Satisfaction. Peace. Connection.

And a natural high is not necessarily transitory -- lasting only for the duration of the blood-stream trip of a pill or a puff, say those who study such esoteria. A natural high can become a lifestyle, but one made up of many components: wholesome nourishment, meditation, meaningful work, laughter and regular exercise that is strenuous enough to tap our built-in stash of stokin' chemicals known as endorphins. Endorphins are opiate proteins located in the brain that have pain-relieving properties. The word comes from endogenous, i.e., "produced within the body," and morphine, a derivative of opium that boosts mood and reduces pain.

Endorphins, then, are neurotransmitters that are chemically analogous to morphine. Further, our brains have morphine receptors. The inference is that those endorphins produced by our bodies during, say, a long, challenging run or love-making session or at certain levels of meditation, are actually morphine-like substances. Hence, a runner's/ lover's/meditator's high.

Some researchers say that another piece of the picture has to do with the state of the energy field that emanates from the human body, which is related to what is commonly known as the "aura." This field is made up of energy so refined that its existence was unknown until discovered some years ago by Drs. Harold S. Burr and Leonard Ravitz at Yale University's School of Medicine.

"Every living thing on this planet," said Dr. Burr, "from man to mice -- from seeds to trees -- are molded and controlled by electrodynamic fields which can be measured with a good voltmeter."

Indeed, there is a growing body of data that suggests the modern barrage of noise, even loud, disharmonic music, has a deleterious effect on that electrodynamic field. Many believe that, all other elements being equal, this field must be free of disruption or interference for a natural high to exist.

Another method of obtaining a natural high is through massage, which vitalizes our body's primary sense -- the tactile.

A myriad of massage systems can do the trick: acupressure, body work, esalen, holistic, Oriental, polarity, reflexology, Reichian, shiatsu, Swedish, therapeutic and others. All employ kneading, pressing or stroking, some with slight touch, some with strong.

"There is a spot on the back of the head called the occipital ridge, located at the very base of the skull. It's from there that endorphins are released," says Angela Wills, a massage therapist for seven years and owner of Body Works Massage Clinic, in Altamonte Springs. "When I finish a massage I put my fingers on the ridge, with gentle pressure. That stimulates the release of endorphins. We call that the meltdown."

The effect of massage can be found in what Hypocrites called the vis medicatrix naturae -- the body's ability to tap the highest elements of its life force, i.e., the natural high. In fact, the effects of massage are believed to be as ethereal as those produced by meditation.

Of course, meditation itself is a proven path to a natural high that alters brain-wave states through deep, focused relaxation. And there are several of those states.

While the restorative Delta state of deep sleep releases the healing, regenerative growth hormone, the true natural high occurs in non-sleep states. Beta, during which the brain works a furious pace at between 13-40 hertz -- a unit of frequency equal to one cycle per second -- is associated with peak concentration, heightened alertness and visual acuity, and is believed to be the key to cognition. Alpha, with a 7-12 hertz range, is the gateway to the Schuman Resonance, the frequency of the earth's electromagnetic field; Alpha's deep relaxation borders deep meditation, where we connect with the creativity that dwells just beneath consciousness. And Theta, between 4-7 hertz, is the most puzzling and peculiar realm, also known as the twilight state, through which we pass briefly while entering or leaving the Delta state of sleep. Meditation at this level enhances creativity, learning, memory, intuition and extrasensory perception.

Noted psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, M.D., has spent a life-long career researching non-ordinary states of consciousness. He writes that "the transcendental impulse is the most vital and powerful force in human beings." This imperative to link with the spiritual realm, Grof discovered, is so puissant that "[i]t resembles, in its nature, sexuality, but is much more fundamental and compelling."

And it's possible to induce natural highs by training brain waves to shift to deep-meditation frequencies. A researcher in the 1940s, Gray Walter, discovered that when people are exposed to light-flashing of a certain frequency, brain waves became synchronized with the flashing. His findings have been verified by subsequent research that combined sound and light.

Researcher Michael Hutchinson wrote, in his article "The Laughing Buddha: Techno-Shamanism and the Democratization of Bliss," that "We've all had the experience of shifting into a heightened or metanormal state -- call it lucidity, insight, mastery, wisdom, enlightenment, grace, bliss, satori, creativity, learning, waking up -- a state in which we know beyond doubt that our ordinary state is a deep sleep compared to this rich awakening. And we know, too, this is how we should be all the time."

Hutchinson believes that foremost in our evolution is an instinctive drive to find those latitudes of consciousness. "In fact," he writes, "it has become clear that humans are genetically programmed to seek out these altered, awakened states."

The trick, then, is to have the good wisdom not to destroy and damage ourselves on the journey -- to avoid the alluring, artificial illusion in favor of our own cartography, for a truly natural high is the ultimate ttitude.

What a natural high should feel like

Michael Murphy, founder of the Esalen Institute, is the author of "The Future of the Body," in which he compiled myriad examples of how a natural high affects humans. Among them:

Extraordinary perceptions of things outside ourselves, i.e. transcendent beauty in ordinary things;

Exceptional somatic or body awareness, such as voluntary control of blood pressure or heart rate;

Non-ordinary communication abilities; for example, the communication of thoughts and mental states;

Phenomenal vitality; performing "superhuman" feats;

Extraordinary movement abilities;

Inexplicable abilities to influence events at a distance, such as spiritual healing;

Exceptional abilities to alter pain and pleasure -- delight that persists despite sickness or adversity;

Extraordinary cognition, such as creative insights, mystical experiences, and the works of genius; and

Love that transcends personal wants and needs to manifest a fundamental unity with others.

More by Dee Rivers


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