A surfers gets stoked with a mid-surf ion fix. Photo: Gibson

A surfers gets stoked with a mid-surf ion fix. Photo: Gibson


The Inertia

We all surf for different reasons – for health and fitness, adventure, experience, or just to be out in the ocean. Whatever our motivation, every surfer knows the feeling of surf stoke.

But while we’re all familiar with the inherent physical, physiological and sub-conscious benefits of our sport, recently published research shows that people feeling “surf stoked” are, in fact, enjoying a chemical cocktail triggered by the charged ions found in the atmosphere around turbulent water.

While surfing, we experience elevated levels of Adrenalin and Dopamine. Adrenaline raises your heart rate and increases your reaction time (the fight or flight reflex), while Dopamine is a chemical neurotransmitter triggered in your body when you are doing something you like. “Adrenaline junkies” – such as big wave surfers – get used to higher levels of these chemicals, as demonstrated by Keanu Reeves in Point Break (see video).

While this adrenalin rush may give us an edge in the water the effects subside quickly once ashore, while surf-stoke remains long after we’re back on the beach. Research suggests these persistent effects of surf euphoria may be attributed to an unlikely candidate: sea spray.

The turbulence created by breaking waves alters the physical structure of the air and water, breaking apart water and air molecules and releasing charged ions* into the atmosphere. On their eternal quest for perfect waves surfers inevitably encounter this altered atmospheric state.

Some scientists are convinced this abundance of negative ions has a positive effect on mood by triggering the release of endorphins and serotonin – the “happy hormones” – and increasing blood flow and oxygen circulation through our bodies.

Similar studies show other environments with negatively charged atmospheric conditions, such as around waterfalls and on snowy mountains, produce similar effects. Maybe if your shower pressure is really good you could re-create the environment and get shower-stoked, using the same principle of turbulent water!

A study of 107 surfers in California investigated the mental health benefits of surfing by asking surfers to describe how they felt before and after a surf. Surfers reported feeling calmer and more tranquil afterwards. Ryan Pittsinger, the researcher behind the study, put the results down to solitude – “It’s just you…it allows you to clear your head.”

Perhaps the results would have differed on a busy day at Snapper…

Organizations around the world have tapped into this surfing “zen” to treat afflictions such as depression, schizophrenia, seasonal affective disorder (a type of winter depression) and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation in California is using a program known as Ocean Therapy to teach people with combat-related post-traumatic stress to apply skills learned from surfing – including trust and confidence – to their everyday lives.

A documentary released earlier in the year, Somewhere near Tapachula, told the story of Mission Mexico, an organization bringing happiness back into the lives of orphaned kids in Mexico through surfing. Building confidence, self-esteem and providing an escape from their previous lives gave the children new hope to follow their dreams and reach an exciting future. The success of the program showed surfing therapy to be more effective than even the mission workers had hoped.

As the old saying goes “Only a surfer knows the feeling” – and as a surfer you don’t need scientific studies to know that surfing more is good for your health. Nonetheless, this new research provokes appreciation for environmental health and personal health.

And if the beach is too far and you need a quick “up,” try the shower.

*Ion – an atom or group of atoms with a net electric charge. Scientists reckon the beneficial ions include Sodium and Chloride (from Sodium Chloride, commonly known as sea salt) and other trace elements such as Magnesium.

Here’s what the little guys look like…

ions

 

Read more from Bridget Reedman on CoastalWatch.

  • Yakak

    “Surfers reported feeling calmer and more tranquil afterwards.” This is very true, but you must take into context the pre-surf sensation. A feeling that is anything but normal so any calmness after a surf is just a return to normalcy. I, for instance, drive like a madman, sing impromptu songs in gibberish at full volume, bounce in my car seat, curl up then explode with a diabolical clay marzo hand battle or  rip the leg of my wetsuit pulling it on in the most impatient manner. Therefore, once my elixir of waves has been consumed I can behave like a human again. The fleeting existence of surf puts immediacy into going surfing. After “Mission Accomplished” we can all breath a sign of relief.

  • Yakak

    “Surfers reported feeling calmer and more tranquil afterwards.” This is very true, but you must take into context the pre-surf sensation. A feeling that is anything but normal so any calmness after a surf is just a return to normalcy. I, for instance, drive like a madman, sing impromptu songs in gibberish at full volume, bounce in my car seat, curl up then explode with a diabolical clay marzo hand battle or  rip the leg of my wetsuit pulling it on in the most impatient manner. Therefore, once my elixir of waves has been consumed I can behave like a human again. The fleeting existence of surf puts immediacy into going surfing. After “Mission Accomplished” we can all breath a sign of relief.

  • Tripledouble

    Awesome article Bridget! I’ve always thought the bubbles smell kind of like a natural detergent. Maybe I’m crazy, but I always feel energized paddling through fresh-cracked foam. You can really feel the energy in it.

  • ctwalrus

    the surf has always been my ‘drug of choice’    over the last 46 years I have tried to live my life with time in the water, somehow!

  • Treywiese

    Great article. I love chemistry & surfing will always be my passion. I love being in the ocean and I have noticed that a day or 2 after a good sesh, I feel great and much more relaxed. 

  • Al Baydough

    Good stuff!

  • Niquemanlansan

    VERY INFORMATIVE! :)

  • Ktoughill

    Hi, Your “research” link is broken. Could you tell me/us what it is? I’d really love to read the research linking stoke to ions.

  • Jon Kirkeide

    For me surfing is much more than the wave and includes many parts; staying fit; watching the weather; researching for potential breaks; researching for the proper gear; the encounters during the of preparation and travels to and from. Living far from the ocean in a cold climate where there are sometimes months between surf sessions the waves are just a small part of the experience and is more of preparing yourself and being aware the physical world and attempting to be in the right spot of the universe, at the right time, in the right condition, with the right gear and all you may encounter on the way there and the way back. Surfing is a never ending cycle that may keep on young and heart and body.

    I don not believe there is much Sodium Chloride in the waters of the Great Lakes where us fresh water surfers get our dose of stoke while harvesting Great Lakes wave energy. Therefore, I reckon the scientist should keep on searching for the “Ions of “Stoke”.

  • Lucianne Walkowicz

    Um, could you please fix the research link? I’m a scientist and it sounds completely woo-woo to me. I’d love to be able to read the source article and decide for myself.

  • Drew Phelps

    Great article. I’ve always felt that I feel much better in all aspects of my health from consistently surfing my entire life regularly. I remember one winter in Puerto Rico where I could smell the spray more than usual and it just felt energizing..Of course being in PR gets you stoked enough. I know if I don’t surf regularly or it’s not good or I’m too busy I’m not as energetic or happy..But surfing always brings it back.

  • Sunova Surfboards Australasia

    ah….i’m a ‘scientist & unless you can prove this to me ill never try surfing..and everyone kows salt is terribly bad for you so that’s that for the ocean…& those ion thingys. signed dr no

  • Ted Vitale

    Hi, The research link is dead. Could you update the link or send me an updated research link, I would be interested in some more in depth reading about the subject.

  • http://www.climatewave.com/ Greg Howell

    Hang on a minute Bridget that doesn’t explain the high level of discomfort when the onshore wind is blowing a gale.