Endorphins are chemicals produced naturally by the nervous system to cope with pain or stress. They are often called “feel-good” chemicals because they can act as a pain reliever and happiness booster.
Endorphins are primarily made in the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, though they may come from other parts of the body as well. The well-known “runner’s high” that is felt after lengthy, vigorous exercise is due to an increase in endorphin levels.
What are endorphins?
Ever feel amazing after a good, hard work out? You may have heard that your “high” is caused by tiny neurochemicals released by your body. These neurochemicals are called endorphins. While endorphins might make you feel good after a long jog, there’s a lot more to know about the role they play in regulating your body.
The word endorphin comes from putting together the words “endogenous,” meaning from within the body, and “morphine,” which is an opiate pain reliever. In other words, endorphins got their name because they are natural pain relievers.
Endorphins consist of a large group of peptides. They are produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland. Since endorphins act on the opiate receptors in our brains, they reduce pain and boost pleasure, resulting in a feeling of well-being. Endorphins are released in response to pain or stress, but they’re also released during other activities, like eating, exercise, or sex.
Endorphins are chemicals produced by the body to relieve stress and pain. They work similarly to a class of drugs called opioids.
Opioids relieve pain and can produce a feeling of euphoria. They are sometimes prescribed for short-term use after surgery or for pain relief.
In the 1980s, scientists were studying how and why opioids worked. They found that the body has special receptors that bind to opioids to block pain signals.
The scientists then realized that some chemicals in the body acted similarly to natural opioid medications, binding to these same receptors. These chemicals were endorphins.
The name endorphin comes from the words “endogenous,” which means “from the body,” and “morphine,” which is an opioid pain reliever.
The level of endorphins in the human body varies from person to person. People who have lower levels may be more likely to have depression or fibromyalgia, but more research is needed in this area.
Some of the more common opioid drugs include:
Some illegal drugs, such as heroin, are also opioids. Both legal and illegal opioid medications have a high risk of causing addiction, overdose, and death.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse state that 90 people die each day in the United States from an opioid overdose. Many of these are a result of overdosing or misusing prescription opioids.
Opioid abuse and overdose have become such a serious problem that the National Institutes of Health have declared it a crisis. Medical experts are now looking into safe and effective pain relievers without opioids.
Natural endorphins work similarly to opioid pain relievers, but their results may not be as dramatic. However, endorphins can produce a “high” that is both healthy and safe, without the risk of addiction and overdose.
Types Of Endorphins
Endorphins (contracted from “endogenous morphine”) are endogenous opioid neuropeptides and peptide hormones in humans and other animals. They are produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland.
The term “endorphins” implies a pharmacological activity (analogous to the activity of the corticosteroid category of biochemicals) as opposed to a specific chemical formulation.
It consists of two parts: endo- and -orphin; these are short forms of the words endogenous and morphine, intended to mean “a morphine-like substance originating from within the body”.
The class of endorphins includes three compounds—α-endorphin (alpha endorphins), β-endorphin (beta-endorphins), and γ-endorphin (gamma endorphins)—which preferentially bind to μ-opioid receptors. The principal function of endorphins is to inhibit the communication of pain signals; they may also produce a feeling of euphoria very similar to those produced by other opioids.
The class of endorphins includes three endogenous opioid peptides:
The smallest fragment in the family and is composed of 16 amino acids. They are the same as the first 16 amino acids as the β-endorphin. The sequenced protein has been shown to be: Tyr-Gly-Gly-Phe-Met-Thr-Ser-Glu-Lys-Ser-Gln-Thr-Pro-Leu-Val-Thr-OH.
The longest fragment in the family and is composed of 31 amino acids. The sequence has been shown to be: Tyr-Gly-Gly-Phe-Met-Thr-Ser-Glu-Lys-Ser-Gln-Thr-Pro-Leu-Val-Thr-Leu-Phe-Lys-Asn-Ala-Ile-Ile-Lys-Asn-Ala-Tyr-Lys-Lys-Gly-Glu.
the second-longest fragment and is composed of 17 amino acids. It also matches the first 17 amino Acids of β-endorphin. The sequence has been shown to be: Tyr-Gly-Gly-Phe-Met-Thr-Ser-Glu-Lys-Ser-Gln-Thr-Pro-Leu-Val-Thr-Leu-OH.
What is the purpose of endorphins?
Not all of the roles endorphins play in the body are completely understood. We do know that endorphins are important to reduce pain and enhance pleasure.
Endorphins are involved in our natural reward circuits and are related to important activities like eating, drinking, physical fitness, and sexual intercourse. Endorphins also surge during pregnancy. They minimize discomfort and pain and maximize pleasure. This helps us to continue functioning despite injury or stress.
Since humans naturally seek to feel pleasure and avoid pain, we’re more likely to do an activity if it makes us feel good. From an evolutionary standpoint, this helps ensure survival.
Humans are social creatures, and we thrive in communities. Endorphins have been shown to also help reinforce social attachments. While this may not be entirely true anymore, in early human history, people who stuck together in social groups were better able to survive and reproduce.
Symptoms of Endorphin
Endorphin deficiency isn’t well understood. In general, if your body isn’t producing enough endorphins, you might experience:
- aches and pains
- trouble sleeping
- impulsive behavior
How to Naturally Boost Endorphins
You don’t have to run an entire marathon to experience the pleasurable effects of an endorphin release. Your body also produces endorphins naturally when you do the following:
- eat something spicy
- create music or art
- get a massage
- take a sauna
- exercise (any form of exercise will do, but exercising in a group is even better)
- try some aromatherapy
- have s*x
- get acupuncture
- eat dark chocolate
- have a glass of wine
- enjoy your favorite dish
Best Ways to Instantly Boost Your Endorphins
Everyone’s heard of runner’s high, the overwhelming sense of ecstasy you feel when you run really hard. Endorphins are responsible your brain naturally produces these neurotransmitters in response to pain or extreme exertion to take the edge off and generally make you feel amazing.
The following activities show promise as ways to naturally increase endorphins. However, endorphin levels vary between individuals, so results will also vary.
For years, researchers suspected that endorphins caused the so-called “runner’s high,” a feeling of euphoria that happens after lengthy, vigorous physical activity.
However, measuring endorphins in humans was not possible until 2008, when new imaging technology became available.
Researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to view the athlete’s brains both before and after exercise. They found an increase in the release of endorphins after exercise.
As exercise boosts mood and increases endorphins, some medical professionals prescribe regular exercise as a treatment for mild to moderate depression and anxiety.
Exercise can be used safely in conjunction with other treatments, such as medications or therapy, and can also be used alone. One study states that exercise can improve some symptoms of depression, similarly to antidepressants.
Volunteering, donating, and helping others may also make a person feel good? Researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that people who gave money to charity activated pleasure centers in their brains. This may lead to improved endorphin levels.
It should come as no surprise that sex releases a flood of endorphins plus a cocktail of other feel-good brain chemicals, like the love hormone oxytocin, which makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. “It’s cheap therapy!” Lombardo says.
Yoga and meditation
Meditation and yoga are known for their stress-relieving and relaxing effects. This may be partially due to an endorphin release. Some research suggests that yoga and meditation can decrease stress markers and increase endorphins.
Take a group fitness class.
A small British study found that athletes who rowed together could tolerate twice as much pain (a sign that endorphins are present) as athletes who rowed alone. Work out with others to improve your endorphin flow.
People who enjoy spicy foods may find that they can get an additional boost from their favorite dishes. Some research suggests that the spicy components in hot peppers and similar foods may trigger a pain sensation in the mouth, which prompts an increase in endorphins.
Spike your drink.
Is it the healthiest habit? Nope. But they call it happy hour for a reason: When you imbibe, your brain releases endorphins in areas of your brain that are responsible for pleasure and reward, according to a 2012 study published in Science Translational Medicine.
Just don’t party too hard: While a little bit of alcohol can stimulate endorphin production, drinking too much (or taking actual opiates) provide the artificial pleasure that makes make your brain think it’s OK to take a break from producing endorphins, which kills your natural buzz, Lombardo says.
Eat your very favorite food.
Research suggests that chocolate’s not the only food that can produce pleasure. All palatable foods make your brain release endorphins to elevate your mood. Hey French fries, hey!
Eat hot peppers.
Even if you love the taste of spicy foods, your body senses the heat and responds the same way it responds to pain. Enter, endorphins!
If Spotify brings you pleasure, listen to this: Your brain spews out even more endorphins when you actively take part in creating music. If you’re not a classically trained musician (just guessing here), tap, hum, or dance along to your favorite tunes. Karaoke, anyone?
Unwrap, enjoy, and repeat, because cocoa contains mood-boosting substances such as phenethylamine, an organic compound that gives your body an endorphin boost, and the bromine, a chemical that suppresses pain so you can feel more pleasure, according to some studies.
Research from 2013 suggests that eating dark chocolate could boost endorphin levels. Cocoa powder and chocolate contain chemicals called flavonoids that appear to be beneficial to the brain.
A 2017 review found that eating chocolate may help boost endorphins. However, many commercial chocolate products contain only small amounts of real cocoa and often contain generous amounts of added sugar and fat.
People looking to use chocolate to improve endorphin levels and mood should look for products that contain at least 70 percent cocoa and eat chocolate in moderation due to its high calorie and fat content.
Spritz lavender on your pillow everywhere.
In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Caring Sciences, women who sniffed lavender essence before IUD insertion reported less anxiety than women who sniffed a placebo. The study authors say aromatherapy makes nerve cells release a mix of neurotransmitters, including (You guessed it!) endorphins.
Plenty of research has been written about the health benefits of laughter, and studies suggest that laughing increases endorphins.
Why would anyone in their right mind want to be repeatedly poked with needles? Research suggests the pain sends a message straight to the brain, which releases endorphins as a remedy.
What are the benefits of endorphins?
By promoting an overall sense of well-being, endorphins have many benefits, including:
Nearly one in five people will experience depression at some point during their lifetimes. Many studies have looked at exercise in reducing the symptoms of depression, and the majority of these studies have shown a positive benefit associated with exercise. More research is needed to further understand the role that endorphins have in treating depression.
Reducing stress and anxiety
Endorphins may play an important role in reducing stress and anxiety. A study in mice showed a direct relationship between endorphin levels and anxious behavior in mice. More research studies in humans are needed.
Boosting your self-esteem
Positive feelings also make you feel confident and optimistic, thus giving your self-esteem a boost. In one small study, endorphins were associated with high self-esteem in a small group of men. Much larger studies are needed.
Reducing your weight
The role of endorphins and other hormones in regulating your appetite and food intake is complex. While eating good food is thought to increase endorphin levels, higher levels of endorphins have also been shown in animal studies to help regulate the appetite. More research in humans is needed to clarify these effects.
Helping you deal with pain during childbirth
Childbirth can be an incredibly rewarding, yet incredibly painful experience. Endorphins can make labor a bit easier. A small study in 45 healthy women giving birth found that low levels of beta-endorphin at the end of pregnancy were associated with a need for additional pain treatment medications during labor. Additional research is needed to determine the exact cause and effect.
Other Ways to Release Endorphins
Sniff some vanilla or lavender
Certain aromas can lift your mood by influencing the production of endorphins—the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals. For example, the scent of vanilla can help release endorphins and reduce anxiety, which is often associated with depression.
Take a little ginseng
Ginseng may benefit people who are feeling fatigued and over-stressed and those recovering from a long illness. The herb has been shown to balance the release of stress hormones in the body and support the organs that produce these hormones. It may also help release endorphins.
There is some scientific evidence that ginseng improves mental performance, including memory and concentration, and is useful in reducing blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Other benefits may include treating some cardiovascular conditions (including high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema, chronic bronchitis) and bothersome menopausal symptoms.
Animal studies suggest it helps protect nerves from damage (including damage due to diabetes), helps the liver restore itself after damage, aids digestion and protects the stomach against ulcers caused by too much acid or aspirin.
Take a group exercise class
Group exercise has some distinct advantages, according to a recent study. Not only will friends spur you on if you’re flagging, but the shared effort may give your endorphin levels an extra boost. Researchers in 2009 found that college crews who rowed in synchronization had an increased rush of these feel-good hormones compared with those who rowed alone. But all exercise is good, whether solitary or with others. Try walking, dancing, aerobics and running to transport yourself into a trance-like state. The rhythm of continuous exercise releases endorphins and encourages reflective thought.
Seek out daily laughter
It’s been observed that children laugh about 300 times a day, whereas adults laugh, on average, only about five times each day. The more we laugh, the better our perspective. Problems also seem to shrink, bringing an increased sense of energy.
Laughter is sometimes described as “inner jogging.” Research has shown that it can help to lower blood pressure; reduce stress hormones; boost immune function by raising levels of infection-fighting cells; release endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers; and produce a general sense of wellbeing.
There really is something to the saying “It’s better to give than to receive.” A National Institute of Health study had 19 women lie in fMRI scanners while choosing or being told to give away portions of the $100 researchers gave them. Even though volunteers could have kept the money at the end of the session, the pleasure centers in their brains lit up when they gave money away, whether it was voluntary or not.
What’s more, “people experience even more brain activation when they give voluntarily,” lead study author and University of Oregon economics professor Bill Herbage said in a statement. Donate to your favorite cause, or treat a friend next time you meet up for coffee.
Go for a run
Turns out your friends weren’t kidding when they gushed about a “runner’s high.” A small German study found that after a two-hour jog, athletes had higher levels of endorphins in their brains than they did before the run. They could feel the results, too; the volunteers reported a boost in euphoria and happiness ratings after exercise. Plus, a Canadian mouse study found a link between running and dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure centers.
Low endorphins and health conditions
When endorphin levels are too low, a person’s health may be negatively affected. Research into the link between endorphins and health conditions is ongoing.
Some studies have shown a possible link between the following health problems and low endorphin levels:
Without enough endorphins, a person may be more likely to have depression. An article in the American Journal of Psychiatry discusses the long-standing use of opioid treatments for depression, particularly in cases where other treatments have not worked.
Common symptoms of fibromyalgia include:
- long-term pain throughout the body
- tender spots that hurt when they are touched
- muscle stiffness
- fatigue and low energy
- sleep problems
People with fibromyalgia may have lower than normal endorphin levels. One study found that people with fibromyalgia had lower levels of endorphins than those without the condition. They measured endorphins both before and after exercise.
Another study found that increases in the body’s endorphins were correlated with pain relief in people with fibromyalgia.
People with fibromyalgia may be advised to do certain activities to boost endorphins, such as exercise, connecting with others, and stress-relieving activities, such as yoga. They may also be prescribed medications to help with symptoms.
One possible cause of ongoing headaches is abnormal endorphin levels. Some research suggests that the same endorphin imbalance that contributes to depression is also present in people who have chronic headaches.
Endorphins and Emotions
Endorphins block pain, but they’re also responsible for our feelings of pleasure. It’s widely believed that these feelings of pleasure exist to let us know when we’ve had enough of a good thing — like food, sex or even companionship — and also to encourage us to go after that good thing in order to feel the associated pleasure.
The majority of your emotions (and memories) are processed by your brain’s limbic system, which includes the hypothalamus, the region that handles a range of functions from breathing and sexual satisfaction to hunger and emotional response.
The limbic system is also rich with opioid receptors. When endorphins reach the opioid receptors of the highly emotional limbic system, and — if everything is working normally — you experience pleasure and a sense of satisfaction.
Intriguingly, endorphins (or a lack thereof) may be responsible for certain forms of mental illness such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. When you, the average person, are washing your hands, there’s a point when you register that the task has been satisfactorily completed. If endorphins are at least partly responsible for saying “when,” a person who doesn’t have enough may never receive the mental cue to stop washing his or her hands and will continue until that signal is received.
It’s been theorized that problems with endorphin production or the binding process may be responsible for clinical depression or sudden shifts in emotions. Some people who engage in self-hurting behaviors may do so in part to feel the feelings of euphoria and emotional isolation that can — for them — be prompted by controlled amounts of self-inflicted pain.
Endorphins may also be responsible for heightened states of rage or anxiety. If your endorphins overdo their job or the hypothalamus misreads the endorphin cue, you could be flooded with “fight-or-flight” hormones at the slightest hint of trouble or worry.
Endorphins affect us as codeine or morphine do but without the addiction. Regular users of opiates generally aren’t models of emotional stability, and steady, controlled endorphin release is something of a pipe dream. Making matters worse, some of us have brains that act like ambitious drug dealers, and others of us only dabble now and then. This variation can help explain why one person reacts differently from another to the same stimulus.
Endorphins have a leg up on opiates, however. Endorphins may be responsible for the “placebo effect,” owing to the real response of endorphin-release prompted by a tricked hypothalamus, creating a sense of well-being after consuming a much-hyped sugar pill, or even after simply anticipating something pleasurable.
Natural Pain and Stress Fighters Of Endorphins
Endorphins are among the brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters, which function to transmit electrical signals within the nervous system. At least 20 types of endorphins have been demonstrated in humans. Endorphins can be found in the pituitary gland, in other parts of the brain, or distributed throughout the nervous system.
Stress and pain are the two most common factors leading to the release of endorphins. Endorphins interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain and act similarly to drugs such as morphine and codeine. In contrast to the opiate drugs, however, activation of the opiate receptors by the body’s endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence.
In addition to decreased feelings of pain, secretion of endorphins leads to feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite, the release of sex hormones, and enhancement of the immune response. With high endorphin levels, we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress.
Endorphins have been suggested as modulators of the so-called “runner’s high” that athletes achieve with prolonged exercise. While the role of endorphins and other compounds as potential triggers of this euphoric response has been debated extensively by doctors and scientists, it is at least known that the body does produce endorphins in response to prolonged, continuous exercise.
Endorphin release varies among individuals. This means that two people who exercise at the same level or suffer the same degree of pain will not necessarily produce similar levels of endorphins. Certain foods, such as chocolate or chili peppers, can also lead to enhanced secretion of endorphins.
In the case of chili peppers, the spicier the pepper, the more endorphins are secreted. The release of endorphins upon the ingestion of chocolate likely explains the comforting feelings that many people associate with this food and the craving for chocolate in times of stress.
Even if you don’t participate in strenuous athletics, you can also try various activities to increase your body’s endorphin levels. Studies of acupuncture and massage therapy have shown that both of these techniques can stimulate endorphin secretion. Sex is also a potent trigger for endorphin release. Finally, the practice of meditation can increase the number of endorphins released in your body.
The science of human endorphin levels is still evolving, as researchers continue to study this chemical and how it affects overall health.
People who have symptoms of depression, fibromyalgia, or chronic headaches may wish to talk to a doctor about endorphin levels and ways they can increase them, in addition to their regular treatment options.
While endorphins are not a “cure-all” or a guarantee of good health, boosting endorphins may be an effective way to increase overall well-being.
Regular exercise, stress reduction, and giving to others are well-known “feel-good” activities that can help a person live a healthier and happier life.
The endorphin “high” is a pleasant bonus that may help a person stick to these good habits.