Endorphins are chemicals (hormones) your body releases when it feels pain or stress. They’re released during pleasurable activities such as exercise, massage, eating, and sex too. Endorphins help relieve pain, reduce stress, and improve your sense of well-being.
Endorphins are created in your pituitary gland and hypothalamus, both located in the brain. Endorphins are a type of neurotransmitter or messenger in your body. They attach to your brain’s reward centers (opioid receptors) and carry signals across your nervous system. In this article, we shall discuss endorphins: functions, levels, and natural boosts.
Endorphin comes from the words “endogenous,” which means within the body, and “morphine,” an opiate pain reliever. Put together, that means endorphins are natural pain relievers. They are “feel-good” chemicals because they can make you feel better and put you in a positive state of mind
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What Endorphins Do
Endorphins are a group of peptides produced by your pituitary gland and central nervous system. These neurotransmitters (also sometimes thought of as hormones) act on the opiate receptors in your brain to increase feelings of pleasure and well-being and reduce pain and discomfort.
“Endorphins” comes from two words: endogenous (coming from the body) and morphine (the opiate pain reliever).
A specific event such as eating a certain food, engaging in exercise, engaging in sexual intercourse, facing a stressful situation, or experiencing something physically painful can trigger a rush of endorphins. For example, if you were jogging in the woods and sprained your ankle, you might experience an increase in endorphins that would help you limp out of the forest to safety despite your injury.
Endorphins might explain why a group of people could lift a heavy vehicle off of an injured pedestrian when they might not be able to do so under normal circumstances.
Endorphins are helpful and adaptive—nature’s way of helping us avoid feeling pain and moving us toward feelings of pleasure. Without endorphins, the world would seem a lot less colorful and your joie de vivre would seem to be missing.
Researchers have identified 20 types, but beta-endorphins are the most commonly explored. They contribute to well-being and pain relief, producing effects similar to those of the pain drug morphine.
Benefits of Endorphins
Endorphins have many positive effects. Imagine that you are bitten by a snake, yet you feel no pain. That’s because endorphins have a protective effect that helps you to cope with the stress of the situation.
The many other benefits of endorphins include:
- Reduced depression
- Reduced anxiety
- Improved self-esteem
- Regulation or modulation of appetite
- Enhanced immune response
- Reduced pain
A 45-minute workout at moderate intensity three times per week may be a good first option for those living with mild depression.
Effects of Low Endorphins
On the other hand, if your endorphin levels are too low, you may experience:
- Increased depression
- Increased anxiety
- More mood swings
- Increased aches and pains
- Problems with addiction
- Problems with sleeping
Stress, such as abuse early in life, can impair your ability to create endorphins.
Endorphins vs. Dopamine
Whereas endorphins are neurotransmitters that help you cope with pain and stress, dopamine is a mood- and motivation-boosting neurotransmitter that’s involved in the reward circuit in your brain.
High endorphin levels can boost dopamine production. They’re connected in the system that promotes action toward rewards and the good feelings that result.
For example, you might feel motivated to participate in a marathon because of your dopamine reward system. The endorphins released during the run enhance the effect. Think of endorphins as the in-the-moment feelings and dopamine as the afterglow.
Endorphins vs. Opioids
Both endorphins and opioids can help reduce pain and other symptoms, but their other effects are quite different.
Morphine, fentanyl, and other opioid drugs work on the same pain receptors involved in your brain’s endorphin system. When you take opioids, your brain releases more dopamine.
However, taking opioids over a long period can cause tolerance and physical and/or psychological dependence. This opioid use disorder can cause you to withdraw emotionally and socially, and to lose interest in rewarding activities such as eating and sex. This is because opioids satisfy the brain’s natural reward system, eliminating the need to find normal ways to feel positive. For example, you might stop socializing because the effects of the medication have replaced your need to form social bonds.
An estimated 8% to 12% of people in the U.S. who are prescribed opioids develop a use disorder. Of those, an estimated 4% to 6% eventually turn to heroin, which is derived from morphine.
Opioid withdrawal can mimic grief and cause depression, irritability, periods of crying loss of appetite, and insomnia.
In contrast, people don’t build a tolerance to natural endorphins; you don’t need ever-increasing amounts from normal activities (e.g., exercise, sex, eating, socializing) to achieve the same level of well-being.
However, some people so crave an endorphin rush that they seek out unhealthy ways to achieve it. Examples include:
- Self-harm. People who self-harm sometimes do so to experience an endorphin rush, typically to relieve anxiety or other unpleasant feelings. They’re unable to stop because they crave this emotional release.
- Exercise addiction. Regular exercise is helpful, but excessive, obsessive working out can indicate an addiction to the resulting endorphins.
- Socialization. Endorphins are also released when we form social bonds. A person who naturally experiences high endorphin levels when socializing could turn to unhealthy or dangerous ways of pursuing it.
How to Increase Endorphin Levels
You can boost your endorphins in other ways besides running a marathon or doing something outrageous. Here are a few research-supported activities to try:
- Eat dark chocolate.
- Exercise moderately for at least 45 minutes, three times a week.
- Have sex.
- Create or listen to music.
- Create or enjoy art.
- Get acupuncture.
- Eat spicy food.
- Get a massage.
- Sit in a sauna.
- Use aromatherapy.
- Watch a TV drama.
- Spend time with friends.
In summary, following these suggestions will give you a good start toward optimizing your endorphin levels, thus boosting your pain tolerance and general well-being.
Endorphin levels and responses vary greatly among people, so you’re the best judge of how you feel. If your mood is low and nothing is working to improve it, you might be facing depression or a related illness. In that case, an appointment with your doctor is crucial; they’ll diagnose the underlying problem and formulate a treatment plan to help you feel better.
I hope you find this article helpful as well as interesting.