What Are Endorphins?

Endorphins are your body’s natural pain relievers. These neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers in the brain, are also responsible for feelings of pleasure we can get after certain activities like hiking or running, eating chocolate, and laughing with friends.

Portrait of happy woman embracing girls at home

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Role in the Body

Endorphins help your body avoid pain and increase feelings of pleasure. A healthy brain signals the release of endorphins during moments of shock, freeze, “fight or flight,” trauma and stress, or physical pain. They can then bind to receptors in the nervous system and inhibit or slow the release of proteins involved in pain signaling.

This process also increases dopamine levels. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure responses.

Deficiency

There are both genetic and non-genetic factors that can contribute to endorphin deficiency. Some conditions associated with endorphin deficiency are:

  • Anxiety
  • Substance use disorders
  • Depression
  • Chronic migraine
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Sleep-wake issues

Some drugs stimulate the release of endorphins. This is the case with alcohol and opioid medications. Long-term use of these medications, however, can cause levels to decrease as time goes on. There is a high potential for heightened sensitivity to pain as a result.

Treatment

Antidepressants may offer relief if you’re struggling with endorphin deficiency. You ideally want to find a medication that acts on the neurotransmitters that are desensitized, meaning they are exhausted due to overstimulation or not working properly.

People with depression have characteristically low levels of these neurotransmitters:

  • Dopamine, which plays a role in signaling pleasure and reward
  • Norepinephrine, which influences how the body reacts to stress
  • Serotonin, which regulates mood, appetite, and sexual desire

Serotonin also modulates your body temperature and plays a role in uterine contraction, breathing, blood pressure, and gastrointestinal health.

If you’re consuming a combination of medications or recreational drugs that work on your serotonin receptors, you could experience serotonin syndrome, which can be fatal.

Benefits

More research in humans is needed for the benefits in humans to be confirmed, but this is what we know so far. 

Reduce Stress and Anxiety

Healthy levels of endorphins work to reduce stress and anxiety. One study in male and female mice found a direct relationship between endorphin levels and anxious behavior, suggesting the endorphins moderate mice response to stressful stimuli.

Regulate Other Hormones

Endorphins also influence other hormones like oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone.” More research on humans is needed since there are mixed results on the exact impact of oxytocin on sexuality and romantic relationships.

Lower Pain

The pain-relieving effects of endorphins are not really well understood, so they have been mostly explained from an evolutionary standpoint. In other words, your survival depends on staying away from things that can cause pain and being rewarded by your internal system for everyday activities like eating, drinking, and exercising.  

Boost Self-Esteem

When endorphins are released, we feel good about ourselves, and this helps boost confidence in the moment and in the future. It doesn’t have to be exercise- or food-related either.

Helps With Mental Disorders

Endorphins can also potentially help with other mental disorders like schizophrenia. One study of 70 patients treated with various antipsychotics and with severe symptoms of schizophrenia found normalizing endorphins to be part of the antipsychotic treatment.

How to Increase Endorphins Naturally

Naturally increasing endorphins comes down to doing more things that increase your sense of well-being.

Exercise

A 2016 study measured endorphins in 30 moderately depressed males who participated in an exercise program. It found that endorphin levels for the moderate- to high-intensity workout groups increased. However, the study authors noted the difficulty in accurately measuring endorphins as a limitation of the findings.

The effects may be even better if you exercise with others. A small study of 15 non-smoking male rowing athletes found that power output and pain thresholds increased in the group working out together compared with those who worked out alone.

Acupuncture

A review study found that visceral or deep inward feelings of pain were significantly alleviated by acupuncture treatment compared to non-treatment groups. This may be related to changes in levels of endorphins and certain hormones such as the stress hormone cortisol.

Laughing

Relaxed social laughter is a form of nonverbal communication that has been both observed and experimentally tested to be associated with increased feelings of well-being and a higher threshold for pain. Six studies where people either watched videos or stage performances demonstrated significantly increased pain threshold after laughter.

Creative Activities 

The act of creating things whether it be music, poetry, prose, or paintings can increase your endorphin levels and improve your sense of well-being.

Try beginning with something you enjoyed as a child, if applicable, or something you had always wanted to do but never thought was worth the investment (time, effort, or financial). It is! 

Endorphins vs. Dopamine

Endorphins are associated with making you happy, but so is dopamine. So, what’s the difference? 

Well, the two are related but certainly not the same. Endorphins are polypeptides made by the pituitary gland and the central nervous system (CNS) to help you deal with stress and regulate pain, as well as influence feelings of pleasure. This is where the confusion with dopamine sometimes occurs. 

When endorphins bind to the opioid receptors in the CNS, dopamine is released and you feel pleasure. Endorphins then can be considered precursors to dopamine. Any issue with endorphin function can then directly impact your body’s release of dopamine. Dopamine is synthesized or created from an amino acid in the brain. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What do endorphins feel like?

Endorphins are in general associated with feelings of pleasure, euphoria, excitement, and well-being. You may experience these as a rush of feelings or a sense of calmness depending on your endorphin levels and activities. 

How long do endorphins last?

It depends on many factors, and only you know when the endorphin rush is really over. One small study found 22 participants experienced endorphin-related euphoric feelings after one hour of moderate-intensity exercise.

How do you release endorphins with pressure points?

Acupuncture is one way to release endorphins with pressure points. A professional inserts extremely fine needles into pressure points to release endorphins. At home and without needles, you can also press on or pinch your pressure points to help ease stress. This is known as acupressure.

Summary

Endorphins are neurotransmitters responsible for making you feel happy. They can also alleviate the feeling of pain and anxiety or stress. Endorphins may help with some mental disorders like schizophrenia. There are many ways to boost your endorphin levels naturally, such as exercising, acupuncture, and engaging in creative activities.

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