The Role of Endorphins in Menopause

Menopause can be a time of major upheaval for some women, while others coast through the transition completely unfazed. Most women and even men blame the changing hormonal balance that leads to the end of the childbearing years for any symptoms. What many don't realize, however, is that there is a complex interplay between these hormones and many other chemicals that impact the body and brain.

Woman exercising
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What Are Endorphins?

Neurotransmitters, a category of chemicals that exist within the nervous system and serve as messengers to relay information, can affect everything from mood, sleep, and concentration, to weight regulation, immune functioning, and other important functions throughout the body.

Endorphins are neurotransmitters that occur naturally in the brain, and their main function is to block the perception of pain. They also induce feelings of euphoria, and have also been linked to happiness, contentment, and a sense of well-being.

The release of endorphins is triggered by a variety of different circumstances, such as pain, stress, and exercise. Even eating certain foods, such as chocolate or spicy peppers, can induce endorphin secretion, which might explain why some people crave chocolate during stressful times.

Endorphins interact with opiate receptors in the brain to modulate how people experience pain, similar to drugs designed to achieve the same goal such as morphine and codeine. Secretion of endorphins also controls appetite, and plays a role in the careful balance of sex hormones, as well as immunity.

Endorphins and Menopause

During menopause, when reduced levels of estrogen and progesterone lead to periods that are irregular and eventually cease, changes in the hormonal balance can lead to disruptive and/or uncomfortable symptoms for many women. These include:

Hot flashes are one of the main complaints of middle aged women who are peri-menopausal and post-menopausal. Hot flashes have long been associated with a decrease in estrogen; however, scientists believe there is more to the story.

A class of neurotransmitters known as catecholamines (epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine) are involved in the body's stress response. Specifically, norepinephrine affects thermoregulation and can cause release of cortisol, mineralocorticoids, beta-endorphins, and luteinizing hormone. Studies have shows that women who have higher levels of norepinephrine metabolites also have significantly more hot flashes. Also medications that reduce norepinephrine, such as clonidine, have been found to reduce hot flashes.

Like estrogen and progesterone, endorphins have been found to play a role in many of these menopausal symptoms. Studies have found that menopausal women have lower levels of endorphins than menstruating women and that endorphins drop just before a hot flash and then rise steadily in the 15 minutes following.

Increasing Endorphins Through Exercise

Many people have heard of a "runner's high," in which some athletes who run long distances have described feeling a pleasurable sense of euphoria. This phenomenon has long been hypothesized to be linked to the release of endorphins during strenuous exercise.

Generally speaking, physical activity has been shown to contribute toward a healthy lifestyle, slower aging, and disease prevention. In particular, exercise that elevates the heart rate, such as cardiovascular activities, trigger the release of endorphins, as well as improves circulation and oxygen flow throughout the body.

Endorphins also help regulate mood symptoms, which can be problematic during menopause. In fact, the relationship between exercise and endorphin secretion has led many researchers to investigate exercise as a treatment for patients with clinical depression and anxiety, with positive outcomes.

Research has also focused on the impact of exercise on hot flashes. Most studies have found that physical activity raises the body's core temperature, and thereby triggers even more hot flashes. One study showed a positive result with vigorous aerobic exercise, but more research is needed in this area.

Overall, the benefits of symptom reduction via exercise, the other health benefits of exercise will help ensure a healthy menopausal transition.

Other Activities That Promote Endorphin Secretion

Some studies have found that acupuncture, massage, and meditation can be effective in triggering endorphin release. Sex, laughter, and listening to music is also a known mechanism for releasing endorphins.

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Additional Reading

By Kate Bracy, RN, NP
Kate Bracy, RN, MS, NP, is a registered nurse and certified nurse practitioner who specializes in women's health and family planning.