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 and other important functions throughout the body. Endorphins, of which there are at least 300 different known types, are neurotransmitters that occur naturally in the brain and have been linked to happiness, contentment, and a sense of well-being.

The release of endorphins is triggered by a variety of different circumstances, from pain to 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 induces feelings of euphoria, 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 irregular and eventually cease, changes in the hormonal balance can lead to disruptive and/or uncomfortable symptoms for many women. These include:

  • Hot flashes
  • Night sweats
  • Weight gain 
  • Mood swings
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Irritability
  • Depression/anxiety
  • Fatigue

Like estrogen and progesterone, endorphins have been found to play a role in many of these symptoms. A class of neurotransmitters known as catecholamines are also involved in the stress response. They can affect thermoregulation (hence hot flashes) and an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system. 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 athletes who run long distances have described feeling a pleasurable sense of euphoria. This phenomenon can be attributed to endorphins released during strenuous exercise.

Physical activity can also help with hot flashes through the release of endogenous endorphins, which occurs when a person has a vigorous episode of exercise. Physical activity has been shown to contribute toward a healthy lifestyle, slower aging and disease prevention. In addition, it helps balance hormones through the release of endorphins, thereby having a positive impact on menopausal symptoms.

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. In fact, the relationship between exercise and endorphin secretion has led many researchers to investigate exercise as a treatment for patients with clinical depression.

Other Activities That Promote Endorphin Secretion

Some studies have found that acupuncture, massage, and meditation can be effective in triggering endorphin release. Sex is also a known mechanism for releasing endorphins. In addition to the benefits of symptom reduction via exercise, the other health benefits of exercise will also ensure a healthy menopausal transition.

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