Endorphins: Learn everything you need to know about the feel-good chemicals
Endorphins is a word you have probably heard of, but do you know what it means? Whether it is the feeling of riding a roller coaster, the relaxation after an intense workout or simply laughing, in all three activities, chemicals flood your body called endorphins which are responsible for the pleasant feelings. Contrary to taking drugs that also provide us with short-term bliss, the feeling the release of endorphins brings is completely natural and most importantly: non-addictive and for free!
This article will give you a basic understanding of these feel-good chemicals called endorphins and will provide tips how you can easily boost your endorphin levels in everyday life.
What are Endorphins?
The word “endorphin” originates from the two words “endogenous” meaning from within the body, and “morphine”, which is a pain reliever. In other words, they are natural pain relievers secreted by your own body.
Endorphins are produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland. As they are capable of acting on the opiate receptors, which are responsible for the transmission of pain, endorphins can reduce feelings of pain and a boost of pleasure resulting in a state of well-being. Examples, when these chemicals are released, include activities like eating, sex or exercise.
How are they produced?
Though all endorphins bind to the same opiate receptor, they differ in their number and types of amino acids in their molecules (between 16 and 31 amino acids in each molecule). All endorphins initially arise from a single gene which translates the protein named proopiomelanocortin (or POMC). To produce an active type of endorphin (which produces effects), enzymes cleave the large protein into active subunits at different sites. The experts differentiate between alpha, beta, gamma and sigma endorphins. The beta-endorphin was identified to produce the biggest pain-relieving effects and are found in neurons of both the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system.
Endorphins: The effects on the body
Endorphins belong to the group of neuromodulators which alter the release of neurotransmitter, the chemical messengers in the brain transmitting electrical signals within our nervous system. Endorphins however not only are found in the brain where they are produced, but they are distributed throughout the nervous system. A high concentration is found in the pituitary gland. As they act on the opiate receptors, feelings of pain are reduced, similarly to morphine or codeine. The good news for endorphins is the fact that addiction as to morphine is generally not developed. The effects of endorphins, however, are not only pain-related. Fewer negative effects of stress are also reported and additionally, those neurotransmitters are thought to contribute to exercise-induced euphoria, the so-called “runners-high”. This refers to the well-being athletes achieve with prolonged exercise.
Endorphins: Psychological effects
The reduction of stress is only one of many positive effects that the release of endorphins brings. Especially during an aerobic workout, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the regular release of endorphins achieved by exercise is helpful in maintaining mental fitness. Individuals will experience decreased levels of fatigue, improvements in alertness and concentration and enhance cognitive function.
Other long-term benefits include decreased levels of tension, elevating mood, improved quality of sleep and higher self-esteem. Even a 5 minutes workout is enough to stimulate anti-anxiety effects. The reason why endorphins possess anxiolytic effects is down to the release of other neurotransmitters, mainly dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Dopamine and serotonin play an important role in mood regulation and the release of these chemicals is primarily triggered by medication possessing the characteristics of antidepressants. Oxytocin is considered the “love” hormone, as it helps humans bond with each other. An elevation of this chemical is observed during sex, hugging and breastfeeding.
However, physical exercise is not the only factor contributing to the release of endorphins. Meditation, acupuncture, massage therapy and controlled breathing also have proven to contribute to a higher concentration of those chemicals.
Endorphins: How is pain reduced?
In order to know how the sensation of pain can be reduced, we will first take a look at the pain pathway in general.
The sensation of touch is caused by so-called mechanoreceptors that are both sensitive to pressure and light. It is them that send signals to the central nervous system responsible for feeling a tactile sensation. If the pressure applied to the skin and therefore on the mechanoreceptors is too strong, the nociceptors, or pain receptors, take over. The nociceptors are found nearly everywhere in the body (except the brain). Those nociceptors release a bunch of chemicals, an “inflammatory soup”. Substance P is one of the major chemical released by the nociceptors which contributes to even more activation of the nociceptors.
The positive characteristic of endorphins aside from it being naturally produced is the reduction of the substance P release which leads to less activation of nociceptors and therefore a lower perception of painful stimuli.
Role of endorphins in depersonalization disorder
A balance of endorphins is essential and if not maintained correctly can lead to mental illnesses such as the depersonalization disorder where individuals have a feeling of being disconnected or detached from one’s body and thoughts. According to reports of patients, it is a feeling of observing yourself from outside your body or like being in a dream. Often individuals suffering from these illnesses also suffer from anxiety or depression. This is where the release of your endorphins could make a significant difference. Cortisol is a hormone responsible for stress and if secreted, the symptoms of anxiety and depression are felt to a greater extent. The goal, therefore, is to reduce our levels of cortisol if we want to treat the symptoms associated with the disorders. To achieve this, regular aerobic exercise outdoors or in the gym has been proven to be of great help. When we workout and experience physical pain, endorphins are released and those chemicals are capable of clearing out the high levels of cortisol. Therefore, by reducing the amount of cortisol in your system, you automatically relieve the negative symptoms. The positive aspect of this kind of treatment is the lack of nasty side effects which are expected when taking antidepressants.
Endorphins and the connection to the immune system
A balance of endorphins in your system is essential for the proper functioning of the immune system. Low endorphin levels do not only lead to less happiness but also gives way to autoimmune diseases or chronic pain to be developed. The cause for a low endorphin production could be range from alcoholism, drug abuse to chronic psychological stress.
What happens when endorphin levels are low is a mechanism called autoimmunity. Our immune system now accidentally attacks our own tissue destroying it which together with environmental toxins make us more vulnerable to developing diseases such as diabetes or multiple sclerosis.
Tips to stimulate the release of endorphins
- Regular exercise. It is a healthy stress the body can take. When the exercise becomes higher in intensity and longer in duration, more endorphins are released leading to a dampening of pain.
- Spicy diet. The rise of endorphins comes from the substance capsaicin, present in spicy foods, comes into contact with the taste buds on your tongue. A pain signal is sent to the brain and subsequently, endorphins are released in response to the pain signal.
- Laughter and sex. In both activities, high amounts of endorphins are released. It has been questioned if too much sex, laughter, and exercise could deplete endorphin levels leading to depression, however, this is not true.
- Listen to good music. When listening to your favorite song, endorphins are released too and symptoms of anxiety were shown to be reduced.
- Start meditating. 10 minutes of meditation every day before going to sleep or straight after waking up could help you secrete your feel-good chemicals.
What about your endorphins? Do you do something else to boost them? Leave us a comment below!
Patrick has completed a Master in Cognitive Neuroscience and is currently doing an online course in journalism. His aim is to inform the general public about science-related topics. He looks to achieve this by keeping his work simple, yet precise and informative for everyone.