Endorphins are chemicals the body releases when it is under stress or in pain. Endorphins can help relieve pain, reduce emotional stress, and offer a sense of well-being. Research suggests endorphin levels may be a factor in depression, fibromyalgia, and other issues.
What are Endorphins?
Endorphins are primarily created in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. They act as neurotransmitters—chemicals that help to carry signals across a nerve synapse. They are also considered hormones since they can carry messages throughout the nervous system, not just the brain.
There are over 20 types of endorphins in humans. Beta-endorphins are the most frequently studied, as they contribute to pain relief and well-being. The pain relief from beta-endorphins is even greater than morphine. Researchers used to believe gamma-endorphins could reduce psychotic symptoms. However, later research found that the only link between gamma-endorphins and psychosis was a placebo effect.
Endorphins are not to be confused with dopamine, another neurotransmitter linked to happiness. In general, dopamine creates happiness after a person has accomplished a goal. Endorphins act to relieve pain, although they do play an indirect role in motivation. For instance, if you are a runner, endorphins can reduce the ache of your muscles. They can also act in the reward-related areas of your brain, prompting your body to release dopamine. Technically it is the dopamine that produces the “runner’s high”. Endorphins merely tell the body when to start getting that “high”.
How Endorphins Function
There are many things that can strain our bodies. Pain is one. Vigorous exercise or sex can push our bodies too, even if they aren’t painful. In response to this stress, a body will relieve itself by producing endorphins (pain-killing chemicals).
There are several theories about why our bodies release endorphins. The most common one is that pain relief helps us survive. For example, if you sprain your ankle, the nerves in your leg will send pain signals to your spine and brain. The pain tells you that you need to pay attention to your ankle and stop using it. But your brain doesn’t need to hear this message during the entire month your ankle is healing. So your body releases endorphins, which block the nerve cells in charge of receiving the pain signals, “muting” the pain. This allows you to function in day-to-day life without being distracted.
How to Release Endorphins
Endorphins are most commonly associated with exercise. How much exercise an individual needs to get a “runner’s high” varies from person to person. In general, high-intensity workouts produce more endorphins than moderate exercise does.
CDC recommends adults engage in either 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week or 75 minutes of intense aerobic exercise a week. Moderate exercise includes activities such as swimming or brisk walking. You can get intense exercise through jogging, dancing, rock-climbing, etc.
Research shows exercise isn’t the only way to release endorphins. You can also boost endorphins through:
- Massage therapy
- Eating spicy foods
Endorphins and Psychology
Endorphins play a significant role in multiple mental health issues.
Opioid drugs such as morphine and fentanyl block the same pain receptors as endorphins do. However, opioid drugs tell the brain to release much more dopamine. If a person takes opioid drugs over a long period of time, their brain will gradually get used to these ultra-high levels of dopamine. The dopamine released by endorphins will no longer be enough to satisfy it. A person will need increasing doses of an opioid drug in order to feel happy.
Regular endorphins can prompt a body to relax and slow down its breathing. Opioid drugs, however, can cause a person to stop breathing entirely. This is called an overdose, and it is often lethal.
Endorphins prompt the release of dopamine, which in turn strongly effects mood. Research suggests low endorphin levels may contribute to depression.
Several studies have demonstrated that exercise can help alleviate symptoms of depression. For people with mild depression, vigorous exercise may work as well as antidepressants. However, exercise alone cannot treat moderate or severe depression. It can boost the effects of psychotherapy and medication though.
Fibromyalgia is a condition that causes chronic pain throughout the body. Research shows people with fibromyalgia have lower levels of endorphins, meaning they get less pain relief whenever they strain their bodies. They also get less of an endorphin boost from exercise than people without the condition do.
People experiencing immense physical pain—such as getting a deep cut in their arm—sometimes feel euphoria due to an endorphin rush. Some individuals hurt themselves on purpose in order to get this high. They may use self-harm to cope with emotional stress in their lives.
Some researchers believe people can become addicted to the “runner’s high”. They may exercise for hours every day, even at the expense of family time or work, in order to feel good. However, more research is needed to confirm if exercise addiction does in fact work this way.
If you are experiencing any of the above issues, psychotherapy can help. Find a counselor today!
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- Prescription pain medications: What you need to know. (2016). Retrieved from http://headsup.scholastic.com/students/prescription-pain-medications-what-you-need-to-know
- Scicurious. (2012, March 12). It hurts so good: The runner’s high. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/scicurious-brain/it-hurts-so-good-the-runners-high
- Seligson, S. (2010, April 13). Exercise: The other antidepressant. BU Today. Retrieved from http://www.bu.edu/today/2010/exercise-the-other-antidepressant/
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- Whiteman, H. (2017, August 26). Endorphin release differs by exercise intensity, study finds. Medical News Today. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319157.php
Last Updated: 04-26-2019
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Honest F.April 22nd, 2019 at 12:37 AM
It’s really great to know or learn some advices from this site…as for that experiencing too much heart aches of being rejected by someone whom I loved so much…thanks and more power…May always God’s wisdom be upon your understanding as well!
Rarely RSeptember 5th, 2019 at 1:35 PM
Excellent especially addressing the correlation between exercise and reduction of depression.
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