Endocrinology

Endorphins: Effects and how to increase levels

Endorphins are chemicals produced naturally by the nervous system to cope with pain or stress. They are often called “feel-good” chemicals because they can act as a pain reliever and happiness booster.

Endorphins are primarily made in the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, though they may come from other parts of the body as well. The well-known “runner’s high” that is felt after lengthy, vigorous exercise is due to an increase in endorphin levels.

The level of endorphins in the human body varies from person to person. People who have lower levels may be more likely to have depression or fibromyalgia, but more research is needed in this area.

What are endorphins?

Happy woman feeling good because of endorphins sitting outside listening to music.
Endorphins are chemicals that help to relieve pain or stress, and boost happiness.

Endorphins are chemicals produced by the body to relieve stress and pain. They work similarly to a class of drugs called opioids.

Opioids relieve pain and can produce a feeling of euphoria. They are sometimes prescribed for short-term use after surgery or for pain-relief.

In the 1980s, scientists were studying how and why opioids worked. They found that the body has special receptors that bind to opioids to block pain signals.

The scientists then realized that some chemicals in the body acted similarly to natural opioid medications, binding to these same receptors. These chemicals were endorphins.

The name endorphin comes from the words “endogenous,” which means “from the body,” and “morphine,” which is an opioid pain reliever.

Some of the more common opioid drugs include:

  • oxycodone
  • hydrocodone
  • codeine
  • morphine
  • fentanyl

Some illegal drugs, such as heroin, are also opioids. Both legal and illegal opioid medications have a high risk of causing addiction, overdose, and death.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse state that 90 people die each day in the United States from an opioid overdose. Many of these are a result of overdosing or misusing prescription opioids.

Opioid abuse and overdose have become such a serious problem that the National Institutes of Health have declared it a crisis. Medical experts are now looking into safe and effective pain relievers without opioids.

Natural endorphins work similarly to opioid pain relievers, but their results may not be as dramatic. However, endorphins can produce a “high” that is both healthy and safe, without the risk of addiction and overdose.


Boosting endorphins

The following activities show promise as ways to naturally increase endorphins. However, endorphin levels vary between individuals, so results will also vary.

Regular exercise

Senior person swimming in pool.
Regular exercise has been found to help combat anxiety and depression due to the endorphins it releases.

For years, researchers suspected that endorphins caused the so-called “runner’s high,” a feeling of euphoria that happens after lengthy, vigorous physical activity.

However, measuring endorphins in humans was not possible until 2008, when new imaging technology became available.

Researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to view athlete’s brains both before and after exercise. They found an increase in the release of endorphins after exercise.

As exercise boosts mood and increases endorphins, some medical professionals prescribe regular exercise as a treatment for mild to moderate depression and anxiety.

Exercise can be used safely in conjunction with other treatments, such as medications or therapy, and can also be used alone. One study states that exercise can improve some symptoms of depression, similarly to antidepressants.

Giving

Volunteering, donating, and helping others may also make a person feel good. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that people who gave money to a charity activated pleasure centers in their brain. This may lead to improved endorphin levels.

Yoga and meditation

Meditation and yoga are known for their stress-relieving and relaxing effects. This may be partially due to an endorphin release.

Some research suggests that yoga and meditation can decrease stress markers and increase endorphins.

Spicy foods

People who enjoy spicy foods may find that they can get an additional boost from their favorite dishes.

Some research suggests that the spicy components in hot peppers and similar foods may trigger a pain sensation in the mouth, which prompts an increase in endorphins.

Dark chocolate

Research from 2013 suggests that eating dark chocolate could boost endorphin levels. Cocoa powder and chocolate contain chemicals called flavonoids that appear to be beneficial to the brain.

A 2017 review found that eating chocolate may help boost endorphins. However, many commercial chocolate products contain only small amounts of real cocoa and often contain generous amounts of added sugar and fat.

People looking to use chocolate to improve endorphin levels and mood should look for products that contain at least 70 percent cocoa and eat chocolate in moderation due to its high calorie and fat content.

Laughing

Plenty of research has been written about the health benefits of laughter, and studies suggest that laughing increases endorphins.

A 2017 study found that social laughter releases endorphins in the brain.

Low endorphins and health conditions

Woman sitting on park bench looking sad and contemplative.
Low endorphin levels have been linked to depression and headaches.

When endorphin levels are too low, a person’s health may be negatively affected. Research into the link between endorphins and health conditions is ongoing.

Some studies have shown a possible link between the following health problems and low endorphin levels:

Depression

Without enough endorphins, a person may be more likely to have depression. An article in the American Journal of Psychiatry discusses the long-standing use of opioid treatments for depression, particularly in cases where other treatments have not worked.

Another article suggests that higher endorphin levels have an effect on depression symptoms because of their association with reward.

Fibromyalgia

Common symptoms of fibromyalgia include:

  • long-term pain throughout the body
  • tender spots that hurt when they are touched
  • muscle stiffness
  • fatigue and low energy
  • sleep problems

People with fibromyalgia may have lower than normal endorphin levels. One study found that people with fibromyalgia had lower levels of endorphins than those without the condition. They measured endorphins both before and after exercise.

Another study found that increases in the body’s endorphins were correlated with pain relief in people with fibromyalgia.

People with fibromyalgia may be advised to do certain activities to boost endorphins, such as exercise, connecting with others, and stress-relieving activities, such as yoga. They may also be prescribed medications to help with symptoms.

Chronic headaches

One possible cause of ongoing headaches is abnormal endorphin levels. Some research suggests that the same endorphin imbalance that contributes to depression is also present in people who have chronic headaches.


Takeaway

The science of human endorphin levels is still evolving, as researchers continue to study this chemical and how it affects overall health.

People who have symptoms of depression, fibromyalgia, or chronic headaches may wish to talk to a doctor about endorphin levels and ways they can increase them, in addition to their regular treatment options.

While endorphins are not a “cure-all” or a guarantee of good health, boosting endorphins may be an effective way to increase overall well-being.

Regular exercise, stress reduction, and giving to others are well-known “feel-good” activities that can help a person live a healthier and happier life.

The endorphin “high” is a pleasant bonus that may help a person stick to these good habits.

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