What Are Endorphins & Why We Want Them
Have you ever taken a long walk with a friend on a cool sunny day and felt renewed and happier by the time you got home? I know anytime I take a hike with my family and dogs I return home energized and smiling. This feeling isn’t just due to enjoying the company of your loved ones. You’ve probably heard me talk about endorphins before – that’s where this feeling of happiness comes from after a physical activity. As the saying goes, “endorphins make you happy”.
There is so much more to these “happy hormones” than their ability to boost your mood. Endorphins are most famous for the sense of euphoria they create after a strenuous activity or exercise. You may have heard the term “runner’s high.” The name comes from the euphoric feeling runners get when they run long distances. It’s caused by the body releasing endorphins to shield your body from the pain, at least temporarily.
That’s right, while endorphins are famous for making you feel happy, their primary function is to act as a natural pain reliever. I will discuss more later about how these happy hormones work to relieve pain, more benefits of endorphins, and how you can increase your body’s production of them. Before I do that, let me tell you more about how these happy hormones work.
Endorphins: The Happy Hormone
Your body produces nearly 50 different hormones that impact every facet of your existence. Hormones regulate everything from growth, metabolism, mood, temperature, heart rate, sleep, and sexuality.
Endorphins are specific hormones that act similarly to opioids. The word endorphin comes from the words endogenous, which means “from within the body,” and morphine, an opiate pain reliever. While these happy hormones do make you feel good after a workout, they are actually being released by your pituitary gland to relieve pain. However, they do so much more.
There are four types of endorphins produced by your body: alpha, beta, gamma and sigma endorphins. Beta endorphins are the most dominant type and most powerful of these happy hormones in your body.
Endorphins are made up from a large group of peptides, which are short chains of up to 50 amino acids.1 These peptides are created in your nervous system and pituitary gland. When your body feels stress or pain, your brain sends a signal to your pituitary gland to release endorphins. These messengers attach to the opiate receptors of the brain to reduce pain.2 While endorphins are primarily released to respond to stress or pain, your body produces them to enhance pleasure during activities such as eating, exercise, and having sex.
Endorphins vs. Dopamine
Your body also produces serotonin, also sometimes called the “happiness hormone,” and dopamine to regulate your mood. Both of these hormones are also released by your nervous system to boost your mood. While endorphins also boost your mood, they are different from serotonin and dopamine. The best way to understand the differences is endorphins are a short burst of happiness while serotonin and dopamine are long-lasting.3 Let’s talk more about how endorphins impact your health.
The Effect of Endorphins on Your Health
I briefly mentioned “runner’s high” earlier. There’s a debate in conventional medicine over whether the euphoric feeling is directly related to the release of endorphins because these happy hormones cannot pass through the blood-brain barrier. Endorphins are large molecules, unlike other chemicals in your body and their size prevents them from crossing that barrier.4
That doesn’t mean endorphins don’t contribute to why people feel this burst of happiness, even if it isn’t a direct cause. Let me explain.
When you start to exercise, your body begins to warm up everything from your breathing to your muscles and joints. Your lungs work to control your heavy breathing. Your heart rate increases to send oxygenated blood to your muscles and your brain. Once your body warms up, your brain signals the release of endorphins to block pain in your muscles. Remember, endorphins are a natural opioid that attach to the brain’s opiate receptor and act like morphine.
Endorphins act as analgesics, which means they diminish the perception of pain instead of blocking it. As I mentioned earlier, they bind to the same receptors in your brain that many pain medications conventional medicine prescribes. However, since they are naturally produced by your body, they do not carry the same addictive and dependence properties of synthetic opioid medications used to relieve pain.5
I’ll tell you how you can increase your endorphins later. First, let me tell you how you can measure your endorphin levels and determine if they are low.
Symptoms of an Endorphin Deficiency
It is possible for your endorphin levels to fall. Endorphin deficiencies are linked to anxiety, stress, depression, and chronic pain.7
Since endorphins are happy hormones, it makes sense that the easiest way to tell if your endorphin levels are low is by your mood. Here are the common symptoms of an endorphin deficiency:
- Aches and pains
- Trouble sleeping
- Impulsive behavior
Tests for endorphin levels have not been around very long and can produce different results each time. In 2008, researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to view the brains of athletes before and after exercise. This was the first known measurement of endorphins.
As researchers began to understand these happy hormones better, new testing was developed. A blood test can measure endorphin levels in the blood plasma and a spinal tap can measure levels of endorphins in the cerebrospinal fluid. However, spinal taps are invasive and a painful procedure.
What’s more, endorphins are released in bursts and only last for a short amount of time. This is why it’s difficult to determine an endorphin deficiency through a blood test unless it’s administered after exercise or during a pleasurable activity. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you about natural ways you can boost this happy hormone in just a minute. Let’s talk more about the benefits of endorphins.
Benefits of Endorphins
Pain relief and a mood boost are only two of the many benefits of these happy hormones. However, endorphins do so much more.
You know that exercise is great for everything from relieving stress and lowering anxiety to weight loss to heart health. Since your body releases a burst of endorphins during exercise, it’s only natural that these happy hormones offer the same benefits and more. Here are some of the additional benefits of endorphins.
Did you know that 1 in 10 adults in the United States struggle with depression? That’s 10% of all adults. Conventional medicine treats depression with antidepressants. The problem with antidepressants is they just treat the symptoms and come with harsh side effects such as insomnia, rashes, joint and muscle pain, nausea and diarrhea. They also have been found to alter the brain’s chemical structure and lose their effectiveness over time.8
Functional medicine looks to find the root cause of your symptoms, and a hormone imbalance could be the cause of your depression. The burst of endorphins from exercise has been linked to lowering depression because of their mood boosting ability. Endorphins really do live up to their “happy hormone” name.
If endorphins can reduce depression, it makes sense they can also boost your self-esteem. This all goes back to exercise’s effects on your body. Regular exercise can increase self-confidence and lower stress levels and improve your mood.9 Positive feelings make you feel optimistic and confident, which increases your self-esteem.
Supports Weight Loss
Eating delicious food such as a piece of dark chocolate or spicy foods sends a signal to your brain to release endorphins. Remember, endorphins enhance pleasure and eating food is a pleasurable experience for many people. You might be asking, “isn’t that counterintuitive to losing weight?” Endorphins are a complex hormone in that while they do enhance the pleasure of eating good food, these happy hormones also regulate your appetite by relieving stress and anxiety.10
When you are under stress, your brain sends a message to your adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol, which mobilizes glucose reserves for energy. Too much cortisol suppresses the immune system and increases blood sugar levels, which can make you feel hungry and crave sugar and fatty foods. When your body releases the beta-endorphin during exercise or other pleasurable experiences, it lowers cortisol levels and curbs those cravings.11
Now that you understand what endorphins are and what they do in your body, let me tell you about how you can increase your endorphins.
How to Increase Your Endorphins
Exercise is the most common and effective way to increase your endorphins. However, there are a number of enjoyable activities that trigger your pituitary gland to release these happy hormones. Here are a few ways to increase endorphins:
You can’t deny the physical benefits of exercise, however the mental benefits are just as impressive. This is where endorphins come into play. Endorphins are released after 30 minutes of continuous exercise.12 Moderate exercise is recommended, however anything you do to move your body will get you a burst of endorphins. Make sure you pick an activity that keeps you moving such as taking a brisk walk. I enjoy doing yoga, hiking, and swimming to get my body moving.
Eat Dark Chocolate
Here’s an excuse to eat chocolate! Dark chocolate is more than just a tasty treat. It’s a superfood that packs serious health benefits. Dark chocolate differs from other forms of chocolate in that it offers a higher cacao content. Cacao is the source of all the antioxidants, monounsaturated fats, and flavonoids that dark chocolate boasts. What’s more, eating is a pleasurable experience which triggers your brain to release endorphins in your body to enhance that pleasurable feeling. Who doesn’t enjoy a piece of chocolate?
Your sex life doesn’t have to end as you get older. In fact, many people over the age of 50 are enjoying a healthy and vibrant sex life. Endorphins are behind that euphoric feeling during and after having sex. Let me let you in on a little secret, your body releases five times the amount of this happy hormone when you have sex than it does during exercise.1314 Of course, I don’t recommend that you stop exercising and replace it with sex – do both! The truth is that having sex is good for your overall health, not just to get a burst of endorphins. It facilitates a healthy immune system response, helps you live longer, helps lower your blood pressure, and relieves stress.
Cryotherapy is a “cool” new trend that involves exposing your body to extreme cold temperatures between -200 and -280 degrees fahrenheit. Cryotherapy supports your immune system, relieves stress, supports weight loss, and is used in some cases to treat autoimmune disease. When your body is exposed to extreme cold, your brain signals your pituitary gland to release a large amount of endorphins to shield pain.
Helping people is not only beneficial to the people you help, it’s also beneficial to you as well. Volunteering is a great way to help people, reduce stress and boost your mood. Doing acts of kindness triggers a burst of endorphins to be released. What’s even better is that some volunteer activities such as cleaning up a park, packing food for a food pantry, or playing with dogs at an animal shelter also double as exercise.
Laugh with Loved Ones
Have you ever been in a bad mood and had it changed when something made you laugh? Laughing is great medicine for your body. It relieves stress and feelings of anxiety and it also reduces depression. You can thank endorphins for that as well! Laughing with friends and family boosts production of the happy hormone.
Our bodies have always produced endorphins, however the science behind their role in our body is still evolving. There is plenty of evidence that proves these happy hormones live up to their name, as well as their function as a natural pain reliever. Boosting your endorphins is an easy step toward achieving optimal health.
- What Are Peptides?. Shishira Sreenivas. WebMD. 2021.
- Why Do We Need Endorphins?. Jacquelyn Cafasso. Healthline. 2017.
- What Are Endorphins?. Arlin Cuncic. Verywell. 2021.
- The Truth Behind ‘Runner’s High’ and Other Mental Benefits of Running. David J. Linden, Ph.D.. Johns Hopkins. 2021.
- Exercise and Depression. Debra Fulghum Bruce, PhD . WebMD. 2020.
- Endorphins: Effects and how to increase levels . Jennifer Berry. Medical News Today. 2018.
- The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed . Lynette L. Craft, Ph.D. and Frank M. Perna, Ed.D., Ph.D.. Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, vol 6. 2004.
- What are the Real Risks of Antidepressants?. . Harvard Medical School. 2019.
- High self-esteem, hardiness and affective stability are associated with higher basal pituitary-adrenal hormone levels. E P Zorrilla, R J DeRubeis, E Redei. Psychoneuroendocrinology vol. 20,6. 1995.
- A role for the endogenous opioid beta-endorphin in energy homeostasis. Suzanne M Appleyard. Endocrinology, vol 144. 2003.
- The metabolism of tartrate in man and the rat. V. S. Chadwick, A. Vince, M. Killingley, and O.M. Wrong. Clinical Science and Molecular Medicine, vol 54. 1978.
- Release of Endomorphin Hormone and Its Effects on Our Body and Moods: A Review. P. Rokade. Semantic Scholar. 2011.
- Release of Endorphin Hormone and Its Effects on Our Body and Moods: A Review. P. Rokade. Semantic Scholar. 2011.
- What do Sex, Chocolate, and Exercise Have in Common? Research Explains. Jonathan Ford Hughes. Pysician Sense. 2020.
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