What Are Endorphins?

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

Have you ever heard of the term “endorphin rush?” This phrase is commonly used to describe the way endorphins affect our bodies. Endorphins are small proteins that are naturally produced in the body. Learn more about endorphins, including how they work and how they can make you feel better.

What Are Endorphins

Endorphins are created in response to certain stimuli, such as fear, pain or stress. They come from different parts of the body, including the pituitary gland, the brain and the nervous system. They are neurotransmitters, which means they can prompt or suppress the signaling of nearby neurons. Mostly, endorphins function by interacting with receptors in cells in the part of the brain that controls emotion and blocks pain.

Interestingly, endorphins weren’t actually discovered until 1975. Around that time, researchers tested the brain’s response to certain opiates, such as morphine. During their studies, they found special receptors in the brain to which these opiates would bind more effectively. Eventually, neuroscientists found that the brain has receptors for the painkillers it naturally produces – those natural painkillers were what we know today as endorphins.

There isn’t just one kind of endorphin – in fact, there are at least 20 kinds. One variety called beta-endorphins has been found to be stronger than morphine in its effects on the body. This isn’t an unusual comparison – endorphins are regularly compared to opiates in regards to their effects on the body. However, endorphins have the advantage of being non-addictive, unlike opiate drugs like morphine and codeine.

Effects Of Endorphins

When endorphins are produced, they can have a variety of effects on the body. Some of these effects include:

  • Blocking pain: Endorphins affect the part of the brain that controls how you feel pain. When beta-endorphin was injected directly into the brain, it was 48 times more effective at pain relief than manmade opiates.
  • Boosting mood: Endorphins have long been associated with increased feelings of pleasure. It’s thought that endorphins help encourage us to do the things we find pleasurable, including everything from friendship to exercising to eating food.
  • Relieving stress: When you’re stressed out, a boost of endorphins can make you feel more relaxed.
  • Moderating appetite: Part of endorphins’ role is to let your body know when you’ve had enough of something.
  • Enhancing the immune system: Your immune system can get a boost when endorphins are secreted.
  • Releasing sex hormones: The production of endorphins can also trigger the release of sex hormones.

Obviously, the main thing endorphins do is make you feel great. They also reward you for doing things that you find pleasurable. The thing to keep in mind is whether your endorphins also help to regulate your behavior. Endorphins you get from working out may encourage you to exercise more, but do you also feel more tempted to eat junk food due to the endorphins it releases? Different people will have different reactions to these situations because each person can produce different amounts of endorphins in response to the same stimuli.

On another note, differences in endorphin production have been linked to certain medical conditions. For instance, some medical professionals assert that problems with endorphin production can lead to clinical depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Where Endorphins Come From

As mentioned earlier, endorphins are produced in response to certain stimuli. Wondering what activities will give you that rush of endorphins? Here are some of the things that tend to trigger the secretion of endorphins:

  • Prolonged continuous exercise (also known as a “runner’s high”)
  • Other types of exercise (particularly sprinting and heavy weight lifting)
  • Having sex
  • Eating certain foods, such as chocolate or chili peppers
  • Laughing
  • Listening to music
  • Massage therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Meditation
  • Controlled-breathing exercises like Tai Chi, Pilates and yoga
  • Childbirth
  • Exposure to ultraviolet light

Every person will secrete endorphins in a unique way, so someone who gets an endorphin rush from exercising may not feel as many positive effects by listening to music or getting a massage, and vice versa. You may be able to discover which types of stimuli your body reacts the most to just by trying these different activities for yourself.

Some studies suggest that even just your own personal feelings have a significant effect on endorphin production. For example, the endorphin rush you get from eating chocolate may be mostly due to the feelings of comfort you associated with it.

Endorphins are one of the most natural ways to feel good. Find out which activities help you to get that coveted endorphin rush. Just make sure that you are reacting in healthy, moderated ways. Even though endorphins are supposed to give you a rush of good feelings, you shouldn’t be feeling major highs and lows when it comes to your mood. See a doctor if you feel that your endorphin production could be functioning improperly.


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