Recall the last time you ate chocolate or had a good laugh. How did you feel? You must have felt good, right? You could even say you felt quite high. This euphoria is caused by what is known as endorphins.
The term “endorphin” is a contraction of “endogenous morphine,” which aptly describes what it is: an opioid painkiller produced in the body that mimics the actions of morphine, an opiate pain reliever. So, endorphin literally means internally produced morphine. In a way, you could say that endorphin is your own private narcotic. Something to smile about!
Why? Read on to find out.
What are Endorphins?
Endorphins are endogenous opioid neuropeptides that are produced and stored in the pituitary gland. Peptides are small proteins, and endogenous opioids are substances that the body produces which have the analgesic and euphoric effects of morphine. However, unlike morphine, endorphins aren’t addictive as they get broken down by the body’s enzymes almost immediately.
Along with dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, endorphin is one of the four feel-good hormones produced by the body. Like other opioids, endorphin provides a sense of euphoria, increased feelings of happiness and pleasure (what some call the “endorphin rush”), which can occur during exercise, when you laugh and even generated during orgasm.
However, endorphin’s main function is as a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical that transmits signals from one neuron to the other and can prompt or suppress the further signaling of nearby neurons. In the case of endorphins, it’s more about suppressing pain. As with other neuropeptides, endorphins bind to opioid receptors in the central nervous system and blocks pain as opiates would. Because of this pain-reducing function, endorphins are considered to be the body’s natural painkiller.
In addition to pain relief, it also provides a feeling of well-being. Endorphins have also been shown to be “involved in natural reward circuits related to activities such as feeding, drinking, sexual activity and maternal behavior.”
In other words, researchers have found that endorphins play a dual function: one of increasing pleasure and the other of reducing pain. By reducing pain, endorphins allow us to power through an emergency situation and survive. On the other hand, it amplifies our feelings of pleasure to inform us that we have had enough of a good thing (food, sex, companionship, etc.) and encourage us to go after it in the future.
And, in addition to being a neurotransmitter, endorphins are also considered to be hormones because they are released into the bloodstream and effect physiological changes in the body.
What are the Functions of Endorphins?
The body releases endorphins in response to certain stimuli, especially pain, stress or fear. Here are some of the ways endorphins work or affect the body:
- Minimizes pain
When released during an injury or stress, endorphins minimize the pain and discomfort we feel. However, because the body metabolizes this substance quickly, the effects wear off hours later and the injury feels worse. A woman’s body also releases endorphins to help manage the pain of giving birth.
- Boosts self-esteem
When we are in a good mood, we have a more positive outlook in life and we tend to like ourselves better. Because of this, our relationships with ourselves and with others improve.
- Maintains good mental health
Endorphins are a natural mood booster. That’s why people whose bodies don’t produce enough endorphins may experience anxiety, depression or other mood disorders. In other words, having enough endorphins circulating in our system helps us keep a positive state of mind. We are more energetic, more optimistic and happier.
- Sharpens memory and concentration
Endorphins are a natural antidote to a common symptom of many mental health conditions: difficulty thinking or making decisions.
In addition, endorphins are also associated with the following funtions:
- Creates the placebo effect
Studies have shown that the release of endorphins leads to the placebo effect, which happens when the brain tricks the body to believe a fake treatment to be a true one. The hypothalamus convinces the body to produce a very real response (release of endorphins) to a sugar pill (placebo) or from the anticipation of pleasure.
- Heightens our states of rage or anxiety
If there’s too much endorphins in the body, this could lead to the body getting flooded with “fight or flight” hormones that kick in at the slightest hint of worry or trouble.
How to Boost the Release of Endorphins Naturally
The body releases endorphins to mask the pain it’s feeling. The “endorphin high” that we experience then is a euphoria mask meant to allow our body to push forward and survive despite the pain. Endorphins evolved to help our ancestors survive, and the body saved its use for emergencies.
Fortunately, you don’t have to go around inflicting harm on yourself to trigger the release of endorphin and its elusive euphoria. Because endorphin is a hormone, you can raise its levels in the bloodstream through several all-natural ways.
- Exercise. Regular aerobic exercise, such as running, biking, swimming or rowing, helps the body produce more endorphins, which it uses to fight the strain you get from rigorous exercise as well as reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
- Spicy foods. By activating pain receptors in the tongue, spicy foods can trigger the release of endorphins.
- Dark chocolate. Most chocolates are high in sugar and fat. What you need to boost endorphin release is dark chocolate that’s 70% cocoa, and remember to consume in moderation.
- Acupuncture. An acupuncturist will place fine needles at specific pressure points in your body and this is believed to release endorphins.
- Meditation. Aside from a calm mind, meditation can ease pain.
- Ultraviolet light. Spending time outdoors soaking in the sun makes us happy because ultraviolet light stimulates the release of endorphins in the skin.
- Music. Research suggests that singing, dancing or playing an instrument can help raise your pain tolerance.
- Sex. Orgasms can lead to a blissful feeling caused by the release of endorphins.
- Laughter. Having a good laugh is perhaps the easiest but most effective way to boost endorphin production in the body.