What are endorphins?

Ever feel amazing after a good, hard workout? You may have heard that your “high” is caused by tiny neurochemicals released by your body. These neurochemicals are called endorphins. While endorphins might make you feel good after a long jog, there’s a lot more to know about the role they play in regulating your body.

The word endorphin comes from putting together the words “endogenous,” meaning from within the body, and “morphine,” which is an opiate pain reliever. In other words, endorphins got their name because they are natural pain relievers.

Endorphins consist of a large group of peptides. They are produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland. Since endorphins act on the opiate receptors in our brains, they reduce pain and boost pleasure, resulting in a feeling of well-being. Endorphins are released in response to pain or stress, but they’re also released during other activities, like eating, exercise, or sex.

Not all of the roles endorphins play in the body are completely understood. We do know that endorphins are important to reduce pain and enhance pleasure.

Endorphins are involved in our natural reward circuits and are related to important activities like eating, drinking, physical fitness, and sexual intercourse. Endorphins also surge during pregnancy. They minimize discomfort and pain and maximize pleasure. This helps us to continue functioning despite injury or stress.

Since humans naturally seek to feel pleasure and avoid pain, we’re more likely to do an activity if it makes us feel good. From an evolutionary standpoint, this helps ensure survival.

Humans are social creatures, and we thrive in communities. Endorphins have been shown to also help reinforce social attachments. While this may not be entirely true anymore, in early human history, people who stuck together in social groups were better able to survive and reproduce.

By promoting an overall sense of well-being, endorphins have many benefits, including:

Alleviating depression

Nearly one in five people will experience depression at some point during their lifetimes. Many studies have looked at exercise in reducing the symptoms of depression, and the majority of these studies have shown a positive benefit associated with exercise. More research is needed to further understand the role that endorphins have in treating depression.

Reducing stress and anxiety

Endorphins may play an important role in reducing stress and anxiety. A study in mice showed a direct relationship between endorphin levels and anxious behavior in mice. More research studies in humans are needed.

Boosting your self-esteem

Positive feelings also make you feel confident and optimistic, thus giving your self-esteem a boost. In one small study, endorphins were associated with high self-esteem in a small group of men. Much larger studies are needed.

Reducing your weight

The role of endorphins and other hormones in regulating your appetite and food intake is complex. While eating good food is thought in increase endorphin levels, higher levels of endorphins have also been shown in animal studies to help regulate the appetite. More research in humans is needed to clarify these effects.

Helping you deal with pain during childbirth

Childbirth can be an incredibly rewarding, yet incredibly painful experience. Endorphins can make labor a bit easier. A small study in 45 healthy women giving birth found that low levels of beta-endorphin at the end of pregnancy were associated with a need for additional pain treatment medications during labor. Additional research is needed to determine the exact cause and effect.

Endorphin deficiency isn’t well understood. In general, if your body isn’t producing enough endorphins, you might experience:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • moodiness
  • aches and pains
  • addiction
  • trouble sleeping
  • impulsive behavior

You don’t have to run an entire marathon to experience the pleasurable effects of an endorphin release. Your body also produces endorphins naturally when you do the following:

We may not know everything there is to know about the role endorphins play in the body, but it’s clear that these neuropeptides have many positive effects. It’s no wonder we crave the after effects of an endorphin boost.

Luckily, there’s no need to run an ultramarathon in order to increase endorphin levels in your brain. Simply enjoying a piece of dark chocolate, interacting with friends, playing music, meditating, or watching your favorite TV shows can help raise endorphin levels.