Endorphins are the body’s natural pain relievers, and they can boost your mood, too.

These chemicals are naturally produced by the body during pleasurable activities (e.g., exercise, sex, and laughing), as well as painful experiences, such as twisting your ankle.

Though most people are familiar with having an “endorphin rush” after a fun activity, you may wonder what endorphins are and how they benefit your health.

This article dives deep into endorphins, including why we need them and tips on how to naturally increase their levels.

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Endorphins, also known as endogenous opioids, are groups of protein chains called peptides. They’re mostly controlled and released by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland (1, 2).

They’re a type of neurotransmitter — and in some cases, they’re thought to be hormones, too — that act on opiate receptors to alleviate pain and promote feelings of pleasure (1, 2).

Interestingly, the term endorphin comes from the words “endogenous,” meaning from the body, and “morphine, an opiate pain reliever.

While various forms of endorphins exist, beta-endorphins are the most studied and known for their pain-relieving effects (1, 2).

Though they’re not fully understood, they’re thought to be involved in how we perceive pain and pleasure (2).

For example, endorphins are released during painful experiences, such as when you sprain your ankle, to temporarily relieve pain and discomfort. They’re also released during pleasurable moments, such as eating chocolate, having sex, or exercising (2).

Summary

Endorphins are neurotransmitters that are released by the brain to alleviate pain and promote pleasure.

While research is ongoing, there are many benefits of endorphins (2):

  • reduce pain and discomfort
  • increase pleasure
  • reduce stress, depression, and anxiety
  • attenuate inflammation
  • improve mood
  • boost self-esteem
  • may support a healthy immune system
  • may support memory and cognitive function

Thus, aiming to boost your endorphins can be a great way to support your overall well-being.

Summary

Endorphins have many benefits on the body, including reduced pain and discomfort, better mood and self-esteem, and increased pleasure.

If your body does not produce enough endorphins, you may be at an increased risk of developing certain health conditions or symptoms, such as (3, 4, 5):

  • increased aches and pain
  • an increased risk of depression and anxiety
  • moodiness
  • addiction
  • trouble sleeping

And interestingly, studies have shown that people with migraines have lower blood levels of beta-endorphins (6).

That said, research on endorphin deficiency is scarce, suggesting more research on the topic is needed.

Summary

A lack of endorphins may put you at an increased risk of health issues such as aches, pain, depression, mood swings, and addiction.

Here are 8 ways to naturally boost your endorphins.

1. Exercise

Exercise is well known for its mood-boosting effects and role in decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety (7, 8, 9, 10).

Moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic exercise and strength training can lead to a surge in endorphins, along with other feel-good chemicals such as endocannabinoids, dopamine, and serotonin (11, 12, 13).

Moderate intensity exercise includes activities such as a brisk walk, a gentle bike ride, or gardening. Vigorous intensity exercise includes activities like indoor cycling, playing soccer, running, or skiing.

Fortunately, around as little as 20–30 minutes each day can help boost your endorphin levels (11, 12, 13).

2. Laugh

The saying rings true: Laughter is the best medicine.

Laughing releases endorphins and other feel-good hormones (e.g., dopamine and serotonin) and suppresses stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) to improve mood, reduce pain and stress, lower blood pressure, and support a stronger immune system (14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19).

So, if you’re looking for a mood boost, turn on a funny show or hang out with friends who will give you a good laugh.

3. Listen to music

Music goes beyond entertainment — it can support your well-being, too.

Numerous studies have shown that music can promote mild pain-reducing effects by releasing endorphins, which increase a person’s pain threshold. In fact, music therapy is becoming a popular and effective intervention in many hospital settings (20, 21, 22, 23).

Interestingly, it may also help you exercise longer by alleviating some exercise-induced discomfort or pain (24).

Furthermore, upbeat music can also promote a positive mood by releasing endorphins and dopamine (25).

Therefore, try adding your favorite music to your day to boost your health and mood.

4. Get acupuncture

Though part of traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, acupuncture has recently gained attention in Western medicine as an effective treatment for pain and other disorders.

Though its mechanisms aren’t fully understood, acupuncture involves inserting small needles into the skin to stimulate the central nervous system. This leads to the release of many chemicals, including endorphins (26, 27).

Numerous studies have shown acupuncture to be an effective treatment for pain. Though, it may not be suitable for everyone (28, 29, 30, 31).

5. Eat dark chocolate

There’s some evidence that eating dark chocolate may boost endorphins and other feel-good chemicals, such as dopamine (32).

Dark chocolate is rich in polyphenolic compounds like flavonoids that trigger the brain to release endorphins. It’s also a moderate source of caffeine, which can elicit a boost in mood (32).

Ideally, choose dark chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa, and stick with a few small squares per serving.

6. Have sex

Having sex increases the release of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, a hormone and neurotransmitter that is linked to connectedness and trust (33, 34, 35).

It also increases your heart rate and promotes stamina, which can also support your health and mood (33, 34, 35).

7. Dance

Dancing can be entertaining and good for your health.

It’s a form of cardiorespiratory exercise that gets your heart rate up and releases endorphins, which can elevate your mood and decrease pain (36, 37).

Furthermore, dancing in group settings can increase social connectedness and lower stress levels (36, 37).

Whether you’re dancing alone in your kitchen or with your friends, it’s sure to boost your spirits.

8. Meditate

Meditation is a practice that involves training one’s awareness and becoming more mindful and present.

It has been shown to promote health by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” system. It also reduces the body’s stress response system, which is known as the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis (38, 39, 40, 41).

Additionally, it’s thought that meditation may promote the release of endorphins, as frequent meditators have been shown to have greater pain thresholds, though this mechanism isn’t fully understood (42, 43, 44, 45)

That said, other studies question whether endorphins are at play and suggest it’s more related to one’s acceptance or anticipation of pain (46, 47, 48).

All in all, more research is needed.

Summary

If you want to increase your endorphin levels, try exercising, having sex, eating chocolate, meditating, or any activity that makes you laugh and have a good time.

While they’re often confused for one another, endorphins are not the same as dopamine or endocannabinoids.

Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter and hormone that’s released by the reward center of the brain during times of pleasure, such as during sex, eating delicious food, or watching a comedy show (49, 50, 51).

Though they’re both part of the brain’s reward system, endorphins are quickly released during a specific act, such as exercising, to help alleviate pain and stress. In contrast, dopamine is released slowly and the mood-boosting sensation you feel after the activity.

Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters produced by the body’s endocannabinoid system. They play many roles in the body, such as relieving pain, reducing anxiety, regulating mood, managing appetite and digestion, and improving sleep (52, 53).

Though similar to cannabinoids — the primary chemicals found in cannabis, such as THC — endocannabinoids are naturally produced by the body. Both endocannabinoids and cannabinoids act on cannabinoid receptors located throughout the body (49, 50).

Interestingly, endocannabinoids are mainly responsible for the “runner’s high” that people experience during exercise, which used to be attributed to endorphins.

However, recent research suggests that endocannabinoids lead to feelings of euphoria since they’re easily able to cross the blood-brain barrier, unlike endorphins, which are too large to do that (54, 55).

In most cases, the body releases many neurotransmitters and hormones simultaneously during pain and pleasure, which is why endorphins, endocannabinoids, and dopamine are so closely related (56).

Summary

Though they’re closely related and part of the brain’s reward and pain system, endorphins, dopamine, and endocannabinoids aren’t the same and have distinct effects on the body.

While there is limited research on the topic, some people may become addicted to the “endorphin rush” caused by some activities.

For example, thrill seekers may pursue dangerous activities to get a rush of adrenaline (i.e., epinephrine) and endorphins (57).

Interestingly, one 2016 study including eight mountain climbers observed symptoms of withdrawal (e.g., disengagement, cravings to go climbing, mood swings, and irritability) after avoiding climbing for a period of time (57).

Another example is self-harm, which leads to a rush of endorphins from hurting oneself to “feel” the release of emotional pain. A person may become addicted to the endorphin rush and continue to self-harm to obtain this feeling of emotional release (58).

However, more research is needed to better understand endorphin addiction.

Summary

Though the mechanisms are not well understood, some people may become addicted to habits that lead to a surge in endorphins.

Though endorphins and opioids act on the same receptors, known as opioid receptors, they have important differences.

Opioid drugs (e.g., morphine and fentanyl) act on opioid receptors to release dopamine, the feel-good chemical produced by the brain. The effects of these drugs are temporary and soon subside, which usually pushes a person to want to repeat this sensation (59).

After long-term use of opioids, the body becomes accustomed to the higher levels of dopamine and requires a larger dose to obtain the same benefits. This cycle repeats itself and leads to a constant search to achieve the same “high” as before (59).

Ultimately, opioid drugs can be highly addictive and lead to a decreased ability to feel pleasure from other rewarding activities, such as eating food, socializing, and having sex (59).

Withdrawal from opioid drugs can lead to serious side effects that sometimes resemble a person going through grief, such as anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, and mood swings.

Contrarily, endorphins act similarly to help manage pain but have a less intense response. They’re naturally produced by the body and usually do not reach levels of saturation that require more of the activity to promote that same feeling of pleasure (60, 61).

If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid addiction, speak with a healthcare professional, visit samsa.gov (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), or call their helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Summary

Opioids are drugs that attach to opioid receptors in the brain to promote feelings of pleasure and alleviate pain. Endorphins also act on opioid receptors, but they don’t have the same addictive properties and are naturally made by the body.

Endorphins are the body’s natural pain reliever and also promote pleasure. They’re produced during activities such as exercise, sex, laughter, dancing, and listening to music.

They have many health benefits, including reduced rates of depression and anxiety, improved mood, decreased pain and discomfort, and increased self-esteem.

While endorphins can be helpful for some people, they may not work for everyone. If you find that you’re having difficulty regulating your mood or managing pain, speak with your healthcare provider, who may recommend additional therapies and treatment.

That said, finding ways to naturally increase your endorphins can be a simple yet effective way to promote your health and well-being.