Healthy Releases of Endorphins

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It can be excruciating to watch a loved one struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. Family members and close friends of those experiencing addiction often find it challenging to help, especially when the sufferer has a difficult time acknowledging that they need help, which is often the case.

Having an open and honest conversation may begin the recovery process; however, a more comprehensive approach is usually necessary. A formal intervention can help someone with addiction understand how their behavior is affecting those around them and offer a way out.

What are Endorphins?

Endorphins are chemicals produced naturally by the nervous system in response to physical pain or stress. They block pain perception (i.e., have an analgesic effect) and support a sense of pleasure or wellbeing.

The name “endorphin” is a combination of two other words: “endogenous” and “morphine.” Endogenous means they are produced within the human body. And morphine is an opioid painkiller whose effects are similar to endorphins. So, endorphins behave like endogenous morphine: natural pain relievers.

Endorphins are peptides (small proteins) that bind to opioid receptors within the central nervous system. They are produced and stored primarily in the pituitary gland. This gland is located in the brain. However, they may come from other parts of the body as well.

Endorphins interact mainly with receptors found in the parts of the brain responsible for registering pain sensations and controlling emotions. Their main job is to inhibit the transmission of pain signals. They can also create a feeling of euphoria very similar to that produced by opioid pain-relief medication

How Endorphins Work

Endorphins can function as neurotransmitters within the central and peripheral nervous system and as hormones within the circulatory system

1. Some Endorphins are Proteins that Act as Neurotransmitters

A neurotransmitter carries messages from one neuron to another within the central nervous system. Endorphins are what are known as inhibitory neurotransmitters. This means that they block other signals—in particular, pain signals.

2. Other Endorphins Act as Hormones in the Circulatory System

These endorphins are created in the pituitary gland and released into the bloodstream. They function similarly to the central nervous system—blocking pain signals throughout the body. These endorphins, for instance, may block pain sensations within muscles.

Both hormones and neurotransmitters carry messages to either start or stop something from happening within the body. The only difference is that neurotransmitters stay within the nervous system while hormones travel through the bloodstream. Both types of endorphins (neurotransmitters and hormones) block pain signals.

How Endorphins were Discovered

Opioid medications (aka narcotics) are often prescribed for short-term use after surgery or acute pain relief. In the 1970s, scientists became curious about how and why opioids such as morphine, codeine, or heroin worked to reduce pain. Their subsequent experiments discovered that the human body has specialized brain and spinal cord receptors.

Opioids bind to these receptors and then block the transmission of pain. Certain chemicals within the body behaved similarly to opioid medications, and scientists discovered that these chemicals were endorphins. So, endorphins are the body’s medicine chest: its natural narcotic

Endorphins vs. Opioid Pain Medications

Opioid pain-relief medications work by mimicking the body’s natural endorphins. While such medications may be helpful and necessary in the short term, ongoing use carries significant risks—including addiction.

Also, the administration of exogenous opioids (i.e., prescription or illicit narcotics) tends to inhibit the production of endogenous opiates. In other words, misusing opioid medications can harm the body’s ability to produce its endorphins8.

Natural endorphins work in a similar way to opioid pain relievers. Though their results may not be as dramatic, endorphins create a “high.” This high feeling is healthy and safe, without the risk of addiction or overdose.

The Function & Benefits of Endorphins

Endorphins have four main functions in the human body. These functions can help people comfortably live their life daily. The feelings that endorphins provide are essential for a happy and healthy life.

1. To Relieve Pain

2. To Reduce Stress Throughout the Body

3. To Regulate Immune & Inflammatory Responses

4. To Trigger the Release of Dopamine

Endorphins vs. Dopamine

Endorphins and dopamine are sometimes confused with one another because both are “feel-good” biochemicals produced within the human body. Dopamine and endorphins belong to this category of “feel-good” hormones and neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Serotonin is known as the “happiness hormone.”

But endorphins and dopamine function in different ways. Endorphins relieve pain by blocking the transmission of pain signals. Dopamine creates pleasant feelings and the motivation to act in ways that help sustain the pleasant feelings.

Though they are different substances, endorphins and dopamine are intimately related. When endorphins bind to opioid receptors in the central nervous system, dopamine is released.
While the pain-relieving effects of endorphins are relatively short-lived, the pleasant effects of dopamine are more long-lasting. 

How to Increase Endorphins

Fortunately, there are a wide variety of ways to tap into endorphins. As a result, people can benefit from their stress-relieving, pain-reducing, and mood-enhancing benefits.

Endorphins are often associated with the euphoric “runner’s high” achieved through vigorous exercise. However, the opiate-like effects of an endorphin rush don’t necessarily require strenuous physical activity.

The human body produces and releases endorphins when:

Excerise to Release Endorphins

One of the easiest ways to release endorphins is by exercising. The more exercise an individual gets, the more endorphins their body will produce.3Exercise triggers endorphins because the exertion increases physical stress on the body. The body releases pain-relieving endorphins to counteract the discomfort of aching muscles.

The rate of endorphin release differs from person to person. However, weight-training and cardiovascular activities all signal the brain to release endorphins. As the heart rate increases and the sweat-glands start perspiring, the rush of endorphins kicks in. Thereby reducing the perception of pain in the person.

And for people trying to recover from a harmful addiction, exercise can be a highly effective coping strategy. The natural endorphin “high” provides a soothing and uplifting respite from the incessant craving for alcohol, drugs, or junk food. As a rule of thumb, 20 minutes of exercise daily is recommended.

The Runner's "High"

The so-called “runner’s high” is an intense feeling of euphoria that long-distance runners sometimes experience. They get this high after reaching a point of extreme stress or pain. It has been long assumed that the “runner’s high” results from an endorphin rush. However, recent research reveals that it may be primarily due to endocannabinoids rather than endorphins7.

The bottom line, however, remains the same: exercise is an excellent way to enhance the body’s endorphin production.

Meditation to Boost Endorphins

Like exercise, meditation can boost endorphin production. The effects of running and meditation on mood are very similar4. Both activities boost endorphins and enhance positive feelings.

Skillful meditation practice has numerous physical, mental, and emotional benefits, including increased serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins6. This cocktail of chemicals flooding the bloodstream leaves the meditator feeling joyful, calm, and content.

Meditation, deep breathing, qigong, and restorative yoga can also increase endorphins and calm the nervous system. There are many forms of meditation. Sitting quietly and following the movement of the breath is another excellent meditation technique.

Simple Breath Meditation

To begin this breath meditation, set a timer for ten minutes. Gradually increase (over the coming weeks or months) to 20-30 minutes, once daily.

How Endorphins Benefit Mental Health

The benefits of exercise to help relieve depression are well documented2. And a vital component of the effectiveness of exercise has to do with the release of endorphins. This is because activating opioid receptors (which endorphins do) relieves symptoms of depression.

But depression is not the only mental health condition that benefits from the release of endorphins. Because endorphins have a stress-relieving effect, they can also benefit those recovering from anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As endorphin levels increase, feelings of stress and anxiety tend to decrease.

And a lack of endorphins may be partly responsible for certain forms of mental illness, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). If endorphins are partly responsible for knowing when “enough is enough,” their absence could be part of the OCD mechanism.

Misreading endorphin levels may also be involved in extreme states of rage or anxiety. Without appropriate endorphin levels, the body may be flooded with “fight-or-flight” hormones. These hormones may be out of proportion to the actual situation.

And finally, endorphins have been shown to increase confidence levels, leading to improved self-image and self-esteem10.

Endorphins & Addiction Treatment

The effects of endorphins can be an excellent support for individuals recovering from a Substance Abuse Disorder. Naturally produced endorphins have no harmful side effects. And procuring them creates no financial burden. Their only “cost” is the time and commitment required to engage in activities that enhance the body’s natural endorphin production.

And best of all, endorphins are not addictive. So, learning to boost endorphins is a safe and healthy habit that’s well worth cultivating.

Why Aren't Endorphins Addictive?

Boosting the body’s production of endorphins creates many of the same effects as opioid medications, without the risk of addiction. Both endorphins and opioids can connect to opioid receptors within the nervous system—because they have a similar molecular shape.

The difference lies in what happens after this initial connection. When endorphins connect to the opioid receptors, they’re almost immediately broken down by enzymes.

When opiates connect to these same receptors, their different chemical structure makes them resistant to the enzymes. Because they don’t immediately break down, the opioids continue activating the receptors. This extends the opioid “high” and amplifies the euphoric feelings. And will increase the risk of addiction and other adverse side effects that can damage the brain.

This difference in chemical structure is why endorphins are an excellent natural alternative to opioid medications. Individuals recovering from substance use disorders can enjoy endorphins’ pain relief, stress reduction, and feel-good effects. As natural endorphins are a safe replacement for addictive substances.

Receive Addiction Treament

Endorphins are chemicals produced naturally throughout the body and can be boosted by exercise, meditation, pain, and pleasure. Endorphins can benefit mental health and addiction recovery by reducing symptoms of addiction and mental health disorders. By participating in activities that increase endorphins, overall health can increase. 

The foundation for recovery is rooted in healthy and sustainable living habits. And is also supported by the four pillars of lasting sobriety. These four pillars are exercise, nutrition, community, and education. Healthy Life Recovery provides caring staff, skilled therapists, and medical professionals to ensure each patient’s comfort and safety.

Dr. Sanajai Thankachen

Medically Reviewed By:

Dr. Sanjai Thankachen

Dr. Sanjai Thankachen graduated from Adichunchanagiri Institute of Medicine in 2000. He completed his residency in psychiatry in 2008 at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in New York. Dr. Thankachen is currently working with Pacific Neuropsychiatric Specialists in an outpatient practice, as well as working at multiple in-patient psychiatric and medical units bringing his patients the most advanced healthcare treatment in psychiatry. Dr. Thankachen sees patients with an array of disorders, including depression, bipolar illness, schizophrenia, anxiety, and dementia-related problems.

More About Dr. Sanjai Thankachen

Sean Leonard Bio Image

Edited for Clinical Accuracy By:

Sean Leonard, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Sean Leonard is a board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner. He received his master’s degree in adult geriatric primary care nurse practitioner from Walden University and a second postmaster specialty in psychiatry mental health nurse practitioner from Rocky Mountain University. Sean has experience working in various diverse settings, including an outpatient clinic, inpatient detox and rehab, psychiatric emergency, and dual diagnosis programs. His specialty areas include substance abuse, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, PTSD, ADHD, and OCD.

More About Sean Leonard

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