How Endorphins Work

Sarah B. Weir, Shine Senior Writer
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Endorphins are proteins produced naturally in the brain that have opiate-like effects. They reduce pain and can boost your mood. Although they interact with the nervous system like morphine or codeine, they aren't addictive.

Endorphins were discovered in the mid-1970s when scientists studying drug addiction found the brain had special receptors for morphine. They postulated that the brain must produce its own pain-killing chemicals for these receptors to exist. Shortly thereafter, researchers identified a substance called beta-endorphin, found in the pituitary gland and other parts of nervous system. When injected directly into the brain, it proved to be 48 times more powerful than manmade opiates at pain relief.

Though stress and pain are the two most common reasons the brain releases endorphins, research suggests that other activities such as exercise and eating certain foods can also stimulate their secretion. Benefits may include: an enhanced sense of well-being, pain relief, the release of sex hormones, and even improved immune system functioning.

No two people secrete the same amount of endorphins in response to stimuli. Jennifer Mitchell, PhD, author of a widely reported study on how consuming alcohol releases brain endorphins, also tells Yahoo! Shine, "The research on animals is there, but the research on humans is tenuous." She explains that when studying endorphins you generally work backwards by blocking them with the drug naltrexone and then seeing if an activity associated with their release becomes less pleasurable.

Research points to a number of natural ways to boost their levels. Mitchell says that it is worth trying safe activities that are purported to increase the release of endorphins while science continues to advance our knowledge brain chemistry using increasingly sophisticated technology such as PET scans.

Laughter. According to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, "laughter may be the best medicine." Not only does a good chuckle stimulate endorphins but also the hormones serotonin and dopamine.

Music. Researchers have found that listening to certain music causes biochemical changes in the brain. They have even identified which songs are best for boosting endorphins. Abba's "Dancing Queen" was high on the list along with "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin.

Chocolate. There may be a physiological reason we crave chocolate when we are feeling blue. Chocolate contains chemicals called N-acyclethanoloamines that reportedly boosts endorphins. Stick with high quality, dark chocolate.

Chili peppers. Eating hot peppers may improve your mood. Capsaicin, the substance that makes peppers hot, is reported to increase the secretion of endorphins. The hotter the pepper, the greater the effect.

Acupuncture. Some research suggests that the reason acupuncture is so effective is that it causes a release of endorphins.

Exercise. Numerous studies have shown that exercise stimulates endorphins. Heavy weight lifting and sprinting are thought to have the biggest impaction on endorphin secretion. Prolonged aerobic exercise can also lead to the famed "runner's high" - a possible product of endorphins.

Sex. Orgasm releases endorphins. In an interview with iVillage, Alan Hirsch, MD, neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago points out that having sex is a lot easier than going for a long run.

What boosts your mood? Let us know in the comments below.

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