All You Need to Know About Endorphins

Medically Reviewed By Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP
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Endorphins, often called the “happy hormones,” are neurotransmitters that help block pain and promote pleasant sensations in the body. The body naturally releases endorphins. It can also get a boost of endorphins from certain activities, such as exercising, having sex, and even helping others.

This article explains more about endorphins, including their functions, what happens if they get too low, and how you can help boost your endorphin levels. 

What are endorphins? 

woman smiling by the ocean
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Endorphins have two roles:

  • as neurotransmitters, which send messages to the brain
  • as hormones released directly into the bloodstream

Specifically, endorphins are opioid neuropeptides that block pain receptors, thereby decreasing the perception of pain. They also make people feel good and happy. 

There are three different types of endorphins, and each type is linked to different effects in the body.

For instance, beta-endorphin — which is an endogenous opioid — is specifically associated with “runner’s high.” This is a feeling of euphoria after exercise.

On the other hand, people who have lower levels of beta-endorphin have been found to need higher levels of pain medication during labor and after surgery to control their pain. 

Endorphins are also involved in other states of happiness and pleasure, such as:

  • laughing
  • feeling love
  • having sex
  • eating good food

Endorphins vs. dopamine 

Both endorphins and dopamine are neurotransmitters, which means that they send, or “transmit,” messages to the brain. Although endorphins send messages primarily related to pain to the brain, dopamine activates the brain’s “reward” system. 

The exact role of dopamine in the brain and body is complex, but it does create pathways in the brain that feel good initially. This then prompts someone to want to repeat the action that led to that first dopamine “hit” again. When you encounter that situation again, your brain may release anticipatory dopamine because it remembers the “reward” from last time. 

For instance, rewarding acts such as eating food, having sex, using certain drugs, and even picking up your phone are all actions that release dopamine in the brain. 

Endorphins vs. opioids 

Opioids are medications that act in a similar way to endorphins in the body. They block pain by attaching to opioid receptors on nerve cells in certain areas of the body. When the receptors are “full” because the opioids are there, there is no space for the pain messages to attach, so pain is decreased. 

Opioids can relieve pain, but they are also very addictive and can have some dangerous side effects. In some cases, endorphins can actually have similar effects on pain relief as opioids. For instance, endorphins can be more effective for pain relief than morphine. 

What are the benefits of endorphins? 

Endorphins have many benefits to the body. These include:

  • decreasing pain
  • increasing happiness and overall well-being
  • helping with stress management and responses
  • reducing anxiety
  • improving confidence
  • helping manage emotions
  • boosting feelings of love
  • playing a role in sexual relationships
  • promoting labor, delivery, and lactation in pregnancy and birth

What boosts endorphins? 

While endorphins occur naturally in the body, there are also ways to boost their production and release. Increasing endorphins can help with things such as managing stress, decreasing pain, and increasing overall well-being. 

Some short-term stress activities — such as exercising or skydiving — can help boost endorphins, but long-term stress depletes them.

The following are all proven ways to boost endorphins in the body. 

Exercise 

Exercise may be one of the best ways to increase endorphin levels in the body.

For instance, high intensity interval training has been found to be effective in increasing endorphins, reducing pain, and increasing overall feelings of well-being and happiness. 

Acts of charity 

Helping others or performing even small, random acts of kindness has been found to boost levels of both endorphins and oxytocin — which is another feel-good hormone — in the body.

Also, helping others may “reprogram” your brain in some ways so that it becomes easier to stay happy. 

Holistic practices

Practices such as meditation and deep breathing have been found to increase endorphin production. 

Foods 

Endorphins are released when consuming certain types of foods or beverages. Some even release more endorphins than others. 

“Highly palatable” foods, or foods that are tasty, have been found to produce the highest levels of endorphins in the brain. 

Activities

Many feel-good activities can also release endorphins, such as:

  • having sex
  • laughing and smiling
  • drawing or coloring
  • being outside in nature
  • planning a trip or vacation
    • In fact, planning the trip may do more for your mental health than actually taking the trip.
  • planning a surprise for someone else
  • gardening 

Music 

Listening to music can release endorphins in the body.

Although listening to music can release endorphins, there is also evidence to suggest that participating in music — be that creating it, singing to it, or dancing along to it — provides the strongest boost of endorphins. 

Massage and bodywork

Massage and other types of bodywork can help release endorphins in the body to produce feelings of relaxation and happiness and to reduce pain. 

For instance, the endorphin-boosting power of massage is so powerful that it has even been found to be effective in reducing the pain of labor during childbirth.

Acupuncture can also increase endorphin levels. 

What happens with low endorphin levels? 

When endorphin levels are low, many different things can happen in the body. For instance, low endorphin levels have been found to be associated with:

  • increased pain during childbirth and surgery
  • poor stress management
  • alcohol misuse
  • substance misuse
  • mental health conditions
  • migraine disorders
  • anxiety
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Alzheimer’s disease 
  • inflammation 

Depression and endorphins

When it comes to the role of endorphins, depression is a somewhat controversial condition. Some research has found that people with clinical depression have low levels of a certain endorphin, while others have found the opposite. 

Overall, however, it is thought that some of the symptoms of depression can improve, in part, with endorphin-boosting activities such as exercise. 

Summary

Endorphins are brain messengers and hormones that have a primary role in pain. They also influence overall feelings of happiness and well-being. For instance, the phenomenon known as “runner’s high” is a flood of endorphins after exercise. 

Activities such as exercise, acts of kindness, meditation, massage, and even deep breathing can increase the production and release of endorphins in the body. Endorphins also play a significant role in someone’s ability to manage stress and cope with the stressors they encounter. 

On the other hand, having low levels of endorphins in the body can lead to or worsen conditions such as depression, Alzheimer’s disease, inflammation, anxiety, and alcohol and substance misuse. 

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Medical Reviewer: Meredith Goodwin, MD, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 17
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