Endorphins are chemicals naturally produced by the nervous system to deal with pain or stress. They are often called “feel-good molecules” because they can act as a pain reliever and a happiness booster. Endorphins are primarily made in the hypothalamus and pituitary, but they can also come from other parts of the body. The famous “runner’s second wind” that one feels after a long and vigorous exercise is due to an increase in endorphin levels.
The level of endorphins in the human body varies from person to person. People with lower levels are more likely to have depression or fibromyalgia.
What are endorphins?
Endorphins are chemicals produced by the body to relieve stress and pain. They work in the same way as a class of drugs called opioids. Opioids relieve pain and can produce feelings of euphoria. They are sometimes prescribed for short-term use after surgery or to relieve pain. In the 1980s, scientists were studying how and why opioids worked. They discovered that the body has special receptors that bind to opioids to block pain signals.
Scientists then realized that certain chemicals in the body act in a similar way to natural opioid drugs, by binding to these same receptors. These chemical molecules were endorphins. The name endorphin comes from the words “endogenous”, which means “coming from the body”, and “morphine”, which is an opioid painkiller. Natural endorphins work similarly to opioid pain medications, but their results may not be as dramatic. However, endorphins can produce a healthy and safe “second wind” without the risk of addiction and overdose.
Naturally increase your endorphin levels
Regular exercise helps fight anxiety and depression due to the endorphins it releases. For years, researchers suspected that endorphins caused what is known as the “second wind.” A feeling of euphoria that occurs after long and vigorous physical activity.
However, it was not possible to measure endorphins in humans until 2008, when new imaging technology appeared. Researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) to visualize the brains of athletes before and after exercise. They found an increase in endorphin release after exercise.
Because exercise boosts mood and increases endorphins, some health professionals prescribe regular exercise to treat mild to moderate depression and anxiety. Exercise can be used safely. A study indicates that exercise can improve some symptoms of depression, just like antidepressants.
Volunteering, donating, helping others
Volunteering, donating, and helping others can also contribute to a person’s well-being. Researchers from the National Institutes of Health have found that people who donate money to charity activate pleasure centers in their brains. This can lead to improved endorphin levels.
Yoga and meditation
Meditation and yoga are known for their anti-stress and relaxing effects. This may be partly due to a release of endorphins. Some research suggests that yoga and meditation can decrease markers of stress and increase endorphins.
People who enjoy spicy foods can find extra energy in their favorite meals. Some research suggests that the spicy components of chili peppers and other similar foods can trigger a sore sensation in the mouth, which leads to an increase in endorphins.
Research from 2013 suggests that consuming dark chocolate may increase endorphin levels. Cocoa powder and chocolate contain chemicals called flavonoids that appear to benefit the brain.
A 2017 study showed that eating chocolate may help increase endorphins. However, many commercial chocolate products contain only small amounts of real cocoa and often contain generous amounts of added sugar and fat.
People who want to use chocolate to improve endorphin levels and mood should look for products that contain at least 70% cocoa. Be careful, eat chocolate in moderation because of its high calorie and fat content.
Much research has been written about the health benefits of laughter, and studies suggest that laughter increases endorphins. A 2017 study showed that laughter releases endorphins in the brain.
Low endorphins and health issues
Low endorphin levels have been linked to depression and headaches.
When endorphin levels are too low, a person’s health can be negatively affected.
Some studies have shown a possible link between the following health problems and low endorphin levels:
Without enough endorphins, a person may be more susceptible to depression. An article in the American Journal of Psychiatry discusses the long-standing use of opioid treatments for depression, especially in cases where other treatments haven’t worked.
Another article suggests that higher endorphin levels have an effect on symptoms of depression due to their association with reward.
Common symptoms of fibromyalgia are:
- long-term pain throughout the body
- sore spots that hurt when touched
- muscle stiffness
- fatigue and lack of energy
- sleep problems
- People with fibromyalgia may have lower than normal endorphin levels. One study showed that people with fibromyalgia had lower endorphin levels than people without the condition. They measured endorphins before and after exercise.
Another study showed that increased body endorphins correlated with pain relief in people with fibromyalgia.
People with fibromyalgia may be advised to do certain activities to increase endorphins. Like exercise, connecting with others, and anti-stress activities, like yoga.
One of the possible causes of permanent headaches is abnormal endorphin levels. Some research suggests that the same endorphin imbalance that contributes to depression is also present in people who suffer from chronic headaches.
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