Endorphins are neurotransmitters — brain chemicals that transmit signals throughout the nervous system. They play a key role in nervous system function and are produced in reaction to stimuli like pain, fear, and stress. Endorphins originate in the pituitary gland, spinal cord, and other parts of the nervous system. They can either promote or suppress the passing of signals from one neuron to the next.
Endorphins are associated with pain and pleasure. Research shows they can relieve pain better than morphine and are released during states of pleasure brought on by laughter, sex, love, and good food. Endorphins are also responsible for the euphoric feeling sometimes reached during exercise, commonly known as a runner's high.
In the peripheral nervous system, endorphins work by binding to opioid receptors located throughout the peripheral nerves. When endorphins bind to these receptors, the connection blocks the release of substance P, a small peptide that contributes to the pain response by transmitting pain signals from the sensory nerves to the central nervous system. As a result, feelings of pain are reduced.
Endorphins bind to receptors in the central nervous system (CNS), too. In the CNS, however, they inhibit the release of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) instead of substance P. Suppressing GABA leads to an increase of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.
Beta-endorphins originate in the pituitary gland. A lot of studies have been done on these chemicals; researchers believe they play a role in behavioral patterns that lead to alcoholism and obesity and may also contribute to psychological diseases, diabetes, and cerebral aging. In addition to acting as neuroregulators and neurotransmitters, beta-endorphins also affect some of the small blood vessels in the brain.
Enkephalins are another type of endorphin that is involved in multiple biological processes. They contribute to pain, pain relief, respiration, thirst, and hunger, to name a few. Enkephalins are distributed throughout the autonomous, central, and peripheral nervous systems, the endocrine tissues, and the organs they target, like the lungs, skin, and liver.
Dynorphins are endorphins that play a critical role in addiction and reward. Studies also suggest they have anticonvulsant and antiepileptic effects in some animals. Other research, performed on mice, into dynorphins and emotions indicate that they may play a role in mood, anxiety, and fear, though some of the data is inconsistent and additional research is needed.
Studies confirm that exercise can reduce the symptoms of depression. The endorphin hypothesis proposes that exercise increases the release of beta-endorphins, which increases mood and feelings of well-being. Questions about this hypothesis remain, though, as there is some argument that the level of peripheral endorphins may not reflect the levels present in the brain.
Opioid medications work by mimicking the body's natural endorphins. As a result, though, they begin to inhibit the production of natural endorphins, which may contribute to opioid tolerance and addiction. Ongoing research about the dynamics of beta-endorphins and non-opioid pain medication may provide advances in effective pain management that does not come with a risk of addiction.
There is some evidence from animal studies that endorphin release varies between men and women. It is likely that the level of endorphins released is even more individualized — from person to person — regardless of the stimuli. For example, multiple people who exercise at the same level may not all produce the same number of endorphins. Some foods contribute to the increased release of endorphins, including chocolate and chili peppers, though this also varies from one person to the next.
One of the most effective ways to naturally increase endorphin release is exercise, though there are other options, as well. Sex is an effective trigger for endorphin release, and studies show that acupuncture, massage, and meditation are also effective at increasing the number of endorphins released by the body.
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