What Are Endorphins?

Man and woman enjoying endorphin release after exercise
Exercise can cause a release of endorphins. Peopleimages/Getty Images

You've probably heard of endorphins in relation to the positive mood boost you feel after exercise—if not, maybe you've heard your fitness-enthusiast friend mentioning the hormone's incredible effects. It's not abnormal to feel more energized, alert, and cheerier after you work out, thanks to the endorphins flowing through your body.

While you may know endorphins in the context of exercise, they have additional wellness duties, too, particularly to relieve pain and increase pleasure. A long run may receive more endorphin love and attention, but your body is experiencing endorphin effects more often than you think!

What Are Endorphins?

Endorphins are peptides that are found throughout the body, brain, and cells of the immune system. They are known for their pain-relieving effects and are also involved in the reward systems and other homeostasis-restoring behaviors.

Types of Endorphins

There are 20 different types of endorphins. The ones most commonly researched are beta-endorphins, gamma-endorphins, and alpha endorphins.

Gamma-endorphins were thought to reduce psychosis symptoms in individuals with schizophrenia, however, later research showed that they were no more effective than a placebo. Beta-endorphins are best known for their role in boosting well-being and providing pain relief.

How Do Endorphins Work?

Endorphins are produced in the pituitary gland and the central nervous, and they act on the opiate receptors in your brain. The release of endorphins is associated with the body's pain response. They exert a painkiller effect that is thought to be more potent than morphine.

In response to a painful or stressful event, endorphins inhibit somatosensory fibers from detecting severe pain. This is why you might feel pain hours after an injury has occurred—after the endorphin effect as diminished.

Additionally, endorphins work to enhance states of pleasure including love, sex, laughter, and even delicious food. Endorphins act in the central nervous system to increase the production and action of dopamine, the pleasure and reward hormone.

The most commonly known endorphin release—the release associated with exercise—is also associated with pain relief, which is why individuals may feel so good after they work out.

Through PET scans of athletes' brains, researchers were able to see an increase in endorphins after exercise. Endorphins are released during exercise, which can prevent the muscles from feeling pain. The relaxed state you may feel after exercise is due to endocannabinoids, chemicals naturally produced in the body that give you a sense of calm and reduced anxiety. Some healthcare professionals even prescribe exercise as an adjunct treatment for depression and anxiety.

What Are the Benefits of Endorphins?

Endorphins have several benefits in the body. Working to boost your endorphins is a great way to support both your mental and physical well-being.

Increase Pleasure

Endorphins are released during any activity that gives us pleasure including laughter, sex, eating, and even listening to music.

One study examined the role of endorphins related to appetite and eating in humans. The study showed that eating induced significant endorphin release in the brain; it also concluded that not only were endorphins released due to how the meal tasted, but the release was also related to a metabolic and homeostatic response.

Reduce Pain, Stress, and Anxiety

Endorphins may be best known and extensively studied for their role in attenuating the stress response. They are released when you sprain your ankle, have surgery, and even during more benign types of stress such as taking a school test.

Additionally, endorphins are known as the body's natural painkillers. Their soothing effect relieves pain and creates a general sense of well-being.

Improve Mood

It is commonly known that exercise improves mood. That is in part due to the release of endorphins during (and after) activity. Endorphin-releasing activities, like exercise, are being studied more in relation to mental health treatment.

One study looked at the efficacy of exercise as a treatment for depression, both as an independent intervention as well as an adjunct intervention to antidepressant medication. The study showed that physical activity had a moderate to large effect on depression compared to controls and could be an effective intervention for those who suffer with depression.

It's important to note that exercise is not a cure for depression; endorphins simply may provide symptomatic relief for some individuals.

An extreme mood-boosting effect of exercise, known as a runner's high, is a euphoric response to endurance running. While many runners are able to achieve and enjoy this runner's high, it's crucial to note that this euphoric feeling may also contribute to exercise addiction.

May Support a Healthy Immune System

Endorphins are thought to improve the immune response and decrease inflammation. When the immune system is activated, cortisol, a hormone that regulates inflammation, is released. Research shows that beta-endorphins have an inhibitory effect on immune responses. They also decrease inflammation in the gut as well as joints, muscles, and connective tissue in those with rheumatic diseases.

May Improve Memory and Cognitive Function

Opioid receptors in the brain have been found to stimulate various growth factor receptors. Low levels of growth factor receptors are associated with mild cognitive impairment. Releasing endorphins stimulates growth factor receptors that have neuroprotective effects in ischemia, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease.

How Can You Increase Endorphins?

There are several ways to increase your endorphins naturally. The good news is, many of them you can do anywhere and anytime you feel like you need a mood boost.

Exercise

Exercise is well-known for its mood-boosting effects and role in decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Simply going for a brisk walk or a gentle bike ride can cause a surge in endorphins. As little as 20-30 minutes of movement a day can help boost your endorphin levels.

Laugh

They say laughter is the best medicine and the research confirms its therapeutic impact. Laughing releases endorphins, along with dopamine and serotonin, to boost your mood while also decreasing the stress hormone, cortisol. This can help reduce pain, stress, lower blood pressure, and support the immune system.

Listen to Music

There is a growing body of research showing music's ability to support your well-being. Many studies show music's ability to reduce pain by releasing endorphins. This is partially why music therapy is becoming increasingly popular in hospitals and therapy settings as an effective intervention.

Additionally, studies show that listening to music during exercise can help you exercise longer by alleviating some discomfort and promoting a positive mood.

Eat Dark Chocolate

Certain foods may boost endorphins more than others—dark chocolate is one of them. Dark chocolate is rich in polyphenolic compounds that trigger the brain to release endorphins. It also contains a small amount of caffeine, which has been seen to have mood-boosting effects.

Meditate

Meditation helps one become more mindful and present. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces the body's stress response system. Individuals who meditate regularly are shown to have greater pain tolerances, so it is thought that meditation may release endorphins.

Can you be addicted to endorphins?

There is limited research on the topic, but some individuals may become addicted to the adrenaline rush they feel during certain activities. People who participate in extreme sports such as skydiving, rock climbing, and mountain biking are often referred to as "adrenaline junkies." They pursue dangerous activities to earn an adrenaline rush, and much like drug addiction, need even more dangerous activities to feel the same rush overtime. Additionally, studies show that these individuals experience withdrawal symptoms after not engaging in their sport for a period of time.

It is also possible for your body to not release enough endorphins, which can have negative health consequences. Individuals who do not produce enough endorphins may be at risk for increased chronic pain, risk of depression and anxiety, addiction, and trouble sleeping.

A Word From Verywell

Endorphins are so important for boosting mood and abating the pain response. However, there are instances where a constant need for endorphins can be a bad thing. It is possible to become addicted to the euphoric feeling produced by certain activities where endorphins are released, which can cause an addiction to exercise or other potentially dangerous sports. If you think you may be experiencing an exercise addiction or excessive and unhealthy need for endorphins, speak to a healthcare professional.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What exercise releases the most endorphins?

    Studies show that moderate-intensity or HIIT workouts may release the most endorphins. Additionally, group exercise may also give a good endorphin boost.

  • What foods release endorphins?

    Certain foods release endorphins. You may even find yourself automatically reaching for these foods when you're feeling down. Foods that release endorphins include dark chocolate, citrus fruits, spicy food, bell peppers, and salmon. Chocolate is a common food consumed when stressed. Research shows that chocolate consumption is linked to the release of feel-good hormones—serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins.

  • What happens if you have too little endorphins?

    Too little endorphins may result in increases in aches and pains, depression, anxiety, mood swings, and addiction. Studies in individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are shown to have a disturbed beta-endorphin system. Without a normal endorphin response, the study participants had more symptoms of hypo-arousal, anxiety, and depression. Research also interestingly shows that people who suffer from migraines have low blood levels of endorphins.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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