Last Updated on July 26, 2022 by Valarie Ward
Pleasure Chemicals Series
Many of our day-to-day feelings, both physical and mental, can be traced back to the chemicals in our brain. While stress chemicals like cortisol can make us feel on edge, pleasure chemicals like endorphins can make us feel better and start out our days on a better path.
We’re going to talk about endorphins today as the last of our pleasure chemicals series, which has also covered serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and oxytocin. These chemicals can help lower cortisol and help you feel happier or more in control of your life; the lack of them can make you feel stressed, or like you don’t have the ability to keep up with your responsibilities.
Endorphins: The pain relief chemical
To talk about the pleasure chemicals, we need to go over a few different terms for messenger chemicals in your body.
Hormones: Hormones send messages from one area of the body to the other; think, for instance, of the brain sending messages to your organs or vice versa. These usually travel a long distance in the body.
Neurotransmitters: Neurotransmitters usually send messages over a much shorter distance, like one part of your brain to another. Serotonin and dopamine are both neurotransmitters. They work fairly quickly and then burn out, like a tiny burst of pride and relief you get from turning in an assignment for school or work.
Neuropeptides: Neuropeptides work more slowly in the body. Oxytocin is another neuropeptide, activated especially by social contact and touch. You can think about how a great call with a friend might still make you happy a day or two after you had it.
Endorphins are both hormones and neuropeptides–more specifically, opioid peptides. That doesn’t mean endorphins are opioids; in fact, opioids work by releasing dopamine, not endorphins. But both opioid medications and endorphins work on the opioid system of the body, which is responsible for pain relief and stress reduction.
An increase in endorphins–usually caused by engaging in pleasurable activities like exercise, laughter, and meditation–can help decrease your stress and pain and increase your mental well-being. Let’s talk a little bit more about ways to get more of those chemical benefits.
The “Runner’s High”
You may have heard of a “runner’s high”–when, during a high-intensity workout, a person will suddenly feel a surge of euphoria and forget all about their pain. This has historically been tied to endorphins, but the reality is a bit more complicated.
Endorphins are fairly large molecules that are not able to cross the blood-brain barrier. This is an important system in your body that keeps certain chemicals in your bloodstream from entering your brain; it helps regulate you! This barrier is also why, for example, the serotonin you may get from foods you eat does not impact your brain, or has a very small impact.
Instead, the runner’s high is formed by endocannabinoids. A little science lesson for you: You are probably familiar with the word cannabis in the middle. The two compounds cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are both cannabinoids. The endo in the front of the word, as in endorphins, simply means that other cannabinoids are formed within the body; you don’t need an external source for them. We do know that THC binds to the same receptors that endocannabinoids do, and therefore it can have similar effects–but it is still not legal in North Carolina, and can have many other unpleasant side effects like anxiety, paranoia, and even hallucinations. However, we aren’t yet sure how CBD interacts with our body’s normal endocannabinoid system.
Regardless, when endocannabinoids are formed (such as in aerobic exercise), they can then stimulate the creation of endorphins in the body. So you can still get pleasure from intense aerobic exercise–just not in the direct way we once thought.
Getting More Endorphins
As we’ve described, exercise can (in a roundabout way) increase your levels of endorphins. But there are several other lifestyle changes where our current research suggests a connection with endorphins, too.
- Dance. In addition to aerobic exercise as described in the last section, dance can be a very pleasurable form of exercise that can stimulate the production of endorphins. The study linked focuses on the benefits for social bonding in a group dance session, but any aerobic exercise can increase endocannabinoids and therefore stimulate endorphin production.
- Meditation. If you’re not feeling up for movement right now, meditation can also provide endorphins for a little stress relief. Or, try yoga to combine the benefits of exercise with the benefits of meditation!
- Sunlight. Several other pleasure chemicals (like dopamine) that we’ve discussed in this series have a strong relationship with Vitamin D, produced via access to sunlight. Based on our current research, we are not sure whether there’s a relationship between Vitamin D and endorphins, but there does appear to be a correlation between UV light and endorphins, whether that relates to Vitamin D or not. This means spending some time outside or by an open window might help reduce your chronic pain with time.
- Laughter. It may not quite be the best medicine, but laughter does increase your levels of dopamine. (As a bonus, laughing with friends will also stimulate more good feelings, like the social hormone oxytocin.)
Ever heard laughter is the best medicine? It isn’t entirely true (medicine is the best medicine!), but laughter is just one of the ways that you can build endorphins in your body which can help lessen both physical and emotional pain. In addition, if you’ve been having trouble sleeping lately, studies show that increasing your endorphin production throughout the day might help you get to sleep a little easier at night and maintain a healthy circadian rhythm (“sleep schedule”).
In general, the other ways to increase pain-relieving endorphins are simply things that make you happy. Go seeking a little bit of joy in your life and you’ll probably find it increases your well-being instantly. Plus, as a neuropeptide, the benefits of endorphins may last you a couple of days.