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Endorphins – Our own natural pain reliever

Depression, Pain | May 6, 2020 | Author: Naturopath

depression, Pain

Endorphins – Our own natural pain reliever

Endorphin is the body’s own endogenous morphine, produced by the body to block pain and allow us to participate in the experience of pleasure. The word endorphin is made from two words: endogenous – meaning coming from the body and morphine, an opiate pain-reliever.


Opioids can be endogenous (made in the body) or exogenous (from outside the body). Endogenous opioids that bind to receptors include enkephalins, endorphins, endomorphins, dynorphins, and nociception/orphanin. Whilst morphine, heroin and fentanyl are exogenous opioids, substances that are introduced into the body. These drugs bind to the same receptors as endogenous opioids. Opioids as medicines have been around for thousands of years and are one of the oldest drugs known. They are natural extracts from Papaver somniferum (the poppy plant) and used for analgesia (pain relief) and sedation. Opioids as drugs are associated with addiction.

Endorphins (and enkephalins) are opioids, natural pain-relieving chemicals in the body. When pain is experienced anywhere in the body, the pain impulses travel up the spinal cord to the brain which then act on the opiate receptors releasing endorphins and enkephalins which block pain signals, reducing pain and inducing pleasure. The “high” experienced from physical activity, pleasurable sex and eating comes from a release of endorphins.

They offer pain relief and the ability to carry-on when hurt

Endorphins function as neurotransmitters in the central nervous system and as peptides (protein hormones) created in the pituitary gland and released into the circulatory system.

Endorphins have been linked to some mental issues such as alcoholism, autism, depression and depersonalization disorder (associated with very high anxiety). On a positive, endorphin have many benefits not only with the experience of pain-relief – determined to be greater than exogenous morphine, and the response experienced by exercise but also:

  • Alleviating depression
  • Stress reduction
  • Self esteem
  • Appetite regulation
  • Pregnancy pain relief

Releasing feel good chemicals

Releasing feel good chemicalsExercise

Exercise is good for our physical and mental health. Exercise increases endogenous opioid activity in the central and peripheral nervous system which results in a state of euphoria and can reduce pain sensation.

One study showed high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for one hour resulted in a significant increase in endorphin release compared to an hour of less demanding exercise.

Anxiety reduction is associated with exercise and endorphin release. Evidence from numerous studies and meta-analyses suggest regular physical activity impacts the pathophysiology of anxiety resulting in reduced anxiety. The best results are often achieved after 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity. The bottom line here is we know that any exercise is good for us.

Have a good laugh

Social laughter triggers the endogenous opioid release in the brain. Having a good laugh with others helps us to develop and reinforce social bonds. Social laughter has a positive effect on mood and calmness due to the anxiolytic effects of increased opioid release.

Be generous

Giving to others makes us feel happy. Individual acts of kindness have been shown to release endorphins, oxytocin (hormone associated with bonding) and create neurol connections.

Enjoy dining

Eating leads to opioid release in the brain and feelings of satiety and pleasure may be due to the opioid release. It was found to be the pleasure of eating, not necessarily the type of food, which leads to the flood of opioids, but may link to the nutritional density of that food. There are some foods which are linked to increases in endophins. For example:

  • Dark chocolate (the one with high amounts of cocoa/cacao) contains high amounts of polyphenols associated with many health benefits such as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity and has been shown to stimulate the chemicals which help boost a happy mood, such as endorphins, serotonin and phenylethylamine.
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  • Chilli peppers contain a substance called capsaicin which gives a burning sensation when eaten (or applied topically) resulting in the release of endorphins to dampen the perceived pain.

Be in Love and making love

Endorphins can be thanked for the euphoric feeling you experience during sex. Sex also offers stress and pain relief and helps boost self-esteem. Endorphins are associated with feelings of attachment and comfort. 

Meditation and mindfulness. Improve mood and reduce stress with meditation and mindfulness.

Brain-boosting nutrients

  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin C
  • Zinc
  • Iron

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Herbal medicine

St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is commonly known for its treatment in depressive and anxiety disorders. It is also valuable as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory. Its antinociceptive activity is related to the modulation of two different pathways, one of which is activation of the opioid system.

OpioidsRhodiola is an adaptogenic herb which help enhance memory and cognitive function. Rhodiola offers a calming effect by reducing cortisol and stimulating the release of endorphins.

Ginsengs are adaptogenic herbs which help with energy, stress reduction and healthy brain function – helping with the modulation of endorphin release.

Quercetin is a flavonoid found in many fruits, vegetables, leaves, seeds and grains. It offers many therapeutic potentials in the prevention and treatment of disease through its action as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antinociceptive activity probably through modulation of the opioidergic pathway.

When things go wrong

Alcohol addiction

Alcohol has been found to induce the activation of the endogenous opioid system. Alcoholics given a medicine to block this function (an opioid antagonist) were able to reduce the desire to drink, reduced the alcohol-induced high, and decreased the number of drinking days per week.
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Fibromyalgia is medical condition characterized by chronic widespread pain and heightened pain response to pressure. Fatigue, memory, dysfunctional sleep, stress, anxiety and depression are also symptoms of this disorder. The reason for this condition is hypothesized to be a result of a disorder of the natural endogenous opioid hormonal system.


Dysfunction of the opioid system can be the cause of morbid obesity. The opioid system regulates eating and results also suggest that overeating may continuously overstimulate the opioid system resulting in development of obesity.

In summary

Endorphins are chemicals produced in the brain to offer pain and stress relief and stimulate feelings of happiness

  • Low levels are associated with depression and fibromyalgia.
  • Opioid medication is sometimes prescribed for short term use for pain relief (such as after surgery).
  • Over-use of legal and illegal opioids can lead to addiction, over-dose and even death.
  • The body makes natural endorphins which are safe.
  • The best ways to release natural endorphins include regular exercise, be generous, laugh frequently with others, enjoy some sensual time and eat the foods you love.

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Biochemistry, Endorphin https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470306/

Biochemistry, Endogenous Opioids https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30422494/

Physiology, Opioid Receptor https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31536249/

Social Laughter Triggers Endogenous Opioid Release in Humans https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6596504/

Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632802/

Opioid Release after High-Intensity Interval Training in Healthy Human Subjects https://www.nature.com/articles/npp2017148


Stress and opioids: Role of opioids in modulating stress-related behavior and effect of stress on morphine conditioned place preference https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0149763415000299?via%3Dihub

Eating triggers endorphin release in the brain https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/08/170828102719.htm


Compassion and the science of kindness: Harvard Davis Lecture 2015 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4917056/

Rhodiola Rosea: A Possible Plant Adaptogen https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11410073/?from_term=endorphins+and+rhodiola&from_filter=simsearch2.ffrft&from_pos=2

St. John’s Wort Potentiates anti-Nociceptive Effects of Morphine in Mice Models of Neuropathic Pain https://academic.oup.com/painmedicine/article/18/7/1334/2924788

Quercetin, a bioflavonoid, attenuates thermal hyperalgesia in a mouse model of diabetic neuropathic pain https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S027858460300160X


Fibromyalgia, Autism, and Opioid Addiction as Natural and Induced Disorders of the Endogenous Opioid Hormonal System http://www.discoverymedicine.com/Brian-Johnson-2/2014/10/fibromyalgia-autism-and-opioid-addiction-as-natural-and-induced-disorders-of-the-endogenous-opioid-hormonal-system/

Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Chemicals That Make You Feel Love." ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-chemistry-of-love-609354.

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