You may have heard a lot about the body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals, but what are endorphins, exactly? These natural peptide chemicals produced in your body interact with receptors in your brain to help you feel focused, less impacted by pain and put you in a better mood. In fact, endorphins have a lot in common with prescription anti-anxiety drugs and opiate painkillers. While it might seem scary to know that endorphins work in a similar way to mood-controlling drugs like morphine, rest assure they provide the benefits without all the risks. Mind-altering substances commonly cause side effects, including mood swings, fatigue, brain fog and even addiction — but there’s really no downside to releasing more natural endorphins in order to feel better.
We regularly release opiate chemicals (“endorphins'”) in response to sources of pain or stress. The pleasure we get from these neurochemicals — which have similar effects to hormones such as dopamine and serotonin — are both legal and good for you long-term. Endorphins work with your body’s design, not against it, and wind up benefitting your mind-body connection in ways you probably don’t even realize.
What are some natural endorphin-boosting things you can do to reach a healthier mental state, without the risky side effects of drugs? As you’ll learn, these include habits like exercising in appropriate amounts, eating right and using other stress-relievers, including community connection or meditation.
What Are Endorphins
Endorphins are the popular term for chemical substances known as “opiate peptides.” Which neurochemicals qualify as “endorphins,” and what do endorphins do exactly?
Endorphins include enkephalins and dynorphins, substances associated with feelings of pleasure, sexuality/sensually, euphoria and pain relief. Essentially, endorphins promote a sort of “bliss,” providing a sense of well-being. Low levels of endorphins are associated with the opposite effects: physical and emotional pain (including chronic pain linked to disorders like fibromyalgia), addiction and higher incidence of risk-taking behaviors.
When most people talk about endorphins, they’re also referring to other neurotransmitters besides opiate peptides, including dopamine and serotonin.
Here’s a quick overview of how endorphins are released:
Medically speaking, we refer to chemical messengers of the mind that cause emotions as neurotransmitters. Endorphins are manufactured by the central nervous system (your brain, spinal cord and nerves that connect to many other parts of your body). (1) Through the production of certain neurotransmitters, the pituitary gland in your brain gets the signal to release particular endorphins depending on the situation, which then bind to neuron receptors. There’s also evidence that the immune system releases certain endorphins based on rising levels of inflammation, which is a mechanism useful for dulling pain. (2)
There are many different neurotransmitters that play a role in releasing endorphins, and they’re mostly made from nutrients we get from our diet — including amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), vitamins, fatty acids and minerals. This is why a healthy diet, especially when coupled with mood-boosting supplements, is key for sustaining a happier state of mind, focus, energy and other positive moods.
Certain endorphins act as natural analgesics, meaning they diminish your perception of pain. Others are natural sedatives, allowing you to feel relaxed enough to become drowsy and sleepy at certain points in the day. And neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin, keep you feeling motivated to accomplish tasks, connected to others and calmer in the face of stress or adversity.
Dopamine vs. Serotonin: Their Effects & Key Differences
Your endocrine (hormonal) system functions at a slower pace than your nervous system, but the two must work together to maintain internal balance and happiness. There are actually hundreds of different chemicals in the brain we call neurotransmitters or endorphins. These cause positive feelings, but the two that are probably the most well-known are dopamine and serotonin.
The combination of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and opiate endorphins are often called “the quartet.” Together, they’re responsible for most of our perception of “happiness”. (3) Let’s take a look at how these chemicals function and play off one another:
- Serotonin. Serotonin is often called the “happy hormone” because it improves your mood and helps beat depression. We need healthy levels of serotonin for mood stabilization, getting good sleep, dreaming and visualization. It also influences many physiological functions you probably wouldn’t expect, such as blood pressure levels, digestion and regulation of body temperature. Adequate levels of serotonin provide emotional and social stability, while low levels of serotonin are associated with various mental disturbances including: depression, anxiety, PMS, sugar/carbohydrate cravings, trouble sleeping, obsessive thinking and addiction to alcohol or drugs.
- Dopamine. (It’s closely related to the hormone noradrenalin, also called norepinephrine). Dopamine is considered one of the strongest “feel-good hormones” (neurotransmitters) that makes you feel energized, motivated and in control. Both dopamine and noradrenaline are associated with pleasure, motivation, alertness, concentration and euphoria. They are raised by sources of stress, but this doesn’t always mean “bad stress.” Noradrenaline levels tend to be higher in “positive stress” states like sex, being in love, during exercise or doing other fun things like dancing, laughing and listening to music. Low levels of dopamine/norepinephrine is associated with: depression, lack of concentration (brain fog), poor motivation and difficulty initiating and/or completing tasks.
There are other important neurochemicals to familiarize yourself with, too, including:
- GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid): relaxing and calming after experiencing stress, since it has a dampening effect on the central nervous system
- Catecholamines: energizers or natural stimulants
- Adrenaline (also called epinephrine): strong motivator, stimulating you to deal with and overcome stress
- Acetylcholine: improves memory and mental alertness
- Tryptamines: help with forming bonds and connection
- Melatonin: helps to keep you in tune with the cycles of nature and day/night
- DMT (dimethyltryptamine): useful for staying optimistic and seeing “the big picture” when stressed
7 Benefits of Endorphins
1. May Help You Overcome Addictions
The release of endorphins can be helpful for allowing you to escape addictions, including some that you may not even realize you have — such as overeating/binge-eating or other “normal” sources of overconsumption (like dependence on social media). When endorphins or other neurochemical levels drop, you’re more likely to look for unhealthy sources of comfort or reward, including drugs and alcohol. This is why healthy habits like exercise can be powerful for dealing with addiction, depression and boosting recovery.
2. Offer Relief from Stress, Depression or Anxiety
As you’ve learned, serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins all have powerful mood-boosting abilities. Several popular antidepressant drugs (such as Prozac or Zoloft) are called “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors,” or SSRIs. They work to decrease symptoms of depression by blocking neurons’ reuptake of serotonin, leaving more available and circulating in the bloodstream. This helps elevate your mood, although artificially. The same serotonin and endorphin perks, although usually to a lesser degree, can be felt from increasing levels naturally through things like your diet, hobbies and sleep (see below).
3. Protect Your Heart
Something that might surprise you about the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin is that it seems to improve immune function and even protects your heart from stress. (4) Consider this another reason to get a massage or hug someone for your health.
4. Make You Feel Sleepy, but Also Fight Fatigue
Endorphins, and especially serotonin, affect your overall moods, level of sleepiness and pain tolerance — all important parts of regulating your internal “clock” called the circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm helps you to intuitively know the cycles of day/wake versus night/sleep. This helps you wake up refreshed but feel drowsy before bed and during the night. Melatonin, dopamine and other chemicals, such as adrenaline, also affect your sleep cycle and send your brain a signal when it’s either time to wind down or rise and shine.
5. Keep Your Brain Sharp
Certain endorphins are highly beneficial for cognition, as well as fueling creativity and inspiration. We can thank the release of endorphins and neurochemicals like dopamine for allowing us to stay motivated and intrigued enough to produce great works of art, music and writing, to create scientific formulations and even to experience spiritual breakthroughs.
6. Help You Deal with Pain
Beta-endorphins are a type of neuropeptides involved in pain management, possessing morphine-like effects, according to a report published in Hawaii Medical Journal. (5)
The neuron receptors that endorphins bind to help decrease the perception of pain just like some prescriptions. In fact, certain pain-killing drugs act on the same binding sites that endorphins do. In low doses, the opiates morphine and codeine are actually found in normal cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. However when their levels are dramatically increased, they cause strong pain-killing effects. In normal circumstances without opiates circulating in your system, endorphins take on the role of controlling pain enough to help you carry on when injured or ill.
7. Help You Feel Connected to Others
Considering humans are a highly-social species, it’s not surprising we feel a natural “high”— thanks to the release of neurochemicals like oxytocin — when we experience a sense of unity with those around us, a deep connection with community or family and a shared sense of life’s purpose. Oxytocin is released during highly emotional moments like childbirth, when you’re in love and also during orgasms. (6) It helps increase fidelity and monogamy in relationships, motivates us to strengthen personal connections, helps us stay honest and facilitates compassion/empathy towards others.
7 Natural Ways to Increase Endorphins & Feel-Good Chemicals
The amazing thing about the human brain and body is that we are all capable of producing our own “natural highs,” without even taking illegal or prescription substances for help. Positive moods also thankfully work in a cyclical pattern: when we release endorphins following behaviors like exercise or time spent with others, we are motivated to repeat these behaviors again in the future. When we ask ourselves, “What are endorphins,” it’s important to also understand how to naturally boost endorphin levels.
1. Exercise Regularly
A large body of research shows that people who exercise regularly have added protection against depression, tend to deal with anxiety better and also get better sleep. (7) Exercise is one of the most endorphin-boosting things we can do, offering numerous benefits for both our bodies and minds (hence the name “runner’s high”). Studies show exercise even works similarly to meditation to increase well-being. Some of the ways that exercise releases endorphins and therefore improves your mood include: (8)
- Increasing self-esteem; we feel good about taking care of our own health
- Giving you a sense of accomplishment and mastery as you progress (due to dopamine)
- Increasing energy levels and helping you sleep more soundly (thanks to adrenaline and serotonin)
- Keeping you motivated to keep trying and improving in the future (due to dopamine)
- Leaving you with a more optimistic, positive and energized outlook on life
2. Eat A Healthy Diet
Because your diet is key for creating neurotransmitters, you can view certain healthy foods as near-perfect “brain foods.” Nutrient-dense foods can improve how you feel and think, plus balance your blood sugar, which acts as brain and body fuel. Stabilizing your mood with a healthy diet can also allow you to break your dependency on processed food substances that interfere with normal brain chemistry and deplete your energy over time. Here’s how to increase the release of endorphins such as serotonin through your dietary choices:
- Consume enough protein. Serotonin is made primarily through intake of tryptophan-rich foods, such as turkey or milk. Almost all protein sources will help release serotonin, including meat, fish, chicken, poultry, cheese, milk and eggs, which are complete proteins.
- Don’t skip plant foods. You can also combine a number of different plant foods, such as beans with sprouted grains, to get the same effects. In general, whole foods like seeds, nuts, beans, lentils, peas, corn or the germ of grains, such as buckwheat and oats, are all good plant sources of amino acids that help increase serotonin. Even some veggies, such as broccoli, spinach or cauliflower, are relatively rich in protein.
- Consume more antioxidant foods. Free radicals are the major cause of the aging process and also contribute to mental illness, since they attack brain cells and contribute to inflammation. Increase your intake of antioxidant foods by eating colorful plants like leafy greens, sweet potato, squash, citrus, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, broccoli and alfalfa sprouts.
- Eat healthy fats. Fats comprise 60 percent of the brain. Essential fatty acids produce hormones called eicosanoids, which are necessary for many chemical processes within the body. They stimulate the immune system, fight inflammation and support the activity of neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Get healthy fats from coconut or olive oil, wild-caught fish like Alaskan salmon, nuts, seeds and avocado.
- Avoid high consumption of alcohol and caffeine. Using and abusing these substances can lead the body to compensate by building a tolerance due to down-regulation. This makes it harder to quit, requires you to increase your intake to feel the same mood-boost, and causes side effects of “withdrawal” in some cases.
3. Laugh More!
Laughter is basically a quick-fix for feeling almost instantly better, thanks to the release of endorphins. Studies have even linked laughter with an elevated pain threshold. (9) Try regularly doing something to keep your sense of humor, such as playing with children, watching something funny, recalling a funny moment, sharing jokes, or attending live comedy events.
4. Connect with Others (This Includes Touch, Volunteering & Finding Purpose)
Connection — through means like being touched when receiving a massage or a hug, volunteering to help others or just having a deep conversation with someone you trust — all releases oxytocin and other chemicals that help you feel calm and comforted. Acupuncture and other hands-on treatments also seem to have similar effects according to some studies. (10) Make time to foster healthy relationships, reach out to others in need, find a sense of purpose and notice how good you feel when you do something nice for someone else.
5. Learn Something New
Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter involved in stimulus-reward-learning, so it can help us learn positive behaviors and stay motivated when used to our advantage. (11) Of course, the opposite is also true: a dopamine release is also triggered when we engage in a harmful habit (such as overeating junky food). This steers us in the direction of wanting to repeat these behaviors again.
Use dopamine’s reinforcing abilities to your benefit by learning something new, experiencing something novel, such as new location when traveling or making progress in a hobby or at work. These can all release feel good neurochemicals, making you want to repeat them. Challenge yourself regularly by finding new sources of engagement, and don’t shy away from taking on difficult tasks that can wind up be rewarding long-term.
6. Incorporate Soothing Tastes, Smells & Essential Oils
Aromatherapy, or simply smelling something that reminds you of comforting times (such as fresh baked cookies) has been linked to the release of endorphins. Essential oil scents such as vanilla, chamomile, rose and lavender can help you actually feel calmer almost instantly. And similarly, consumption of “guilty pleasures” like dark chocolate can bring on a feeling of comfort, thanks to the release of chemicals such as theobromine.
Wondering if the giggly, mellow feeling you might get from alcohol is related to endorphins? According to recent studies, drinking alcohol may release a small amount of feel-good hormones (especially when you’re having a drink while bonding with friends), but too much will actually cause the opposite effects. (12)
7. Spend Time in Nature & in the Sun
Exposing yourself to nature and the sun for about 20 minutes daily helps your skin absorb UV rays and produce vitamin D, which is important for your mood. Sunshine and nature also seem to help regulate the release of neurochemicals like serotonin and melatonin.
What Are Endorphins? Final Thoughts
- Endorphins are neurotransmitters, or natural opiate-peptide chemicals, that pass along signals from one neuron to the next, causing feelings or emotions.
- The release of endorphins is associated with feelings of pleasure, sexuality/sensually, motivation, euphoria, social connection and pain relief. Low levels of endorphins are associated with pain, addiction, sadness or depression, sleep trouble, brain fog and higher incidence of risk-taking behaviors.
- Natural ways to release endorphins include exercise, eating a healthy diet, laughing, working on fun hobbies, learning something new and connecting with others.