What Are Endorphins And What Role Do They Play In Mental Health?

endorphins skeletal structure heart brain
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Endorphins are endogenous opioid peptides stored in the brain’s pituitary gland. When released, they function as neurotransmitters that relieve pain and boost euphoria.1

The fifth-grade answer? Endorphins are happy chemicals that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.

How do Endorphins Work Exactly?

Think back to a time when you were overcome with intense pleasure (hint: a dimly-lit bedroom with a Marvin Gaye song playing in the background and a certain person pushing your sexual buttons).

If you can’t think back to this, no worries. Perhaps the above description is enough to send an electric jolt up your spine this very moment.

That jolt? Endorphins released by your brain in a great way of yummy delight.

You see, endorphins work to increase pleasure and decrease pain by attaching themselves to opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord. When endorphins are attached this way, they decrease the transmission of pain signals in the body and brain.2

Is Endorphin Deficiency Possible?

Does Simon Cowell have a stick up his butt?

The answer is, yes. Endorphin deficiency is possible. (And someone should really look into that stick.)

A variety of factors can lead to an endorphin deficiency. Some conditions associated with this lack of feel-good chemicals in the body include:3

  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Poor sleep quality

blonde woman drinking and smoking

The Role of Drugs in Endorphin Release

Some drugs, such as alcohol and cigarettes, have been known to increase the brain’s release of enkephalins by 20 percent. Enkephalins are a subgroup of endorphins with painkilling properties that attenuate substance P (bear with me!)

Substance P, dear reader, is a neuropeptide that causes pain through a process called nociception, which is when the body detects painful stimuli and triggers a signal to the brain for an appropriate response.

For example, flaming hot Takis = a mouthful of ice cubes. (Thanks, nociception!)

Enkephalins reduce the effects of substance P in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord, thereby inhibiting afferent pain fibers.4

The fifth-grade answer? Enkephalins are the Robin to endorphins’ Batman. They have a specific, sidekick role to fill in response to pain in the body.

But note that long-term use of opioids and other drugs can cause endorphin levels to decrease over time.5 In other words, Robin can claim his PTO allotment and take a much-needed vacation, leaving the battle against endorphin deficiency to Batman and Batman alone.

This, in turn, causes Batman to chain smoke worse than Walt Disney while taking swigs from a whiskey flask. Such destructive behavior is to no avail because, as I mentioned, long-term use of drugs, including cigarettes and alcohol, can mess with the desired effects of endorphins and pave the way for alcoholism.

Holy smokes, Batman! 

Are Dopamine, Oxytocin, and Serotonin endorphins?

Nope.

Just like endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin are neurotransmitters.

Together, these four happy chemicals have the extraordinary job of regulating your mood and ensuring your happiness, which was a job relegated to Teddy Ruxpin back in the ’80s and ’90s.

  • Dopamine plays a role in how you feel pleasure and reward.
  • Oxytocin is the “love” hormone, released during intimacy.
  • Serotonin regulates mood and emotions, including happiness.

People with depression typically have low levels of each.

The Role of Endorphins in Mental Health

Endorphins that are released naturally in the body can help lower stress and depression. This is great news for people who are looking to improve their mental health.

Think of it this way, endorphins are a natural mood enhancer. They’ve been found to improve feelings of wellness and well-being due to their pain-relieving properties.

How to Release Endorphins

Some of the best endorphin-releasers are things that stimulate two different senses at once.

Something as simple as going for a walk on a sunny day, listening to music, and applying a new lotion can bring on endorphins. This is one reason why so many people feel so great after exercising or getting a massage.

Another endorphin-releaser is playing “tonsil hockey” aka kissing. Snuggling and touching can also increase endorphins, especially on a body part that is rich with endorphin receptors like the neck and (content removed due to its explicit nature).

The most common activities for releasing endorphins include:

  • Exercising
  • Getting a massage
  • Having sex
  • Acupuncture
  • ASMR
  • Laughing
  • Listening to music
  • Eating chocolate or other yummy foods

woman jogging wearing headphones

A Recap of Endorphins for Better Mental Health

Mental illness can be attributed to an endorphin deficiency that contributes to increased pain and feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and depression.

By contrast, releasing endorphins in the body can help improve mental health by inhibiting pain and boosting feelings of euphoria.

To release endorphins from the pituitary gland (in the brain), you can exercise regularly, listen to your favorite music, and “monkey around in the bedroom,” so to speak.

Drugs can also release endorphins, but their long-term use can cause endorphin levels to decrease over time.

When combined with the other “happy chemicals,” such as dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin, endorphins can have a greater, positive effect on your mental health and personal well-being.

So what’s not to love about endorphins?! (Well, maybe endorphin addiction … but that’s a topic for another time.)

  1. Berry, J. & Biggers, A. (2018, Feb 6.) Endorphins: Effects and how to increase levels. Medical News Today. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3104618/
  2. Sprouse-Blum, A. & Smith, G. & Sugai, D. & Parsa, F.D. (2010, Mar) Understanding Endorphins and Their Importance in Pain Management. Hawai’i Medical Journal. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3104618/
  3. Pugle, M. & Metrus, N., MD. (2021, Jul 26.) What Are Endorphins? Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/endorphins-definition-5189854
  4. McLaughlin, P. (2013.) Handbook of Biologically Active Peptides (Second Edition.) Science Direct. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/enkephalin
  5. Pugle, M. & Metrus, N., MD. (2021, Jul 26.) What Are Endorphins? Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/endorphins-definition-5189854
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

Related Posts