What Are Endorphins? The Science Explained + 5 Ways to Boost Yours

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Many runners are familiar with endorphins, which are the feel-good, pain-relieving natural compounds thought to be chiefly responsible for the elusive runner’s high.

Other athletic or thrilling events are said to elicit an endorphin rush. 

For example, you might experience an endorphin rush re-racking your loaded barbell after smashing your previous 1RM weight, or you might enjoy an endorphin rush when you’re riding a roller coaster that plummets down a huge drop.

But what are endorphins? What do endorphins do?

In this article, we will explain what endorphins are, endorphins functions, and how to release endorphins to experience more of an endorphin rush.

We will cover: 

  • What Are Endorphins?
  • Endorphins Functions and Benefits
  • How to Boost Endorphins
  • Can You Become Addicted to Endorphins?

Let’s jump in!

A person with earbuds in, smiling at the camera.

What Are Endorphins?

Endorphins are natural chemicals produced by the body that help reduce the perception of pain and can boost your mood

They are primarily produced and released by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, both of which are specialized regions in the brain.

Endorphins are molecules that are composed of long chains of proteins. They are typically classified as neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that are released in the brain that then bind to and activate receptors on other neurons in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).

As neurotransmitters, endorphins bind to opiate receptors, which help block pain and increase feelings of pleasure.

However, endorphins can also act as peptide hormones, in which they are released by the pituitary gland and then enter circulation, where they have long-ranging systemic effects. 

A person smiling holding a water bottle.

Endorphins are considered “endogenous opioids“ because they are natural pain-relieving compounds produced internally by the body. 

Opiate drugs, which are a class of strong prescription painkillers, are formulated to have a chemical structure that is somewhat similar to endorphins so that they can bind to and block pain receptors in the body in the same way that natural endorphins work to decrease pain.

In fact, the term “endorphins“ is derived from the words endogenous, which means “from the body,” and morphine, which is a common opiate pain reliever.

With that said, research has elucidated that the pain-relieving effects of endorphins are even more potent than morphine.

Although numerous activities can produce endorphins, endorphins are primarily released during pleasurable activities like exercise, laughing, playing, and sex, as well as painful experiences like falling off your bike and breaking an elbow.

Typically, the “endorphin rush“ that people seek to generate is associated with having a particularly fun or enjoyably thrilling experience.

A rollercoaster.

Endorphins Functions and Benefits

There are different types of endorphins, but beta-endorphins are particularly well studied with demonstrated pain-relieving benefits.

Although researchers are still trying to determine all of the functions and benefits of endorphins, studies suggest that in addition to helping reduce the perception of pain, endorphins can also enhance feelings of pleasure, reduce stress and anxiety, alleviate symptoms of depression, boost mood, decrease inflammation, and buoy self-esteem.

Endorphins have also shown signs of potentially supporting the function and health of your immune system, and consistent releases of endorphins may help support cognitive function and memory.

In fact, although endorphins are certainly best known for their pain-relieving benefits and mood-boosting effects that help you feel a natural “high,” studies have found that low levels of endorphins are associated with more than just increased levels of pain and an increased likelihood of depression or low mood.

While it’s true that these side effects have been identified in association with low levels of endorphins, there are other potential issues that can occur if your body doesn’t produce enough endorphins, such as moodiness, insomnia or difficulty sleeping, migraines, and increased risk of addiction and alcoholism.

A person with ear buds in, a gym towel, in workout clothes, smiling.

How to Boost Endorphins 

If you are looking for ways of how to release endorphins, there are a few activities you can engage in that can help!

#1: Exercise

Exercise is probably the most well-known and perhaps potent way to boost the production and release of endorphins. 

The good news is, evidence suggests that pretty much any type of moderate-intensity or vigorous-intensity exercise can help produce endorphins. Examples include brisk walking, biking, circuit training, hiking, running, playing sports, and HIIT workouts with bodyweight exercises.

Furthermore, you don’t have to exercise for hours a day to get the mood-boosting, pain-relieving benefits of a natural endorphins rush. 

Studies suggest that working out as little as 20-30 minutes per day can be sufficient for increasing your level of endorphins.

A person smiling while riding an stationary bike.

However, it’s important to note that although there are clearly-demonstrated mood-boosting effects of exercise and it has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety, the production of endogenous opioids (endorphins) are not the only “feel-good” chemicals released by the brain that are responsible for the improvements in mood following exercise.

In fact, researchers believe that a more likely contributor to the euphoric feeling associated with the “runner’s high,” is actually primarily due to the production of natural endocannabinoids. 

These lipid-based molecules are also involved in decreasing the perception of pain and increasing feelings of pleasure; moreover, they seem better able to cross the blood-brain barrier and enter circulation than endorphins.

Other mood-boosting, pleasurable neurotransmitters released during exercise include dopamine and serotonin.

Therefore, it’s important to keep in mind that endorphins are not the only compounds involved in the regulation of mood and pain from exercise.

People laughing and dancing together, releasing endorphins.

#2: Sex

There are many physical and emotional benefits of having sex. It elevates your heart rate and can improve your endurance, and it can bond you to a romantic partner by releasing oxytocin.

Additionally, studies have found that having sex and having orgasms can release endorphins, along with other feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin.

#3: Dancing

Like other forms of physical activity, dancing can elevate your heart rate, and it can boost the production of endorphins, particularly when dancing in social settings or when bonding with others through dance. 

#4: Laughter

We have all heard the saying, “Laughter is the best medicine,” and while laughter may not cure everything that ails you, it certainly can boost your mood.

Studies suggest that laughter helps release endorphins, and other mood-boosting neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, while simultaneously suppressing the production of cortisol, a stress hormone. 

Laughter may also reduce the perception of pain and improve cardiovascular health.

A person receiving a massage.

#5: Massage and Acupuncture

According to the Cleveland Clinic, endorphins can also be boosted by getting a massage or an acupuncture treatment.

In the case of acupuncture, the slight discomfort associated with the insertion of the acupuncture needles may help trigger the release of endorphins to help offset the pain.

For this reason, healing modalities, such as cupping, which also elicits some amount of physical discomfort, may ultimately help reduce pain by causing a surge of endorphins.

#6: Dark Chocolate

If you’re a chocolate lover, it’s pretty easy to get on board with any recommendation to eat more chocolate. When it comes to the potential mood-boosting effects of chocolate, it’s important to note that not all kinds of chocolate will be equally potent.

Most of the health benefits associated with chocolate are indeed associated with the antioxidants in dark chocolate, and some of these antioxidants, called flavonoids, seem to help stimulate the brain to release endorphins as well as dopamine, another neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.

Aim to have at least 70% cocoa or higher if you’re looking to feel a boost in your mood. The darker the chocolate, the better. Chocolate also contains small amounts of caffeine, which may also help elevate your mood.

Blocks of dark chocolate.

Can You Become Addicted to Endorphins?

Opioids, such as morphine and fentanyl, are well known to be highly addictive drugs. Endorphins may potentially elicit somewhat of an addictive response as well.

For example, some runners and endurance athletes note feeling a withdrawal or dip in their mood if they are unable to work out and get their usual endorphin release. 

Additionally, thrill seekers might be inclined to seek increasingly dangerous and daring activities in order to get an endorphin rush and adrenaline surge.

Combining these two together, one study found that mountain climbers—who are inherently somewhat thrill seekers and certainly active—experience symptoms of withdrawal if they are unable to climb, including moodiness, irritability, and disengagement.

Finally, although we often think of the endorphin rush from positive activities like exercise, endorphins are also produced with pain. 

Those who engage in cutting and other forms of self-harm may become addicted to the emotional release and endorphins associated with this harmful behavior. If this applies to you, please seek professional care as soon as possible.

If you are looking for even more ways to elevate your mood and feel good, check out our article, How To Boost Happy Hormones, Naturally!

A person's hands on hips, smiling.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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