Endorphins were first identified by scientists John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz in the mid 1970s. They belong to the broader category of neuropeptides and got their name from a combination of the word "endogenous" and the word "morphine."

This is because researchers could see that these "endorphins" bonded to the same receptors in the brain that morphine and other opiate drugs do. In other words, endorphins are basically our own all-natural pain-killers.

Endorphins also help control our emotions, stimulate the immune system, and stabilize blood pressure. They come in many distinct types, including enkephalins, beta-endorphins, and dynorphin.

Some of these types have greater sedative effects than others, and some of them seem to have an even stronger effect on us than morphine itself! Certain endorphins are released in response to stress, fear, or pain, while others may let us know that we've had enough of a good thing or that things are going right.

A deficiency in this type of endorphin may be responsible for some types of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Since sufferers may not get the satisfaction that they expected from an action like locking their door, they may do it over and over again.

Higher endorphin levels can lead to reduced anxious behavior in mice, while human studies have revealed that higher endorphin levels were associated with greater self-esteem and greater mental stability.

On the other hand, lower endorphin levels have been associated with depression, chronic pain, and bulimia. This may explain why some patients with depression find self-harm rewarding; enacting physical pain provides struggling patients with an endorphin rush that distracts them from their emotional pain.

Though some scientists suspect that endorphins may play a part in non-substance addictions, such as those to sex and exercise, our own internal endorphins aren't generally addictive because their effects aren't as extreme as the effects of endorphogenic drugs.

However, drugs that lead to an overload of endorphins can be very addictive indeed. The body gradually becomes sensitized to that high endorphin level and needs increasing amounts of said drug just to feel normal, which is part of what makes drug and alcohol withdrawal so unpleasant.


In popular culture, endorphins are mainly known for creating a "runner's high" during exercise. Some skeptical scientists suggest that these endorphins actually don't cross the blood-brain barrier and that the well-known phenomenon of post-workout euphoria is instead caused by other neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepipephrine and endocannabinoids.

However, other studies suggest that these opioid chemicals really do play a part. This effect seemed to be especially likely if workouts were unusually intense or exceeded 30 minutes. For instance, one study showed that more endorphins were released after a high key HIIT session than after a more moderate workout.

It also seems that your brain can actually become more sensitive to endorphins the more you workout! This can increase your pain tolerance both in the gym and outside of it, which is one reason that exercise becomes "easier" the more you do it.

Interestingly, endorphin release during rowing was found to be greater when subjects worked together to steer a virtual boat than when they each exercised alone, perhaps because the activity then coupled physical stress with the social reward of working towards a shared goal. So, if you're struggling to stay motivated in the gym, maybe all you need is a workout buddy!


Endorphins have also been shown to suppress appetite, which is why you may not feel as hungry as you'd expect right after you workout. It thus makes a lot of sense that aberrations in the endorphin system have also been potentially implicated in obesity.

Of course, exercise isn't the only way to get your endorphins flowing. If you're recovering from an injury or just in the mood for taking it a little easier, one study found that meditation led to just as much endorphin release as going for a run did!

Other activities that might lead to endorphin release include childbirth, acupuncture, massage therapy, aromatherapy, moderate drinking (too much alcohol will have a depressant effect instead), visiting a sauna, and laughing more.

You may also get an endorphin rush from consuming cocoa (which is only found in small quantities in commercial chocolate) or from eating certain spices like chili peppers or ginseng

Some dieters find that focusing on the short-term reward of an endorphin rush rather than the distant reward of a smaller body helps them stay motivated to exercise. Now, instead of envying the couch potatoes when you're on your way to the gym, you can remind yourself that the science says they're missing out!


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