Endorphins are chemicals produced naturally by the nervous system to cope with pain or stress. They are often called “feel-good” chemicals because they can act as a pain reliever and happiness booster.
Endorphins are primarily made in the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, though they may come from other parts of the body as well. The well-known “runner’s high” that is felt after lengthy, vigorous exercise is due to an increase in endorphin levels.
The level of endorphins in the human body varies from person to person. People who have lower levels may be more likely to have depression or fibromyalgia and cancer, but more research is needed in this area.
What are endorphins?
Endorphins are chemicals produced by the body to relieve stress and pain. They work similarly to a class of drugs called opioids.
Opioids relieve pain and can produce a feeling of euphoria. They are sometimes prescribed for short-term use after surgery or for pain-relief.
In the 1980s, scientists were studying how and why opioids worked. They found that the body has special receptors that bind to opioids to block pain signals.
The scientists then realized that some chemicals in the body acted similarly to natural opioid medications, binding to these same receptors. These chemicals were endorphins.
The name endorphin comes from the words “endogenous,” which means “from the body,” and “morphine,” which is an opioid pain reliever.
Some of the more common opioid drugs include:
Some illegal drugs, such as heroin, are also opioids. Both legal and illegal opioid medications have a high risk of causing addiction, overdose, and death.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse state that 90 people die each day in the United States from an opioid overdose. Many of these are a result of overdosing or misusing prescription opioids.
Opioid abuse and overdose have become such a serious problem that the National Institutes of Health have declared it a crisis. Medical experts are now looking into safe and effective pain relievers without opioids.
Natural endorphins work similarly to opioid pain relievers, but their results may not be as dramatic. However, endorphins can produce a “high” that is both healthy and safe, without the risk of addiction and overdose.
The following activities show promise as ways to naturally increase endorphins. However, endorphin levels vary between individuals, so results will also vary.
For years, researchers suspected that endorphins caused the so-called “runner’s high,” a feeling of euphoria that happens after lengthy, vigorous physical activity.
However, measuring endorphins in humans was not possible until 2008, when new imaging technology became available.
Researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to view athlete’s brains both before and after exercise. They found an increase in the release of endorphins after exercise.
As exercise boosts mood and increases endorphins, some medical professionals prescribe regular exercise as a treatment for mild to moderate depression and anxiety.
Exercise can be used safely in conjunction with other treatments, such as medications or therapy, and can also be used alone. One study states that exercise can improve some symptoms of depression, similarly to antidepressants.
Giving & Philanthropy
Volunteering, donating, and helping others may also make a person feel good. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that people who gave money to a charity activated pleasure centers in their brain. This may lead to improved endorphin levels.
Yoga and Meditation
Meditation and yoga are known for their stress-relieving and relaxing effects. This may be partially due to an endorphin release.
Some research suggests that yoga and meditation can decrease stress markers and increase endorphins.
People who enjoy spicy foods may find that they can get an additional boost from their favorite dishes.
Some research suggests that the spicy components in hot peppers and similar foods may trigger a pain sensation in the mouth, which prompts an increase in endorphins.
Research from 2013 suggests that eating dark chocolate could boost endorphin levels. Cocoa powder and chocolate contain chemicals called flavonoids that appear to be beneficial to the brain.
A 2017 review found that eating chocolate may help boost endorphins. However, many commercial chocolate products contain only small amounts of real cocoa and often contain generous amounts of added sugar and fat.
People looking to use chocolate to improve endorphin levels and mood should look for products that contain at least 70 percent cocoa and eat chocolate in moderation due to its high calorie and fat content.
Plenty of research has been written about the health benefits of laughter, and studies suggest that laughing increases endorphins.
A 2017 study found that social laughter releases endorphins in the brain.
Low endorphins and health conditions
When endorphin levels are too low, a person’s health may be negatively affected. Research into the link between endorphins and health conditions is ongoing.
Some studies have shown a possible link between the following health problems and low endorphin levels:
Without enough endorphins, a person may be more likely to have depression. An article in the American Journal of Psychiatry discusses the long-standing use of opioid treatments for depression, particularly in cases where other treatments have not worked.
Another article suggests that higher endorphin levels have an effect on depression symptoms because of their association with reward.
Common symptoms of fibromyalgia include:
- long-term pain throughout the body
- tender spots that hurt when they are touched
- muscle stiffness
- fatigue and low energy
- sleep problems
People with fibromyalgia may have lower than normal endorphin levels. One study found that people with fibromyalgia had lower levels of endorphins than those without the condition. They measured endorphins both before and after exercise.
Another study found that increases in the body’s endorphins were correlated with pain relief in people with fibromyalgia.
People with fibromyalgia may be advised to do certain activities to boost endorphins, such as exercise, connecting with others, and stress-relieving activities, such as yoga. They may also be prescribed medications to help with symptoms.
One possible cause of ongoing headaches is abnormal endorphin levels. Some research suggests that the same endorphin imbalance that contributes to depression is also present in people who have chronic headaches.
Role of Stress in Cancer
Endogenous opioids are neurotransmitter secreted and synthesized by anterior pituitary; receptors are present in brain and on immune cells. Neuroendocrinal pathway connects between nervous system, endocrinal system and immune cells in our body. Neuroendocrinal flow, which connects central nervous system to peripheral nervous system via hypothalamic pituitary axis (HPA) and autonomic nervous system (ANS) through direct nerve fibre connections with cells or the organs of the immune system . Psychological stress is also a very important etiological factor for cancer by releasing cortisol, catacholomines, neuropeptides mediated inflammatory changes such as release of IL-1 β, TNF-α protumorigenic cytokines, decreased expression of IL-2 and IFN-ϒ leads to tumor progression by activating key transcriptional factor NF-KB.
Stress induced production of cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine results in upregulation of DNA damage sensors such as CHK1, CHK2 and proto-oncogene CDC25A results in DNA damage mediated delay in cell cycle, cell transformation or tumorigenicity. Catacholamines may promote cancer cell attachments, norepinephrine and epinephrine promote migration and invasive potential of ovarian cancer cells by increasing MmP-2,9 important for tumor invasion. Stress hormones including norepinephrine promote tumor progression, angiogenesis by production of IL-6, VEGF activates STAT3 transcriptional factor involved in cell proliferation and cell survival. Chronic stress affects recruitment of neutrophils, NK, macrophages, APCs, T and B lymphocytes. It also modulates cell mediated immunity by suppressing NK cell activation, lymphocyte proliferation, CD4 T cells in peripheral blood and CD4/CD8 T cell ratio alteration. TNF-α inhibit the tyrosine phosphatase protein activity, leads to reduced production of MHC class 1 antigen of the cell surface results in tumor immune evasion. Evidences suggest that neuroendocrinal system and ANS connects from CNS to the immune system. Studies have shown that stress and depression might have indirect effect on carcinogenesis by decreased NK cell activity results in reduced elimination or destruction of abnormal cells associated with tumor growth and progression of variety of cancers in animals and humans. NK cells are only natural innate immune cells acts as first line of defense against tumor cells and their metastatic spread. Clinical trial on in vitro transgenic , knock out model suggested stress response leads to tumor suppressor genes down regulation such as PTEN (Phosphatase and tensin homolog) or BRCA1, DNA repair genes.
Mechanism of Action of Beta Endorphins on Stress and Immune Cells
Endogenous opioid includes endorphins, enkephalins and dynorphins, operate via μ-opioid receptor bring about various changes such as analgesia, dopamine release in the brain is a stress buster and by possessing its receptors on macrophages and T lymphocytes results in activation of immune cells. It is a precursor of protein proopiomelanocortin (POMC), synthesized and stored in the anterior pituitary gland. POMC is a protein cleaved into Adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), beta-endorphin and α-melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH). POMC synthesized from pituitary in response to physiologic stressors such as postoperative pain results in release of corticotrophic releasing hormone (CRH) from hypothalamus, when excessive accumulation of POMC, turn off hypothalamic production of CRH by feedback inhibition . Endorphins produced in response to stress and pain during intense physical exercise, singing, chocolate consumption, meditation, yoga, pranayama, quantum healing (Body’s energy healing method) such as pranic healing. Endorphins bring about analgesia by inhibiting protein neurotransmitter of pain such as substance P in Peripheral nervous system, inhibiting the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA resulting in dopamine release associated with pleasure in central nervous system, reducing stress. It reduces cortisol secretion and increase NK cell activity which is a first order defense against infection such as viral infection and cancer leading to production of IFN-ϒ, granzyme and opsonin. Suppression of sympathetic neuronal function and the parasympathetic neuronal functional stimulation by beta endorphin neurons results in activation of anti-inflammatory cytokines and peripheral immunity involved in inhibition of tumor growth and progression.
Clinical Studies of Beta Endorphins on Different Types of Cancers
A clinical trial showed that after injection of neural stem cell derived beta endorphin neurons in to the para-ventricular nucleus of hypothalamus for a long period in rat involved in suppression of prostate cancer induced by carcinogen. Additional clinical trial showed that after beta endorphin neurons transplantation results in prevention of carcinogen induced breast cancer progression and metastasis. After beta endorphin transplantation at an early tumor stage many tumors were healed, because of activation of innate immune cells activity (NK and macrophages) and in later advanced stages, tumor fail to progress, because of effect of beta endorphins on epithelial to mesenchymal transition. Beta endorphin cell treated animals, showed an increase in anti-inflammatory cytokines such as (IL-8, IL-12) and decrease in inflammatory cytokines (TNF-α, IL-1β) in inflammatory tumor milieu, thus inhibiting tumor growth and transformation. Inflammatory cytokines play a major role in breast cancer. Another study showed beta endorphin enhances invitro lymphokine production related to CD8 T levels, leucocyte migration inhibitory factor and enhanced cellular immunity in patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck.
Transplantation of endorphin cells result in suppression of tumor by increasing activity of innate immune cells such as NK cells, macrophages and suppressing epithelial to mesenchymal transition regulators. NK cells and macrophages are major innate immune cells and play a key role in defensive action against tumor cells, inhibiting inflammatory cytokines and increasing anti-inflammatory cytokines leads to inhibiting cancer growth and transformation seen in studies on animals such as rats. Thirty randomized clinical trials on cancer patients to study the effect of music therapy include listening to recorded music on cancer patients have shown anxiety reduction by cortisol suppression, mood improvement and blood pressure reduction. It is also acts on mental health and immune function in patients with cancer by emotional expression, social support and benefit finding.
Studies have shown that yoga, intense physical exercise, meditation, acupuncture, dark chocolate consumption, singing, dancing improves the psychological status by reducing stress, increases social bonding by oxytocin release, physical status, increase immune cells and their activity such as macrophages, NK cells, T and B lymphocytes by beta endorphins release in patients with cancers, lead to lowering inflammation, cellular function enhancement, improves health outcome, later results in better prognosis.
One of the body’s own defensive mechanism to combat against cancer is by beta endorphins, act as a preventive, therapeutic and palliative effect by reducing stress, pain, and activating immune cells without any side effects compare to other advanced cancer therapeutic modalities. Tranquility of mind can be obtained by yoga and meditation. Practice love, sympathy and empathy for caring patient are the ultimate treatment choice and patient faith in doctor produces endogenous opioids.
Endorphins are endogenous opioids secreted by anterior pituitary gland in response to certain conditions of our body. Stress is one of the important predisposing factor for cancer by releasing cortisol and catecholamine’s induced inflammatory mediators such as IL-1 β, IL-6 and TNF-α. Endorphins are natural stress buster, analgesic, euphoric and immune booster activity to combat against cancer without side effects shown in many studies compare to other modern therapeutic modalities, which is the major cause of concern at present world. It acts as a preventive, therapeutic and palliative treatment for cancer patients by activating immune cells such as (NK cells and macrophages), release of substance P and dopamine, need to be considered for future therapeutic and prognostic purpose.