Endorphins are hormones that can help reduce pain, regulate the levels of other hormones, and inhibit cancer growth. Along with their health benefits, endorphins also have their drawbacks. Continue reading below to learn more about these hormones.
What Are Endorphins?
Endorphins are a group of hormones produced by the brain. They can be released during exercise , periods of pain and stress , and other activities [ 1 ].
The pituitary gland and the central nervous system produce these hormones. They are involved in multiple everyday functions such as eating, drinking, sex, and maternal behavior [ 1 ]. Health Benefits
1) Natural Painkillers
Pain and other stressors cause a certain region of the brain (pituitary gland) to release endorphins [ 1 ].
When acting on the nerve cells to lessen discomfort, endorphins bind to the specialized receptors. This helps reduce the amount of pain felt [ 1 ].
This also inhibits the release of the neurotransmitter GABA , which in turn increases the production of dopamine , a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure [ 2 , 3 ].
Opioid painkillers such as morphine mimic endorphins produced in the body and compete with them for available binding spots at the receptor sites [ 1 ].
In a study on 45 pregnant women, low levels of endorphins at the end of pregnancy were associated with an increased need for painkillers during labor [ 4 ]. 2) Decreasing Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
The brain releases endorphins to help combat stress . These hormones reach target organs such as the pancreas and the adrenal medulla and stimulate them to release glucagon and adrenalin, respectively [ 5 ].
The brain region that produces endorphins (pituitary glands) also contains opioid receptors. By binding to them, endorphins can activate or block the production of the adrenocorticotropin hormone, another key player in the stress response , and other stress -involved hormones such as prolactin and growth hormone [ 5 ].
Endorphins seem to act on the emotional component of stress and depression (just like opioids control the emotional component of pain). In a study in mice, endorphins inhibited anxious behaviors. Engineered mice unable to produce endorphins were naturally hyper-anxious but more susceptible to the anti-anxiety effects of alcohol [ 5 , 6 ].
In another study on 37 healthy men, higher blood endorphin levels were associated with fewer abrupt mood changes (affective stability), a hallmark of conditions such as major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder [ 7 ]. 3) Regulating Other Hormones
In fish, endorphins secreted from specific areas of the brain regulated the ovarian cycle by inhibiting the production of the luteinizing hormone in the pituitary gland [ 8 ].
Endorphin-treated sheep had fluctuating levels of two hormones involved in the reproductive cycle ( GnRH and LH ), suggesting the role of these hormones in balancing hormone levels [ 9 ].
As previously discussed, endorphins also regulate the production of stress-related hormones such as adrenocorticotropin hormone, prolactin, and growth hormone [ 5 ]. 4) May Help Treat Schizophrenia
The disturbances in dopamine transmission responsible for the pathology of schizophrenia are long believed to be caused by alterations in the endorphin system. In a clinical trial on 70 schizophrenic patients, the antipsychotic regimens normalized endorphin levels in the blood [ 10 , 11 ]. 5) May Inhibit Cancer Cell Growth
A positive attitude that increases endorphin release has been reported to reduce breast cancer growth and help cancer patients live longer [ 12 ].
In a study in rats with breast cancer, endorphin production prevented the spread of tumor cells into the lungs and reduced their death rate [ 13 ]. Negative Effects of Endorphins
1) May Induce Oxidative Stress and Inflammation
The release of endorphins caused the production of reactive oxygen species , which play a role in programmed cell death, cancer, and aging, in mice. White blood cells isolated from endorphin-treated mice were unable to produce anti-inflammatory cytokines ( IL-1beta and IL-10 ) [ 14 ]. 2) May Cause Prader-Willi Syndrome symptoms
Prader-Willi syndrome is a rare hereditary disorder with symptoms such as short stature, steroid hormone deficiency, cognitive and behavioral problems, reduced pain sensation, digestive issues, and excessive eating that often leads to obesity.
A study on 23 children with this syndrome found they had increased blood endorphin levels when compared to 18 healthy controls, which may be responsible for their increased appetite, decreased pain sensation, and reduced steroid hormone production (adrenal insufficiency) [ 15 ]. Factors that Modify Endorphin Levels
Ways Endorphin Levels Increase
Ultraviolet light increases endorphin levels in the skin, possibly causing addiction to UV radiation [ 23 ] Ways Endorphin Levels Decrease If you’re interested in natural and targeted ways of improving your mood, we recommend checking out SelfDecode’s Mood DNA Wellness Report . It gives you genetic-based diet, lifestyle and supplement tips that can help improve your mood. The recommendations are personalized based on YOUR genes. Decode Your Genome