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Endorphins: Here’s why they make us happy

A woman of color holds a water bottle and smiles outdoors, experiencing the high of endorphins
Fitness & Nutrition Editor
Undine is currently studying fitness, health, and wellness to become a certified trainer. She writes articles for foodspring about nutrition and fitness. She also creates free food programs.

Endorphins are our happiness hormones. They reduce pain and make us feel good. But our bodies only release them under certain conditions, like stress or exercise. How can you trigger your body to release more endorphins? Find out now… 

What are endorphins?

Endorphins are the reason you get a burst of energy after an intense workout. They’re also why you might not feel any pain even though you’re pushing out tough exercises. That’s because they regulate our feelings of happiness and state of well-being – with the help of other neurotransmitters, like adrenaline and serotonin.

Because endorphins are endogenous hormones – hormones our bodies naturally produce on their own – there’s no need to obtain them through your diet. By binding to receptors in the spinal cord and brain, they act as natural pain relievers or anesthetics in our bodies. For example, a release of endorphins can prevent feeling immediate pain by blocking the transmission of painful stimuli to the pain-receiving part of the brain. The results will make you feel a bit like Superman.

What’s the purpose of endorphins?

The primary role of endorphins is to help us overcome extreme situations. After an accident, for example, endorphins prevent us from feeling pain immediately to give us time to get to safety or call for help. Endorphin levels also go up during exciting activities apart from exercise. Think of riding a rollercoaster, watching a scary movie, or eating chili peppers.

Endorphins are often called “happiness hormones” because of the feelings of euphoria they induce. By binding to the same brain receptors as painkillers like opioids (also known as opioid receptors), they produce an effect in our nervous system similar to morphine. Opioids are highly effective painkillers available only by prescription, but our bodies create a similar, but all-natural pain relief all on their own.

The health benefits of endorphins

Though we know that endorphins ease pain and make us feel good, they are also believed to have other effects on our bodies as well. Although not all are scientifically proven, these are some of the other outcomes endorphins may give you:

  • Better sleep
  • Less stress
  • A stronger immune system
  • Increased production of sex hormones
  • Appetite regulation
  • Improved mental health

Endorphins often appear alongside other mood-brightening neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, phenethylamine and oxytocin. The endorphin-like effects they have create similar feelings of well-being.

two smiling, long-haired, medium-skinned women jogging outdoors in black sports gear with armband phone holders
©Skynesher

How do you make endorphins?

As we mentioned before, endorphins are endogenous hormones. Key stimuli cause the body to produce them all on its own. You’ll feel the effects of endorphins in extreme situations like an accident, as well as beautiful experiences like a wedding. Here are a few other ways to produce endorphins:

Physical Activity

There’s a reason we’ve all heard of a runner’s high. Aerobic exercise releases a bunch of endorphins that put us into this elusive state, more so than any other workout. That’s because overcoming long distances, despite pain and exhaustion, produces an especially large endorphin release in the blood whether you’re moving quickly or slowly.

The length of your exercise session is what will really determine the endorphin levels your body releases. But don’t expect to feel the runner’s high right away, especially if you’re a brand-new runner. It can take up to two months of running for your post-exercise blood endorphin levels to increase to somewhere you can feel them.

Our tip: However you prefer to exercise, our Energy Aminos will give you just the boost you need. Push yourself to your limits with this delicious drink made from guarana and pepper extracts.

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Plenty of other workouts also release these happiness hormones, though. Whether swimming, cycling, climbing, or weight lifting, pushing yourself to your limits will always stimulate endorphin production.

Laughter

Though not scientifically proven, many believe that smiling or laughing can release endorphins and improve mood. Scientists have long hypothesized that we can trick our brains into thinking they’re happy by smiling to stimulate endorphin production. Laughing is also thought to help, but simply forcing a big smile is said to be enough on its own. A recent analysis of 138 studies on the subject revealed that there is some evidence that smiling and standing up straight can actually slightly influence self-esteem³.

Nutrition

What you eat can also stimulate endorphin levels. There’s a reason we crave chocolate during times of stress, after all. But most of the happiness we derive from food is caused by other neurotransmitters, like serotonin and tryptophan. Tryptophan is an important neurotransmitter for the production of serotonin, and it’s found in large quantities in bananas, nuts, chocolate, soybeans, potatoes, and eggs.

Our tip: Our vegan banana bread is one of our best ways to get endorphins through your diet. We use our Vegan Protein to ensure that the whole thing is packed with protein, but free of sugar and gluten!

A sliced-into loaf of vegan banana bread with a few bright bananas in the background as a source of endorphins
©foodspring
Try out the recipe now

Sunlight

Sunlight can also make us happier, but not because of endorphins. When we absorb the sun’s rays, our bodies produce vitamin D, which stimulates the production of serotonin and dopamine – two other happiness hormones.

Is it possible to have an endorphin deficiency?

If you work out regularly and have a healthy diet, you’re unlikely to develop an endorphin deficiency. However, it’s still possible to suffer from deficiencies in some cases. For example, depression can reduce your endorphin levels. If you think something may be wrong, check in with your doctor to find out if this could be a problem for you.

Addiction to endorphins

Producing too few endorphins, whether because of depression or something else, can lead to addictive behavior. In order to recreate the exhilarating effects of the happiness hormone, many artificially induce it with alcohol or drugs. Some even starve themselves and self-harm to cause an endorphin release.

Even athletes can become addicted to endorphins. Our nervous system produces these chemicals during limit-pushing, competitive sports, and athletes can become dependent on this high over time. As a result, they may try to push their limits much further, even if it’s to their own detriment.

Summary

  • Endorphins are happiness hormones that our bodies naturally secrete. They reduce stress, have analgesic properties, and make us happy. Serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, phenethylamine and oxytocin are also happiness hormones.
  • Our bodies produce endorphins in extreme, dangerous situations and joyful, happy moments alike. Exercise, eating good food, soaking up sunshine, and laughing are all activities that make us feel happier.
  • Endorphins have a morphine-like effect on our bodies, reducing feelings of pain and stress caused by accidents or injuries.
  • The high associated with endorphins can lead to addictive behavior. If you feel you’re suffering from low levels of endorphins due to depression or another cause, we recommend talking to your doctor.
Article sources
We at foodspring use only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • ¹ Schulz, R. ( 1978): Körpereigene Opitate – Endorphine, in: Deutsches Ärzteblatt, Heft 40.

  • ² Heijnen, S.; Hommel, B.; Kibele, A.; Colzato, L. S. (2015): Neuromodulation of Aerobic Exercise – A Review, in: Frontiers in Psychology.

  • ³ Coles, N. A.; Larsen, J. T.; Lench, H. C. (2019): A meta-analysis of the facial feedback literature: Effects of facial feedback on emotional experience are small and variable, in: Psychological Bulletin, 145 (6).

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