Endorphins are a type of “feel-good” brain chemical. They act as natural pain and stress relievers.

The hypothalamus and pituitary glands are the primary producers of endorphins, though endorphins may come from other parts of the body as well.

A person may want to increase their endorphin levels for several reasons — most notably because endorphins can be helpful when a person is hurt, feels stressed or anxious, or needs a self-esteem boost.

Endorphins may also promote memory and cognitive health and support a healthy immune system.

This article looks at how endorphin levels can both help and hurt the body and provides tips for naturally boosting endorphin levels.

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Endorphins are neuropeptides, or chemical signals in the brain, that block the perception of pain.

The body makes endorphins. Endorphins are present during pleasure, including emotions relating to laughter, love, and sex. Endorphins even have an association with appetizing foods and pain management.

Opioids, which are a class of drugs, function similarly to endorphins.

Opioids have profound pain-relieving effects and can produce feelings of euphoria. Doctors may prescribe opioids for short-term pain relief, such as after surgery. Some opioids are present in medicines that doctors use to treat chronic cough or diarrhea.

Common opioid drugs include:

  • oxycodone
  • hydrocodone
  • codeine
  • morphine
  • fentanyl

Some illegal drugs, such as heroin, are also opioids.

Both legal and illegal opioid medications have potential for addiction, which may lead to overdose or death.

While endorphins may not have as large of an effect as opioids, they can produce a “high” that is both healthy and safe.

Chemically synthesized opioids work more quickly than endorphins. This may help explain why using opioid drugs can lead to severe substance use disorders.

Increasing the body’s natural endorphin levels may be an effective way for a person to improve their overall health.

Although research is ongoing, scientists have found that higher endorphin levels can reduce pain and increase pleasure. High endorphin levels may also help:

  • reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression
  • improve moods
  • boost self-esteem
  • support cognitive function
  • promote immune system health
  • reduce inflammation
  • regulate appetite

Endorphin levels and the stimuli that help increase them may vary from person to person. So far, research seems to emphasize that physical activity, certain foods, and various enjoyable activities boost endorphin levels.

Regular exercise

People have long associated exercise with endorphins, whether or not they are aware of the science behind it.

There is science, however.

For example, a 2018 meta-analysis shows an association between resistance exercise training and a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. The researchers found that this effect occurred regardless of a person’s health status, the amount of resistance exercise they took part in, or whether they saw any significant improvements in physical strength.

Likewise, a 2019 meta-analysis suggests that performing 45 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise three times per week can have a significant antidepressant effect.

Other physical activities, including dancing and having sex, can also boost endorphin levels. The well-known “runner’s high” that people experience after lengthy, vigorous exercise is also due to an increase in endorphin levels.

Because of this evidence, it is not uncommon for doctors to prescribe exercise alongside therapy or medication for treating depressive symptoms.

Certain foods

While health professionals generally accept that eating palatable foods can boost people’s endorphin levels, some research has focused on more specific categories.

For example, studies suggest that eating dark chocolate rich in cocoa — ideally 70% cocoa or higher — can boost levels of endorphins and dopamine. Dopamine is another feel-good brain chemical.

Additionally, research has shown a link between eating spicy foods and a spike in endorphin levels. The theory behind this is that the body produces endorphins to counteract the pain of the food’s burning sensation.

Laughter

Plenty of research has looked into the perceived health benefits of laughter. Laughing can increase endorphin levels and have other positive effects on the body.

For example, a 2019 meta-analysis found that laughter may improve anxiety and depression symptoms and sleep quality.

Another 2019 review makes a case for further research into the link between pain and humor.

A person can bring more laughter and humor into their life in many ways, such as by spending time with friends or family.

Some research suggests a potential link between low endorphin levels and certain health conditions or symptoms.

When a person’s body does not produce enough endorphins, they may be at an increased risk of:

  • unintentional weight loss
  • body aches and pains
  • depression and anxiety
  • moodiness
  • trouble sleeping
  • addiction

Research on the link between certain health conditions and endorphins is ongoing. For example, one study found that increases in the body’s endorphins were correlated with pain relief in people with fibromyalgia.

Learn more about fibromyalgia.

Endorphins are a type of brain chemical that helps people cope with pain and stress.

Healthy levels of endorphins can help people deal with physical pain, moodiness, and symptoms of anxiety or depression. Low endorphin levels may increase a person’s risk of body aches and pains, sleep difficulties, and addiction.

Scientists’ understanding of human endorphin levels is still evolving. Researchers believe that people can increase levels of this feel-good chemical through activities such as exercising, eating endorphin-releasing foods like dark chocolate, and tapping into their sense of humor.