Endorphins are neurotransmitters in the brain that act as pain relievers and natural opiates without the addiction risk. The brain produces them in response to many triggers, namely those that cause stress and pain. Humans increase endorphins daily by engaging in activities that feel good as the result of release of these pain-blocking neurotransmitters. Endorphin-releasing activities include exercise, eating, and laughter. Other activities that cause either pain or stress can increase endorphins, like childbirth, light to moderate drinking, and exposure to ultraviolet light.
When the brain undergoes a stressful experience producing pain or fear, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland produce endorphins that then attach to opiate receptors in the brain. These chemicals increase feelings of pleasure while blocking pain and are then quickly broken down by enzymes in the brain and reabsorbed. Even the anticipation of an experience is able to increase endorphins, which may explain their role in the placebo effect. As pleasurable and safe as the effects of endorphins are on the brain, it’s only natural to want to increase them. While a sustained release is not possible due to the quick assimilation of the chemical into the body, it is possible to incorporate small endorphin spikes throughout the day.
Perhaps the best known way to increase endorphins is exercise. The type of exercise is important; moderately strenuous exercise raises endorphin levels more than gentle exercise. It is not only endorphins, however, that are responsible for the runner’s high. Other brain chemicals, like serotonin and adrenaline, are likely involved.
Some activities associated with milder types of physical stress are believed to increase endorphins. Exercises that use controlled breathing, like yoga and tai chi, release endorphins and increase feelings of well-being and peace. Getting a massage or having acupuncture have a similar effect on endorphin levels. Exposure to ultraviolet light, as in a tanning booth or sun exposure, increases these brain chemicals, although there are other health risks inherent with sunlight exposure and tanning bed use that make this activity inadvisable in the long term.
Eating capsaicin-containing foods like hot chili peppers causes an endorphin release in response to the pain of eating them. Chocolate, sweet foods, and fatty foods release a powerful endorphin called beta-endorphin that can relieve pain. This is partially responsible for the feelings of well-being people experience after eating carbohydrates.
Laughter is another simple way to increase endorphin levels. The act of laughing has many effects, like lifting the mood, increasing immunity, and reducing the harmful effects of stress on the body. Regular laughter has been shown in studies to reduce the symptoms of depression.