What are Enkephalins?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Enkephalins are neurotransmitters which work to suppress pain. The goal of pain suppression is to allow the body to cope with pain while remaining focused, rather than permitting the perception of pain to flood the system and cause panic, distress, or confusion. These neurotransmitters are polypeptides, meaning that they consist of very short chains of amino acids. Two different enkephalins have been identified: met-enkephalin and leu-enkephalin.

Exercise spurs the pituitary gland to release more endorphins, which are the body's natural pain relievers.
Exercise spurs the pituitary gland to release more endorphins, which are the body's natural pain relievers.

These neurotransmitters are released by the brain and central nervous system when the brain perceives pain. In addition to dulling the sensation of pain, typically in the short term, enkephalins also change the way in which people perceive pain. This can be important, as people can still be panicked or upset even when their pain is dulled, a problem which commonly occurs when people are given synthetic painkillers which allay pain without addressing underlying emotions.

Because these neurotransmitters can influence perception, they can also play a role in memory formation and mood. They can also influence appetite and the functioning of the digestive system. All of these physical and emotional changes can be beneficial for someone experiencing pain, making the release of enkephalins an important part of the body's response to sources of pain and injury. These polypeptides are classified as endorphins, among the family of compounds which create a “rush” in the body.

Researchers first began to identify these compounds and the way they work in the 1970s. Like the numerous other substances secreted by the body to transmit signals throughout the nervous systems, enkephalins are released automatically when the body senses that they are needed. People cannot control the timing or quantity of the release of a neurotransmitter, and the compound acts instantly to perform its function as soon as it is needed. The rapid response time involved can be critical for many neurotransmitters, as the circumstances in the body are constantly changing, making it important to send the right signal at the right time.

Enkephalins bind to the opioid transmitters in the body. This trait is what allows them to manage pain effectively, but it can also make them addictive. Numerous studies have demonstrated the addictive and behavior-modifying qualities of enkephalins, and these effects are greatly increased when people use synthetic painkillers which bind to the same receptors. Addictiveness is, in fact, a major concern when painkillers are administered to a patient, as a doctor wants to provide analgesics without making a patient dependent on them in the future.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


You should probably have mentioned that Met-enkephalin, also known as OGF (opioid growth factor), functions as an inhibitor of cell proliferation during development, wound healing, cell renewal, angiogenesis, and cancer. It halts cell replication at the G1/S interface of the cell cycle, and in the case of cancer cells, acts as a cytokine to inform the immune system to destroy the cell.


@bfree - I agree with you in part about endorphins and exercising however I'm not in complete agreement with your thoughts on painkillers.

There are millions of people suffering from some very serious illnesses like cancer and AIDS. These people's immune systems are greatly affected by their diseases.

And because certain diseases create a deficiency of endorphins their bodies require prescribed medications to help boost those powerful painkilling cells.

I agree with you also that in many cases it appears that painkillers are being abused not only by the patients but through the medical industry as a whole.

But when it comes to serious diseases that cause cell death, prescription medication is the only option they have to boost and increase the bodies natural endorphins and enkephalins restoration levels.

I'm sure most people understand the importance of the enkephalins function to help ward off diseases, but when the disease itself has destroyed the enkephalin structure, than they no longer have the ability to fight it through endorphin inducing exercises.


I think people have become so dependent on synthetic drugs that we have forgotten our bodies natural ability to heal itself or at least relieve us of our pain.

Everyone has the ability to tap into their own endorphins through exercise or positive thinking just about anytime they need it. And meditation and yoga exercise are excellent choices for releasing endorphins almost instantly.

Of course there are many other benefits from exercising, but when it comes to pain relief there is no greater substance than our own ability to release powerful endorfin boosters throughout our body.

We need to all remember that we possess the power to reduce anxiety and stress and can raise our own positive energy levels without artificial stimulants.

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