6 Tips for Boosting Endorphins – The Body’s Natural Painkillers

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In the current climate of the opioid epidemic, many are looking for drug-free alternatives to aid in the fight against chronic pain. Non-narcotic approaches that range from treatments – like acupuncture, massage and electrotherapy – to practices like meditation and mindfulness are being put into action.

As awareness and adoption for these treatments grow, patients are learning how to play a more proactive role in their own rehabilitation. In the process, some are discovering an extra ally in the fight against pain. This natural aide comes in the form of tiny molecules that help boost the body’s ability to block pain signals.  

If this sounds too good to be true, it isn’t. There’s real science behind endorphins – the body’s natural painkillers.

A Surprising Discovery in the Brain

In the 70s and 80s, several groups of scientists discovered that our brains have specific receptors that bind opiates like morphine. This was puzzling, until they realized that our bodies also make morphine-like molecules that bind to those same receptors. 

These molecules, called endorphins, are neuropeptides produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland. They’re released when the body encounters pain or stress, and their role is to inhibit the communication of pain signals. The name comes from the combination of “endogenous” – meaning made by the body – and “morphine.” Which led to the branding of endorphins as natural painkillers. 

While the body is programmed to produce endorphins in response to pain, research shows that it actually produces fewer endorphins when given opioid painkillers – like codeine or morphine. Therefore, any patient concerned with reducing his or her dependence on opioids should have an interest in boosting endorphins as a meaningful, non-addictive addition to their pain management program.

Paths to Mitigating Pain Naturally

For chronic pain sufferers who are interested in naturally boosting endorphins, here are six suggestions:

  • Exercise: While primarily utilized for managing stress and maintaining a healthy weight, studies reveal that workouts also boost endorphin levels. How much exercise does the trick? Experts say that any amount of exercise is good, but 30 minutes a day, five times a week of moderate intensity exercise has been shown to produce benefits. This is also a good question to ask your healthcare provider, as results will vary.

  • Laughing: Whether giggling with a group or having a chuckle by yourself, one study shows that pain thresholds go up after laughing. The conclusion is that, because laughter is a physical response, the combination of exhalations of breath and muscle use can trigger an endorphin release. Humor comes in many forms – movies, TV shows, live performances, comics or just joking with friends and family – so making time for a bit of mirth could end up paying off.      

  • Aromatherapy: Smelling the fragrance of lavender or vanilla could help stave off pain, according to one analysis. While it’s been shown to have more impact on short-term pain than long-term pain, it’s also a simple pleasure that can help elevate mood. 

  • Giving: Is there any science behind the notion of the “helper’s high”? According to studies, yes. Volunteering or performing acts of kindness can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and heighten feelings of well-being. Research also shows that donating stimulates the pleasure-related centers in the brain – leading to the so-called “warm glow” effect.   

  • Chocolate: Dark chocolate has an abundance of health benefits when consumed in moderation. Among them is that it contains PEA (phenylethylamine), which is a feel-good endorphin released by the brain when we’re falling in love. Hello – who doesn’t want a reason to eat a bite of chocolate every day?  

  • Spicy Food: Spicy food lovers will be excited about this news. Capsaicin, the spicy part of peppers, can fool the brain into releasing endorphins because it activates pain receptors. Maybe it’s not enough reason for everyone to gamble on the habanero wings, but those who are already indulging will likely benefit from this unexpected positive side effect.

So as patients who seek non-narcotic treatment alternatives for chronic pain contemplate additional options for their pain management program, they will discover a range of options. Boosting endorphin levels can provide that small extra step – a natural, non-addictive and self-managed part of the broader solution to creating relief.

Do you have thoughts to share? Please let us know! We’re delighted to have readers add their experiences in the comments below.

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This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The words and other content provided in this blog, and in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice. If the reader or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare professional.

Donna PetersonComment