I used to listen to this incredibly motivated motivational speaker years ago who was always talking about how you need to exercise daily to “release endorphins”. The endorphins would make you high. Then you’d feel completely fantastic. And all your greatest creative ideas would enter your brain.
What the heck are these endorphins anyway? Well, they are your body’s own natural painkillers (1) and they are distributed throughout the brain stem binding to receptors. The drug, morphine, attaches to the same receptors to dull pain (1). The name endorphin, in fact, comes from “endogenous morphinelike substance” (1).
So, what about exercise? Anything to it? Yes. I was able to find in quite a few studies that exercise, almost any kind, does increase endorphin levels in the blood (2-7). In fact, a study in 1995 showed that when compared to meditation, running was more effective for releasing endorphins (7).To get the most potent pain-killing buzz from your workout, do high-intensity exercise to reach your anaerobic threshold. Anaerobic exercise promotes greater endorphin release than aerobic exercise (2). (Although the workout might come back to haunt you with pain later.) It was thought that lactic acid played a role in causing endorphin release, but this theory has been challenged (8).
Also, you don’t have to exercise for natural pain relief. There are other ways. Exposure to cold appears to stimulate endorphin release and a huge amount of electrical impulses to the brain (9). This led to one hypothesis that taking a cold shower daily may be useful to help those with depression (9). Electroacupuncture can help stimulate endorphin release, which may explain why it may be a good complementary treatment for pain (10).Massage therapy is also thought to stimulate endorphin release, but its effects are not proven (2).
It’s worth noting that in patients with heart failure, a functional disability includes decreased release of endorphins during exercise (11).
1. Nowak TJ, Handford AG. Pathophysiology: Concepts and Applications for Health Professionals. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
2. Bender T, Nagy G, Barna I, Tefner I, Kadas E, Geher P. The effect of physical therapy on beta-endorphin levels. Eur J Appl Physiol 2007;100:371-82.
3. Armstrong DW, III, Hatfield BD. Hormonal responses to opioid receptor blockade: during rest and exercise in cold and hot environments. Eur J Appl Physiol 2006;97:43-51.
4. Harbach H, Hell K, Gramsch C, Katz N, Hempelmann G, Teschemacher H. Beta-endorphin (1-31) in the plasma of male volunteers undergoing physical exercise. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2000;25:551-62.
5. Jarmukli NF, Ahn J, Iranmanesh A, Russell DC. Effect of raised plasma beta endorphin concentrations on peripheral pain and angina thresholds in patients with stable angina. Heart 1999;82:204-9.
6. Goldfarb AH, Jamurtas AZ. Beta-endorphin response to exercise. An update. Sports Med 1997;24:8-16.
7. Harte JL, Eifert GH, Smith R. The effects of running and meditation on beta-endorphin, corticotropin-releasing hormone and cortisol in plasma, and on mood. Biol Psychol 1995;40:251-65.
8. Petrides JS, Deuster PA, Mueller GP. Lactic acid does not directly activate hypothalamic-pituitary corticotroph function. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med 1999;220:100-5.
9. Shevchuk NA. Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. Med Hypotheses 2008;70:995-1001.
10. Lee SH, Lee BC. Electroacupuncture relieves pain in men with chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome: three-arm randomized trial. Urology 2009;73:1036-41.
11. Perna GP, Modoni S, Valle G, Stanislao M, Loperfido F. Plasma beta-endorphin response to exercise in patients with congestive heart failure. Chest 1997;111:19-22.