Published 19th April 2022

What endorphins can do for you and how to increase your levels

When you experience stress or pain, your nervous system releases chemicals called endorphins that help you to cope. Endorphins block pain signals between your body and brain and increase pleasurable sensations, creating a general feeling of well-being.

That’s why endorphins are called “feel-good” chemicals

High levels of endorphins can boost your emotional and overall well-being. Lower levels could mean you're more likely to experience mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, as well as increased pain levels and certain inflammatory diseases.

Below, we’ll explain what endorphins are, natural ways to get them running through your body, and other things you can do to boost your mood, like improving your diet and your gut health.

At ZOE, we run the world's largest study of nutrition and gut health, with over 15,000 participants so far. 

Our at-home test uses the latest scientific technology to analyze the unique range of “good” and “bad” bugs that live in your gut. Based on your results, we give you personalized advice to help you to find the best foods for your gut health and overall health. 

You can take a free quiz to find out more.

What are endorphins and what do they do?

Endorphins are proteins that reduce pain and emotional stress and trigger “good” feelings. 

Your body creates and releases endorphins after you experience physical or psychological pain or strain, but also in more positive situations.

They are released during exercise or in response to eating, having a hot shower, and during sex. These are examples of the wave of happiness you may feel when your endorphins get moving.

Endorphins are able to block pain signals to your brain in a similar way to medications like codeine, oxycodone, and morphine

The difference between endorphins and these drugs is that endorphins are completely natural and your body produces them as you need them. 

However, you still have some control over the release of endorphins, and there are several ways to get them circulating, which we’ll look at below.

What are the benefits of endorphins?

When your endorphin levels are high, it feels great. But aside from their ability to boost your mood, a 2021 review suggests that endorphins can also:

  • relieve pain

  • build healthy habits by rewarding you with positive feelings after you exercise

  • reduce your risk of mental health conditions like depression and help manage them if they do develop

  • protect against diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, possibly by reducing inflammation and stimulating the growth of brain cells and blood vessels

  • help your brain use energy more efficiently

  • relieve stress and its effects on your body

  • reduce inflammation

What are the effects of low endorphin levels?

Everyone has different levels of endorphins, and they also fluctuate within the same person. 

The review above, and other studies, found that people with lower levels of endorphins may be more likely to have these health problems:

  • mental health conditions like depression and anxiety (although some people with depression can also have high levels of endorphins)

  • rheumatic diseases

  • higher pain levels

  • increased pain during pregnancy

  • more sensitivity to anxiety triggers

  • migraines

  • substance use disorders like alcohol addiction

There aren’t many good quality studies looking into the effects of low endorphin levels, so more research is clearly needed. 

6 ways to release endorphins

Here are some fun ways to get your “feel-good” chemicals flowing.

1. Get plenty of exercise

Exercise is like a faucet for endorphins. It’s a controlled, manageable way to give your mood a boost without risking harmful addiction or overdose. Doctors often suggest exercise as an effective way to manage depression and reduce anxiety, alongside more conventional treatments like medications.

Even moderate-intensity exercise can raise your endorphin levels, according to a 2015 review

Moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity can also trigger the release of other mood-boosting chemicals, like dopamine, serotonin, and endocannabinoids.

You could try the following examples of moderate-intensity exercise:

  • going for a brisk walk

  • going on a casual cycle 

  • doing yard work

Vigorous exercise is any physical activity that has you so out of breath that you can only string together a few words at a time. It includes:

  • going for a fast-paced run or bike ride

  • taking a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) class on YouTube

  • playing basketball or other team sports

  • using an exercise bike in a spin class

Your endorphin levels should start to increase with 20–30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each day.

2. Put on some music you love

Music has healing qualities beyond simply providing a soundtrack while you do the dishes. 

Listening to music can help soothe pain by releasing endorphins, although a 2020 review advised that the perception of pain can depend on other factors, like health status and age.

Plus, who’s to say you can only try these methods on their own? The authors of a 2017 study found that listening to music while you’re working out helps relieve some of the burn you feel, meaning you can exercise for longer and enjoy even more of the endorphin-releasing benefits.

3. Dance with a friend — or by yourself

Aside from releasing endorphins as a result of exercise, a 2016 study suggests that dancing with other people can also boost endorphins and other “feel-good” chemicals as a reward for the act of social bonding.

If you’re not much of a group dancer, though, a strut around your kitchen to your favorite tunes could still help your mood through the combined benefits of exercise and music.

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4. Laugh out loud

A hearty chuckle provides a whole host of benefits, and one of the great effects of laughing is the release of endorphins that happens straight afterward. 

A review of research found that these endorphins can help most in situations where you feel uncomfortable or depressed. So, a laugh might be the boost you need to get you through difficult moments.

A 2021 paper recommends laughter therapy as an easily accessible way to release endorphins and support mental health difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, load up that cat video that always has you in stitches for an easy rush of endorphins.

5. Try acupuncture

Acupuncture is an important practice in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It involves stimulating the nervous system with precisely placed needles. This leads to a rush of endorphins that can provide pain relief. 

Scientists still aren’t clear how this works, but studies have confirmed that acupuncture is an effective treatment for back pain. Some research suggests it can also help with neck pain, knee pain, and headaches, but many of these studies didn’t test acupuncture alongside a control treatment to accurately compare its effects.

One study about a type of acupuncture called electroacupuncture suggests it is so effective at releasing endorphins that it has worked as a treatment for people experiencing heroin withdrawal symptoms like pain, sweating, chills, and anxiety.

Heroin is an opioid that affects the same receptors in your nervous system as endorphins.

6. Eat some dark chocolate

Part of the reason you may enjoy chocolate so much is that, when you eat it, a part of your brain called the hypothalamus releases endorphins. 

Researchers put this down to natural chemicals in the cocoa bean called polyphenols

Dark chocolate is a better choice than milk chocolate as it contains higher percentages of cocoa and therefore polyphenols.

Look for a chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa, ideally 70% or more, and savor a few small squares at a time.

Other ways to boost your mood

Endorphins are only one of many things that can help improve your mood. There are a whole host of ways to feel good that don’t focus on releasing endorphins (even though they might do that, too).

1. Talk to a friend

If you’re feeling down, opening up to a friend or doing something fun together as a distraction can work wonders for boosting your mood. Early research has shown that social support can help protect your mental health and make you more resilient to stress.

2. Play with an animal

Some theories suggest that oxytocin, another “feel-good” hormone, has a role to play for both dogs and humans in their ongoing friendships. 

Scientists who ran a 2019 study were less convinced, finding that oxytocin was not as important as had been thought and that the existing research wasn’t well put together. 

However, walking a dog is certainly a good form of exercise and, given the use of therapy dogs and cats in schools and emergency rooms, it seems clear that being around them makes many people feel better.

3. Create something

Completing a creative task improved participants’ self-reported scores for well-being while reducing scores for stress in a 2021 study

Not everything you make needs to be a masterpiece, either. Pick up an adult coloring book, a video game that involves creative problem solving, some Lego bricks, or a notepad to jot down some ideas or doodles.

4. Improve your gut health

Your brain and your gut are linked both physically and chemically.

There’s also evidence that the health of your gut microbiome — the community of bugs that make their home in your gut — and the food you eat can impact your mental health.

There are some broad changes you can make to your diet to help improve your gut health:

  • Eat more prebiotics: prebiotics are types of fiber that feed the “good” bugs in your gut. You can find them in plant foods including onions, leeks, asparagus, legumes like chickpeas and lentils, and whole grains.

  • Try fermented foods: foods like aged cheeses, live yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso contain “good” bacteria called probiotics that may help improve your gut microbiome if you eat them regularly.

  • Limit ultra-processed foods: eating lots of foods like candy, cakes, and many pre-prepared meals and snack foods has been linked to having more “bad” gut bugs and fewer “good” ones.

Following these broad guidelines could improve the health of your gut microbiome, but it’s not the whole picture.

ZOE runs the largest nutrition and gut health research program in the world, with over 15,000 participants so far. 

Our studies show that everyone’s gut microbiome, and their responses to food, are unique.

The ZOE at-home test analyzes the complete makeup of your gut microbiome, including which of the 15 “good” and “bad” bugs that we’ve identified live in your gut. 

Based on your results, we recommend the best foods for your body, including your personal “gut booster” and “gut suppressor” foods.

Unpublished research found that 82% of people who closely followed their gut-friendly ZOE personalized nutrition program said they had more energy after 3 months.

You can take a free quiz to find out what ZOE could do for you. 

Summary

Endorphins are “feel-good” chemicals that your body releases to help relieve pain or stress, as well as in response to a range of other activities. 

Regularly increasing your endorphin levels can also boost your mood and brain function, reduce inflammation, and may help protect against certain diseases.

Low endorphin levels have been linked to increased pain and anxiety, as well as inflammatory diseases like rheumatism.

One of the best ways to boost your endorphins is exercise, but music, laughter, and eating dark chocolate could also help.

Looking after your gut health has been linked to improved mood, too.

The ZOE program can help you to eat the best foods for your gut health and overall health.

You can take our free quiz to find out more. 

Sources

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Acupuncture: in depth. (2016). https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/acupuncture-in-depth 

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Performance of music elevates pain threshold and positive affect: implications for the evolutionary function of music. Evolutionary psychology. (2012). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23089077/

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Silent disco: dancing in synchrony leads to elevated pain thresholds and social closeness. Evolution and Human Behavior. (2016). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27540276/ 

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