What are endorphins and how do they give you a rush? We did some research to find out what endorphins are and how they improve our mood. Or do they?


The brain regards exercise as a form of stress and reacts by releasing chemicals called endorphins, which are thought to be responsible for the ‘rush’ – the feeling of euphoria that is often experienced after regular exercise.

What are endorphins?

Endorphins are our body’s natural opiates, chemicals that are produced when we experience stress in any form. The chemicals were identified at Scotland’s Aberdeen University in the 1970s by biological researchers John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz, who had been studying the effect of opiates such as heroin or morphine on the brain. They discovered that the opiates interact with specialised receptors in cells found mainly in the brain and spinal cord. When the opiates enter the receptors, they hinder or block the cell’s transmission of pain signals. Hughes and Kosterlitz wondered why the opioid receptors existed in the body in the first place; their investigations revealed that the body produces natural opiate-like narcotic substances of its own. The substances were called endorphins.

What do endorphins do?

When you are frightened, feel pain, are stressed or have just eaten a bowl of hot chilli, endorphins rush from your pituitary gland, spinal cord and other parts of the brain and nervous system body to ward off the ‘invader’. The prime purpose of the chemicals is to pass signals between the neurons within the central nervous system to intercept pain signals and control emotion. However, endorphins are also released during exercise – considered a type of stress – and this is widely believed to promote a feeling of wellbeing.

What is an endorphin ‘rush’

Everyone has experienced an endorphin ‘rush’ ­– perhaps after exercise, sex, a party or eating chilli-hot foods. Imaging methods allow researchers to study the movement of endorphins as they interact with human brain cells, verifying their role in the rush that exercise – and other triggers – may prompt. That’s why we can become addicted to a certain activity – it makes us feel good. We associate the activity with the rush of pleasure.

On the other hand, a shortage of endorphins may be responsible for certain forms of mental illness such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. If you have a normal amount of endorphins you will know, for example, when you have finished washing your hands. Someone who is short on endorphins may not receive the mental stimulus to stop washing his or her hands and will carry on until they receive that signal. A shortage of endorphins is also linked with clinical depression and excessive rage or anxiety.

endorphins bungee jumping

There’s no doubt that extreme sports such as bungee jumping stimulate the release of adrenaline, the hormone that responds when you are in a ‘fight or flight’ situation. The ‘rush’ experienced once the jump is over is caused by endorphins, your feel-good neurotransmitters that are also released during the experience.

What triggers endorphins?

What’s your pleasure? Take your pick. Lots of things can set off a release of endorphins: we’ve already mentioned stress (endorphins keep your alert during exams) and pain (they warn you that the fire is hot) and of course exercise (the harder the workout the higher the rush). Other triggers include massage and eating chillies.

Can endorphins fight depression?

The theory that exercise-produced endorphins cause a rush of elation, improve mood, help fight depression and keep you going back for more has its critics. For example, associate professor in the department of kinesiology at Indiana University Jack Raglin contends that the endorphin rush is more hype than fact. ‘Your body does release endorphins when you exercise,’ he says, ‘but there’s no strong evidence that endorphins change the way you feel.’ According to a study of exercising undergraduates at the university (reported in Health Psychology, the journal published the American Psychology Association), it’s the perceived sense of achievement and ability that causes the feeling of elation. ‘Psychology plays a larger role than physiology in causing people to exercise

[constantly], and certain personalities may predispose people to developing an addiction to exercise.’

According to Professor William Morgan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, exercise simply relieves depression because it distracts us from worrying. So the happies may not be down to endorphins at all (see http://bbc.in/WdFMFt). The effect wears off after 24 hours, he added, so we need to keep topping up the cheerful factor.
The critics may be right, they may be wrong. I continue to swear by my sessions at the gym and long brisk walks with the dog to lift my mood, increase my energy levels and help me think more clearly. And that’s apart from the other benefits such as increased blood flow and improved heart health. We’d love to know what you think?[divider_top]

Acknowledgements & Photo credits

  1. Photo of women jumping for joy courtesy of stockimages / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  2. Photo of bungee jump by Vaniobeatriz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons