Endorphins (neurotransmitters): functions and characteristics

Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, GABA or norepinephrine are already known.

These are substances that act at the brain level contributing to the transmission of information between different neurons, Causing a wide variety of physiological, cognitive, emotional and behavioral effects. We know that dopamine is involved in the brain’s reward mechanism, that serotonin is the so-called tranquility hormone, or that norepinephrine helps us stay awake and alert.

However, in addition to these substances, there are other neurotransmitters of great importance to our lives, these are the molecules that give us feelings of true satisfaction and happiness, as well as those that help us endure pain. We are talking about endorphins.

Know the endorphins

Endorphins are a type of endogenous neuropeptide, which is protein chains made by the body itself, Which are responsible for stimulating the areas of the brain that produce pleasure in the body. These substances are also called endogenous opiates because their chemical composition and action are very similar to those of opium derivatives, such as heroin and morphine. These are molecules that usually do not produce a nerve signal on their own, but modulate and alter neuronal sensitivity to other substances.

The synthesis of endorphins occurs mainly in the pituitary or pineal gland, a brain structure that regulates the body’s balance through the secretion of hormones, participating in such important processes as growth and maturation, sexuality and metabolism. From this structure, endorphins are distributed throughout the rest of the nervous system. Its presence in the gastrointestinal system has also been observed.

Their absence or low level induces depressive and anxious symptoms, Make it more difficult to resolve aversive situations and trauma. In addition, it facilitates the fall and / or relapse of dependence on substances that can simulate their effect.

Basic functions of endorphins

Endorphins are really important substances in our lives, participating in many different processes and contributing to the adaptability of human beings. Some of its basic functions are as follows.

1. The molecules of happiness

Her most famous performance has to do with feelings of pleasure.This is why they are known as the hormones of happiness.

In this aspect, they create a feeling of well-being and calm both physically and mentally, which induces a feeling of happiness. In fact, it causes its segregation to be perceived by the body as a sort of reward, which causes us to repeat the behavior that is behind this hormone-releasing mechanism.

2. Inhibition of physical pain

Another of the main and also the best known functions of endorphins is based on the inhibition of pain. When we punch ourselves, cut ourselves or exert an extreme effort, the body’s tissues send signals to the nociceptors or pain receptors they have. However, when these signals arrive in the brain, the pituitary gland responds by releasing endorphins almost immediately.

This release temporarily inhibits or decreases the sensation of pain, Allowing the body to be able to perform an adaptive response that can save lives. This, for example, would allow us to escape a predator or a fight despite being injured. This is what causes that when we break a bone, the initial pain is not as intense as it will be felt later when relaxed.

3. Inhibition of psycho-emotional pain

In the previous point, we talked about the role of endorphins in inhibiting physical pain. Endorphins also work in the same way when dealing with psychological distress., As a product in the face of painful life events, trauma, stress or anxiety.

When we are given bad news or a painful event occurs, such as the death of a loved one, it is common for the initial response to appear to have no immediate effect, seemingly acting like nothing has happened. .

It is assumed that this phase is due to the production of endorphin which inhibits pain at the psychic level, since these substances reduce the level of tension and initial stress. It is thus explained that in some stressful situations, the somatic symptoms occur once resolved, although these did not occur in the stressful situation itself. Endorphins may work to compensate for this discomfort.

4. Influence on the immune system

Depressed moods and persistent stress over time decrease the ability of the immune system to cope with external microorganisms. That is why, when we are in a time of great tension, it is easier to get sick both now and after the situation has passed. The release of endorphins, however, strengthens this system by improving the emotional situation. and make it possible to face painful situations.

5. Memory and attention

Aside from the effects mentioned above, these substances have been found to participate in memory and attention, facilitating it as well-being increases capacity and many stimuli are associated with emotional states.

6. Participation in sexuality

Several studies reflect that the release of endorphins plays a very important role in sexuality, Facilitate desire and induce the synthesis and release of hormones that predispose to maintaining relationships. It is also one of the types of substances that facilitate romantic bonds between the members of the couple, causing feelings of happiness and well-being.

Situations and behaviors that enhance the production of this neurotransmitter

The action of endorphins helps us experience happiness and reduce painful sensations both physically and emotionally. It has been observed that certain activities and situations favor its production, such as the following.

1. Laughs

Studies show that genuine laughter produces endorphins. Jokes and a sense of humor can help us and others improve our moods and make us happier.

Attend Laughter Therapy Sessions it has also been shown to have some level of effectiveness, as laughter is usually contagious due to the activity of mirror neurons. In fact, even if it is not genuine laughter, the muscular effort already causes the release of endorphins, which in turn facilitates the appearance of genuine laughter.

2. Achieve a goal

Getting something we want also gives us deep satisfaction., Which results in an increase in the production of endorphins. The sense of achievement and achievement of the goal, whether there is an extrinsic reward or not, improves our well-being. Especially when the level of effort used has been high.

3. Have sex

Maintaining good relationships is another activity that generates high levels of endorphins. In fact, along with other substances such as oxytocin and progesterone, endorphins are excreted right after orgasm.

4. Physical exercise

It is common knowledge that running or playing sports generates endorphins. Specifically, cardiovascular and aerobic exercises are recommended because they produce a higher level of physical exertion, a greater sense of achievement, and greater subsequent satisfaction.

5. Relax

The synthesis of endorphins does not depend only on the realization of a specific action. Many times just relaxing. Taking a bath, listening to music, reading something for fun, or just meditating can generate a lot of endorphins, especially after a stressful day.

6. Sleep

Maintaining a good sleep hygiene is essential for maintaining high endorphins production. This is why, after a restful sleep, we usually wake up in a good mood, and vice versa in case of bad sleep. Satisfactory sleep facilitates a positive attitude and the presence of energy necessary to perform any activity.

7. Caresses, kisses and massages

Physical contact with another person assumes, in general and assuming neither the person nor the situation is aversive to us, an increase in the production of endorphins if done with a certain level of precision. If you have a positive emotional connection with the person or with whom these actions are performed, the increase in endorphin production is much greater. It lowers cortisol levels and blood pressure, as well as improving connection with the other person.

8. Fall in love

More than once we’ve heard that love is like a drug. The truth is, this expression is more correct than you might think, because the feelings of happiness and satisfaction that we experience when we fall in love are produced at the biochemical level by endorphins, as well as other substances such as dopamine and noradrenaline.

9. The fish that bite its tail

Given the different situations or activities that cause the release of endorphins, it is possible to realize that, in general, it is feeling good or happy, which causes the release of these substances. Thus, we can observe that if endorphins cause the feeling of happiness, this feeling of happiness in turn causes the synthesis of endorphins. In this way, allowing ourselves to enjoy the little moments of happiness makes us happier at that time and also that we tend to have more similar times.

a risk

The production of endorphins and the maintenance of the sensations they produce are highly desirable and sought after by most people. However, it should be borne in mind that these are substances which, although they are generated endogenously and therefore do not produce a stick on their own, they assume a high level of well-being that can be sought by the active and even compulsive individual.

Thus, behaviors used to reach a level of endorphins that make us feel good can become very easily addictive, and can lead to tolerance, addiction and withdrawal problems. This can lead to compulsive sensation-seeking and even promote high-risk behavior. Also, in some people, this search for a replica of the effects of endorphins leads to the consumption of different drugs, with the dangers and side effects that these imply.

Bibliographical references:

  • Cheido, MA and Idova, GV (1998). Effect of opioid peptides on immunomodulation. Ross-Fiziol-Zh-Im-IM-Sechenova; 84 (4): 385-90.

  • Kolb, B. and Whishaw, I. (2006). Human neuropsychology. Madrid: McGraw-Hill.

  • Leihninger, A EL; Nelson, DL and Cox, MM (1995). Principles of biochemistry. 2nd ed. Barcelona: Edicions Omega; p. 334-6.

  • Johnston, D. and Wu, SMS (1995). Fundamentals of cellular neurophysiology. MIT Press

  • Reichlin, S. (1997). Neuroendocrinology. In: Williams, Treatise on Endocrinology.t1.Havana: Scientific and Technical. p. 656-8.

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