You already know that exercise does a body good. It keeps your muscles strong, your weight manageable, and your organs in good working order. Numerous studies on exercise have shown that those who work out regularly have higher concentrations of endorphins in their bodies, making them naturally healthier and happier. Here’s what you need to know about the connection between exercise and endorphins.
What are Endorphins?
Endorphins are compounds that interact with very specific receptors in your brain to produce feelings of wellbeing or happiness. In some cases, endorphins can even reduce your perception of pain. In fact, a study published in March 2010 in the Hawaii Medical Journal found that endorphins relieved pain just as well as narcotic pain medications, and in some cases, even outperformed them.
Further studies indicate that endorphins can create a positive overall feeling in your body, much like morphine does, because they’re almost identical in chemical structure to morphine. The term “runner’s high” describes the state of euphoria that people experience after a long, strenuous run, but it can also occur after any workout. These endorphins act on opioid receptors in the brain to lift your mood and reduce your perception of pain, all without the risk of addiction or physical dependence.
The Connection between Exercise and Endorphins
A study performed in 2003 at the Department of Anesthesiology and Intensive Care Medicine at Justus-Leibig University in Germany and published in Anesthesia and Analgesia found that pain triggered the production of endorphins in the body. The more pain someone felt, the more endorphins were present in his or her bloodstream. This seems to indicate that stress and pain is the link between exercise and endorphins.
Further research published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise back in 1990 showed that blood concentrations of endorphins increased directly with the intensity and duration of exercise. Simply put, the harder and longer the participants in the study worked out, the higher the concentrations of endorphins in their bloodstreams climbed. A couple of years later, in 1992, a study published in Sports Medicine proved that those endorphin levels may take up to an hour after you start working out to start increasing.
The Tricky Blood-Brain Barrier Issue
While the link between exercise and endorphins may lead you to believe that you’re feeling endorphins at work when you experience a runner’s high, there’s also some evidence to suggest that this may not be the case at all. In all the aforementioned studies, scientists measured the concentrations of endorphins in the bloodstream rather than in the brain, where they work their magic.
A German study published in 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America found that these endorphins can’t pass through the blood-brain barrier at all. The studies mentioned above simply assume that if blood concentrations of endorphins are higher, it must mean there are more endorphins in the brain, too. Unfortunately, there’s no proof of this.
What’s Really Happening?
Those who experience a runner’s high may not be enjoying the effects of increased endorphins at all. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that this reaction is caused by neurotransmitters known as serotonin and norepinephrine, which are just as vital for creating a sense of wellbeing as endorphins. Multiple studies over the last few decades have shown a direct link between concentrations of these neurochemicals and depression, too, which further correlates with the idea that they are responsible for the post-workout euphoria.
To put it simply, even though more research is needed on the link between exercise and endorphins, there’s one thing for certain: exercise is a practice session for your body. It gives your body the chance to practice reacting to stress, which can have a direct impact on the way you handle physical and emotional stress in the future. The more active you are, the better equipped you’ll be to handle anything life can throw at you.
The connection between exercise and endorphins is still being studied. While there’s proof that exercise raises endorphin levels in the blood, it’s unclear whether it also raises endorphin levels in the brain. However, scientists are sure that regular exercise improves the production of serotonin and norepinephrine, which can improve your overall sense of wellbeing and perhaps even ward off depression or anxiety.