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proopiomelanocortin (adrenocorticotropin/ beta-lipotropin/ alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone/ beta-melanocyte stimulating hormone/ beta-endorphin)
Symbol(s): POMC
Locus: 2 p23
EC number [1]
EntrezGene 5443
OMIM 176830
RefSeq NM_000939
UniProt P01189

Endorphins are endogenous opioid polypeptide compounds. They are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus in vertebrates during strenuous exercise,[1] excitement, pain, and orgasm,_|_Sexercise_yourself_into_shape-2|[2][3] and they resemble the opiates in their abilities to produce analgesia and a sense of well-being. Endorphins work as "natural pain relievers", whose effects may be enhanced by other medications.

The term "endorphin" implies a pharmacological activity (analogous to the activity of the corticosteroid category of biochemicals) as opposed to a specific chemical formulation. It consists of two parts: endo- and -orphin; these are short forms of the words endogenous and morphine, intended to mean "a morphine like substance originating from within the body."[4]

The term endorphin rush has been adopted in popular speech to refer to feelings of exhilaration brought on by pain, danger, or other forms of stress,[1] supposedly due to the influence of endorphins. When a nerve impulse reaches the spinal cord, endorphins are released which prevent nerve cells from releasing more pain signals. Immediately after injury, endorphins allow humans to feel a sense of power and control over themselves that allows them to persist with activity for an extended time.


Opioid neuropeptides were first discovered in 1975 by two independent groups of investigators.

  • Around the same time in the calf brain, Rabi Simantov and Solomon H. Snyder of the United States found[7] what Eric Simon (who independently discovered opioid receptors in the brain) later termed "endorphin" by an abbreviation of "endogenous morphine", which literally means "morphine produced naturally in the body".[4] Importantly, recent studies have demonstrated that diverse animal and human tissues are in fact capable of producing morphine itself, which is not a peptide.[8][9]

Mechanism of action

Beta-endorphin is released into the blood (from the pituitary gland) and into the spinal cord and brain from hypothalamic neurons. The beta-endorphin that is released into the blood cannot enter the brain in large quantities because of the blood-brain barrier. The physiological importance of the beta-endorphin that can be measured in the blood is far from clear: beta-endorphin is a cleavage product of pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) which is also the precursor hormone for adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH). The behavioural effects of beta-endorphin are exerted by its actions in the brain and spinal cord, and probably the hypothalamic neurons are the major source of beta-endorphin at these sites. In situations where the level of ACTH is increased (e.g. Addison disease), the level of endorphins also increases slightly.

Beta-endorphin has the highest affinity for the μ1-opioid receptor, slightly lower affinity for the μ2- and δ-opioid receptors and low affinity for the κ1-opioid receptors. μ-receptors are the main receptor through which morphine acts. Classically, μ-receptors are presynaptic, and inhibit neurotransmitter release; through this mechanism, they inhibit the release of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, and disinhibit the dopamine pathways, causing more dopamine to be released. By hijacking this process, exogenous opioids cause inappropriate dopamine release, and lead to aberrant synaptic plasticity, which causes addiction. Opioid receptors have many other and more important roles in the brain and periphery however, modulating pain, cardiac, gastric and vascular function as well as possibly panic and satiation, and receptors are often found at postsynaptic locations as well as presynaptically.


Scientists debate whether specific activities release measurable levels of endorphins. Much of the current data comes from animal models which may not be relevant to humans. The studies that do involve humans often measure endorphin plasma levels, which do not necessarily correlate with levels in the CNS. Other studies use a blanket opioid antagonist (usually naloxone) to indirectly measure the release of endorphins by observing the changes that occur when any endorphin activity that might be present is blocked.

Capsaicin (the active chemical in red chili peppers) also has been shown to stimulate endorphin release.[10] Topical capsaicin has been used as a treatment for certain types of chronic pain.

Runner's high

Another widely publicized effect of endorphin production is the so-called "runner's high", which is said to occur when strenuous exercise takes a person over a threshold that activates endorphin production. Endorphins are released during long, continuous workouts, when the level of intensity is between moderate and high, and breathing is difficult. This also corresponds with the time that muscles use up their stored glycogen. During a release of Endorphin the person may be exposed to bodily harm from strenuous bodily functions after going past their body's physical limit. They may be able to keep running despite pain, and thus possibly come to bodily harm from endorphin release. Workouts that are most likely to produce endorphins to the extent of damage at the body's physical limit include, boxing, running, free running, swimming, cross-country skiing, long distance rowing, cycling, weight lifting, aerobics, a martial art such as karate, soccer, basketball, rugby, lacrosse, hockey, tennis, American football and other strenuous exercises.

However, some scientists question the mechanisms at work, their research possibly demonstrating the high comes from completing a challenge rather than as a result of exertion.[11] Studies in the early 1980s cast doubt on the relationship between endorphins and the runner's high for several reasons:

  • The first was that when an antagonist (pharmacological agent that blocks the action for the substance under study) was infused (e.g. naloxone) or ingested (naltrexone) the same changes in mood state occurred as when the person exercised with no blocker.

A study in 2003 by Georgia Tech found that runner's high might be caused by the release of another naturally produced chemical, Anandamide. Anandamide is similar to the active endocannabinoid anandamide,[12][13] The authors suggest that the body produces this chemical to deal with prolonged stress and pain from strenuous exercise, similar to the original theory involving endorphins. However, the release of anandamide was not reported with the cognitive effects of the runner’s high; this suggests that anandamide release may not be significantly related to runner's high.[13]

In 2008, researchers in Germany reported that the myth of the runner's high was not a myth but was in fact true. Using PET scans combined with recently available chemicals that reveal endorphins in the brain, they were able to compare runners’ brains before and after a run.[14] The runners the researchers recruited were told that the opioid receptors in their brains were being studied, and did not realize that their endorphin levels were being studied in regard to the runner's high.

The participants were scanned and received psychological tests before and after a two-hour run. Data received from the study showed endorphins were produced during the exercise and were attaching themselves to areas of the brain associated with emotions (limbic and prefrontal areas).[15]

An investigated possiblity is that a molecule, such as anandamide carries endorphins through the blood-brain barrier, as endorphins are too large to cross the BBB by themselves. If not, endorphins may be produced in the brain itself.


In 1999, clinical researchers reported that inserting acupuncture needles into specific body points triggers the production of endorphins.[16][17] In another study, higher levels of endorphins were found in cerebrospinal fluid after patients underwent acupuncture.[18] In addition, naloxone appeared to block acupuncture’s pain-relieving effects. However, skeptics say that not all studies point to that conclusion,[19] and that in a trial of chronic pain patients, endorphins did not produce long-lasting relief. Endorphins may be released during low levels of pain and physical stimulation when it lasts over 30 minutes. Questions remain as to whether the prolonged low level of pain stimulation as in Capsaicin, acupuncture and running or physical activity alone are the threshold that activates endorphin release.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 The Reality of the "Runner's High". UPMC Sports Medicine. University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences. URL accessed on 2008-10-15.
  2. _|_Sexercise_yourself_into_shape_2-0|↑ 'Sexercise' yourself into shape. Health. BBC News. URL accessed on 2008-10-15.
  3. Get more than zeds in bed -. Mind & body magazine - NHS Direct. UK National Health Service. URL accessed on 2008-10-15.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Goldstein A, Lowery PJ (September 1975). Effect of the opiate antagonist naloxone on body temperature in rats. Life sciences 17 (6): 927–31.
  5. Role of endorphins discovered. PBS Online: A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries. Public Broadcasting System. URL accessed on 2008-10-15.
  6. Hughes J, Smith T, Kosterlitz H, Fothergill L, Morgan B, Morris H (1975). Identification of two related pentapeptides from the brain with potent opiate agonist activity. Nature 258 (5536): 577–80.
  7. Simantov R, Snyder S (1976). Morphine-like peptides in mammalian brain: isolation, structure elucidation, and interactions with the opiate receptor. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 73 (7): 2515–9.
  8. Poeaknapo C, Schmidt J, Brandsch M, Dräger B, Zenk MH (September 2004). Endogenous formation of morphine in human cells. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101 (39): 14091–6.
  9. Kream RM, Stefano GB (October 2006). De novo biosynthesis of morphine in animal cells: an evidence-based model. Medical science monitor : international medical journal of experimental and clinical research 12 (10): RA207–19.
  10. Klosterman L. Endorphins. Chronogram. Luminary Publishing, Inc.. URL accessed on 2008-10-15.
  11. Hinton E, Taylor S (1986). Does placebo response mediate runner's high?. Percept Mot Skills 62 (3): 789–90.
  12. Study links marijuana buzz to 'runner's high'. URL accessed on 2008-10-15.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Sparling PB, Giuffrida A, Piomelli D, Rosskopf L, Dietrich A (December 2003). Exercise activates the endocannabinoid system. Neuroreport 14 (17): 2209–11.
  14. Boecker H, Sprenger T, Spilker ME, Henriksen G, Koppenhoefer M, Wagner KJ, Valet M, Berthele A, Tolle TR (February 2008). The Runner's High: Opioidergic Mechanisms in the Human Brain. Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y. : 1991).
  15. Kolata G. Yes, Running Can Make You High. Health. New York Times. URL accessed on 2008-10-15.
  16. Johnson C. Acupuncture works on endorphins. News in Science, ABC Science Online. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. URL accessed on 2008-10-15.
  17. Napadow V, Ahn A, Longhurst J, Lao L, Stener-Victorin E, Harris R, Langevin HM (September 2008). The status and future of acupuncture clinical research. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.) 14 (7): 861–9.
  18. Clement-Jones V, McLoughlin L, Tomlin S, Besser G, Rees L, Wen H (1980). Increased beta-endorphin but not met-enkephalin levels in human cerebrospinal fluid after acupuncture for recurrent pain. Lancet 2 (8201): 946–9.
  19. Kenyon J, Knight C, Wells C (1983). Randomised double-blind trial on the immediate effects of naloxone on classical Chinese acupuncture therapy for chronic pain. Acupunct Electrother Res 8 (1): 17–24.

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