Endorphins are chemicals, called peptides, that are made in the body. They have much of the same effect on a person as opium or morphine. As a result, they actually lower the feeling of pain in the body and can create a feeling of bliss or euphoria. They are often created and released when a person exercises; becomes excited; or even eats certain foods, such as spicy peppers or chocolate.
Generally, endorphins work by attaching themselves to receptors that are designed to decrease the feeling of pain. As a result, once the chemicals are released, people can perform activities that may once have been impossible because of body pain. For example, a runner may be able to run longer distances once the endorphins attach to the receptors to relieve the feeling of pain in her legs or knees.
The body makes about 20 types of endorphins. Although researchers are still studying how they affect the body, they believe that beta-endorphins provide the strongest feeling of euphoria. Once it is released, it prevents the body from signaling pain. In fact, many researchers believe that beta-endorphins block the feeling of pain in people who undergo extreme trauma. For example, if a person were to sever her arm, she may not feel the pain immediately because the signal that would normally express pain was blocked.
Not only are endorphins thought to block the sensation of pain, but they also work to lower stress levels and support the immune system. Some studies have indicated that they can cause certain cells, called natural killer cells, to be triggered. Once those cells are stimulated, they work to fight cancer cells. As a result, some researchers believe that chemicals may be used to lower the likelihood of developing cancer or to help fight the disease.
The best exercises to create and release endorphins include running, biking, swimming, and cross-country skiing, especially if these activities are performed for long periods of time. Once the chemicals are released, an athlete may experience a sudden spike in her energy level. The spike may vary from person to person, particularly regarding when it will occur and how long it will last. For example, the spike in her energy could happen after exercising for 25 minutes or it may not happen until she exercises for an hour. Some researchers have even linked laughter to the release of endorphins, making laughter an important factor in human wellness.