The production of endorphins is popularly linked to “runner’s high” but there are many foods and activities that increase endorphins naturally and safely.
Endorphins are your body’s natural painkillers.
The word endorphin derives from two words — endogenous (from within) and morphine.
Endorphins comprise a group of roughly 20 “feel good” brain chemicals that reduce pain and diminish the negative effects of stress. (1)
Most people know them for the role they play in “runner’s high”– a state of euphoria, bliss, and increased pain tolerance brought on by extreme physical exertion.
When you are low in endorphins, you are more likely to feel anxious, depressed, stressed out, and unable to enjoy life or experience joy.
While physical exercise is the most widely known way to increase endorphins, it isn’t the only way.
And that’s a good thing, since most of us will never experience the legendary runner’s high.
It’s rarely experienced, even by those who exercise regularly and strenuously. (2)
Fortunately, some of the best things in life — like love, laughter, sunshine, and chocolate — increase endorphins.
Here’s how to increase endorphins naturally, even if you aren’t an athlete.
Increase Endorphins with Food
Certain foods either contain or encourage the release of endorphins.
Lucky for us, they also happen to be delicious!
Chocolate is one of the all-time favorite comfort foods and has been said to invoke a feeling similar to falling in love.
There are several compounds in chocolate that perform this magic.
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One of them, phenylethylamine, works by raising endorphin levels. (3)
Research carried out on the benefits of chocolate found that chocolate “beat kissing hands down when it comes to providing a long-lasting body and brain buzz.”
Hot peppers are hot because of the compound capsaicin.
When you eat hot peppers, your brain perceives the heat they cause as pain (which can be totally true!).
This causes endorphins to rush in to put out the fire.
This endorphin-stimulating quality makes capsaicin a useful treatment for the pain of arthritis, neuropathy, and severe itching.
Hot pepper enthusiasts find the “post-pepper euphoria” worth the pain. (4)
Alcohol consumption causes a release of endorphins in areas of the brain linked to feelings of pleasure. (5)
The key is to drink moderately since heavy drinking negates this effect. (6)
Eat Foods You Enjoy
While chocolate and spicy foods directly cause a flood of endorphins, there’s evidence that, in general, eating any foods you enjoy stimulates the release of some endorphins. (7)
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People who are low in either endorphins or the mood-enhancing brain chemical serotonin often crave foods that are high in carbohydrates or fats.
Both fats and sugar can increase endorphin output. (8)
How to Increase Endorphins with Lifestyle
Besides food, there are other lifestyle choices that increase endorphins and most are a lot easier than strenuous exercise.
Many of these share a common thread of connection with others and with nature.
Shared experiences that connect us with others have an endorphin-enhancing effect.
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Laugh Yourself Happy
The average child laughs 300 times per day while the average adult laughs only 17 times. (9)
And that’s to our detriment since laughter, as they say, is the best medicine.
One way laughter works to reduce pain, boost your immune system, and increase happiness is by boosting levels of endorphins. (10)
Don’t really feel like laughing?
It’s OK to fake it.
Surprisingly, even the anticipation of expected hilarity, such as settling down to watch a funny movie, increases endorphins. (13)
Exercise with Others
I promised that you wouldn’t have to exercise to increase endorphin production — and you don’t!
But sitting all day is mind numbing and unhealthy, so you should do some exercise anyway.
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Here’s a tip to get the most from whatever exercise you do.
When you exercise, do it with others.
Not only are you more likely to show up (accountability to someone else is a strong motivator to actually exercise), but exercise seems to be easier and take less time.
It’s not your imagination.
Taking an exercise class or having an exercise partner increases endorphins and tolerance to pain better than exercising alone. (14)
Lend a Helping Hand
A study done at the US National Institutes of Health found that helping others activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust. (15)
This flood of endorphins caused by being generous has been coined “helper’s high.”
You can help friends and family, give to your favorite charity, or help out by volunteering.
Gossip (It’s OK, Really)
While giving to others is an altruistic way to increase endorphins, one of human’s less noble pursuits — gossip — can do the same.
While this might seem counterintuitive, both helping and gossiping are basic ways that humans connect with others.
Apparently, gossiping is a primitive need that’s essential for our social and psychological well-being. (16)
And for better or for worse, electronic devices, the internet, and social media make it easier than ever to share gossip.
Fall in Love
Phenylethylamine, the same endorphin-boosting compound found in chocolate, is also produced by our brains when we fall in love. (17)
It’s not possible to be “in love” all of the time, but having sex will do!
You’ll get a burst of endorphins when you have an orgasm — whether you are with a partner or “flying solo.” (18)
Addiction to endorphins may explain why breaking up with someone you’re in love with causes such great pain.
The shutdown of endorphin production when we are cut off from a loved one is not that dissimilar to going cold turkey from an addictive substance. (19)
You can buy phenylethylamine, but I don’t recommend it.
Dance to the Music
Interestingly, one study found that country music was the best for endorphin boosting while heavy metal rock was the worst since it tended to leave listeners anxious.
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Even better than listening, grab an instrument, grab a mic, or just get up and dance.
Playing an instrument, singing, and dancing all stimulate endorphin release even more than passive listening. (23)
Catch Some Rays
Just take a look at a crowded beach on a summer’s day and you’ll see people enjoying being in the sun.
What makes sunbathing so appealing?
The best known benefit of sun exposure is essential vitamin D formation, but the sun’s ultraviolet radiation also boosts endorphin production.
While you never want to get so much sun that you risk sunburn, moderate amounts of sun exposure can make you healthier and happier in more ways than one.
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Make Time to Play
When we become adults we put aside our childish things and, unfortunately, one of these is play.
Most adults consider playing a waste of time, but it can reduce stress, exercise your brain, boost creativity, strengthen relationships, and even make you feel younger. (26)
If your main form of entertainment is screen time with an electronic device, turn that thing off and engage in some endorphin-boosting fun instead.
If it’s been so long that you’ve forgotten how to play, here are some ideas to get your started.
- Spend time with a child or pet. They haven’t forgotten how to play and can be the best teachers.
- Take a trip down memory lane and see what you’ve got stashed away. Get out your old board games, deck of cards, or arts and crafts supplies. They may remind you of what you used to like to do.
- Go to a nearby park for ideas. Seeing the options — basketball, tennis, volleyball, and frisbee tossing — might encourage you to join in!
Take a Sauna
Taking a sauna is a traditional way to relax, detox, and socialize — and now you can add increasing endorphins to the list. (27)
It’s believed that the heat from a sauna is responsible for this effect, so if you don’t have access to a sauna, taking a hot shower can also do the trick.
Your body’s natural painkilling endorphins, molecule for molecule, are thousands of times stronger than morphine. (28)
Mind-Body Healing Techniques
Mind-body healing techniques of all kinds can help you relax and thereby reduce stress and anxiety.
Increasing endorphins is one of the mechanisms that make these activities so beneficial.
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Meditation is one of the best things you can do for your health and happiness.
A regular meditation practice reduces the stress hormone cortisol, while increasing endorphins to quell chronic inflammation, an underlying cause of many diseases and mental disorders, including possibly depression. (29)
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Sitting and quieting the mind isn’t the only effective way to meditate.
Biofeedback is a technique that teaches you how to alter body functions you normally have no control of such as heart rate or blood pressure.
There are several kinds of biofeedback.
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When biofeedback utilizes the monitoring of brain waves, it’s called neurofeedback.
Neurofeedback is a proven tool for increasing endorphins to minimize stress, significantly improve depression, and help with alcohol addiction. (32)
Watch a child or a pet sleep and you’ll see that their belly, and not their chest, moves up and down.
This deep breathing from the diaphragm is the way we are meant to breathe, but most adults take shallow breaths from the chest instead.
According to Dr. Jeffrey Rossman, author of The Mind-Body Mood Solution, biofeedback studies show that when you breathe at the rate of six breaths per minute your heart and breath become synchronized.
He recommends achieving synchronization with a simple resonant breathing exercise.
Breathe in from your belly for 5 seconds and then exhale out for 5 seconds.
Do this for one minute.
This sends a signal to the brain to release the feel-good neurotransmitters endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. (33)
Getting a massage can do more than make you feel relaxed or soothe achy muscles.
The healing touch of massage can reduce stress hormone levels while increasing levels of endorphins and serotonin. (34)
Acupuncture is an ancient practice that’s now used in Western countries predominantly for treating pain and stress.
Science has yet to uncover exactly why it works.
Traditionally, acupuncture is believed to work by redirecting the flow of energy known as qi (or chi).
But research has uncovered a more scientific explanation.
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It’s now known that acupuncture causes the brain to release endorphins. (35)
Since endorphins are your body’s natural painkillers, one theory posits that the discomfort of the needles is enough to cause the brain to release endorphins.
Studies show that skeptics are less likely to experience benefits from acupuncture than believers. (36)
This makes sense if you consider that endorphins are thought to be responsible for the placebo effect due to their release upon the anticipation of healing. (37)
How to Increase Endorphins Naturally: The Bottom Line
Endorphins consist of a group of over 20 known neurotransmitters.
They are usually created when you are under stress or in pain and are popularly associated with “runner’s high.”
But there are numerous ways you can increase production of these potent brain chemicals besides strenuous workouts.
Food, social activities, play, and mind-body healing techniques can all help you experience the health benefits of endorphins.