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What Are Endorphins? - Definition, Types & Function

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  • 0:00 What Are Endorphins?
  • 1:10 Function of Endorphins…
  • 4:19 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Wendy McDougal

Wendy has taught high school Biology and has a master's degree in education.

Endorphins are chemicals in the brain that act as natural analgesics. Athletes may know them as the cause of runner's high. Learn more about these natural painkillers and quiz yourself when you are done.

What Are Endorphins?

Have you ever subjected yourself to a workout that was so difficult you thought you might not survive? Perhaps you began training toward a goal such as a marathon or triathlon. At first it may have seemed impossible. But training became easier and soon even enjoyable. And finally, you experienced it: the rush of pleasure known as runner's high. You experienced a feeling of euphoria, as if your feet weren't even touching the ground. That natural high is caused by chemicals released in the brain called endorphins.

Endorphins are the body's very own natural analgesics, or painkillers. They are released during times of stress and pain. They also rush forth during strenuous exercise, often causing a wave of pleasure to come over the individual. This is why exercise feels to many like a good stress release and puts a person in a good mood. Endorphins function in the brain similarly to opium-based drugs, such as morphine. In this lesson, learn more about the importance of these brain chemicals and gain a better understanding of how they work.

Function of Endorphins in the Body

Endorphins cause a natural feeling of pleasure that many people seek out in the form of street drugs and prescription painkillers. It may come as a surprise to you that endorphins use the same receptors in the brain as heroin and morphine. However, endorphins are not harmful nor are they addictive like the aforementioned substances. And lucky for you, endorphin release comes from positive activities, such as hard exercise or laughter.

So how do they work to make us feel good? Let's take a brief look at how our nervous system works in order to better understand. Chemically, endorphins are neurotransmitters. This means that they are chemical messengers employed by our nervous system. Neurotransmitters are important because they bridge the gaps, or synapses, between neurons. When impulses are traveling along neurons, neurotransmitters carry the signal from one neuron to the next, like a child hopping across a stream on large rocks.

Now think back to the marathon training we were talking about. You are feeling the pain in your legs and burning in your chest. The sensation of pain is moving from your body parts to your brain via impulses conducted along nerves in your nervous system. Like a note being passed in class from student to student, the communication that says, 'this hurts,' is transmitted to the brain along a series of neurons.

Once the signal reaches the brain, this feeling is processed, and your first thought is, 'ouch!' In some instances when you experience pain, you do what you need to in order to remove that painful stimulus. However, in this situation, you know that this is not a life-or-death type of pain, so you keep running. The brain, which has the ability to regulate pain perception, signals the release of endorphins. So how do they work to help you move past the pain?

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