It can be excruciating to watch a loved one struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. Family members and close friends of those experiencing addiction often find it challenging to help, especially when the sufferer has a difficult time acknowledging that they need help, which is often the case.
Having an open and honest conversation may begin the recovery process; however, a more comprehensive approach is usually necessary. A formal intervention can help someone with addiction understand how their behavior is affecting those around them and offer a way out.
What are Endorphins?
Endorphins are chemicals produced naturally by the nervous system in response to physical pain or stress. They block pain perception (i.e., have an analgesic effect) and support a sense of pleasure or wellbeing.
The name “endorphin” is a combination of two other words: “endogenous” and “morphine.” Endogenous means they are produced within the human body. And morphine is an opioid painkiller whose effects are similar to endorphins. So, endorphins behave like endogenous morphine: natural pain relievers.
Endorphins are peptides (small proteins) that bind to opioid receptors within the central nervous system. They are produced and stored primarily in the pituitary gland. This gland is located in the brain. However, they may come from other parts of the body as well.
Endorphins interact mainly with receptors found in the parts of the brain responsible for registering pain sensations and controlling emotions. Their main job is to inhibit the transmission of pain signals. They can also create a feeling of euphoria very similar to that produced by opioid pain-relief medication.
How Endorphins Work Endorphins can function as neurotransmitters within the central and peripheral nervous system and as hormones within the circulatory system
1. Some Endorphins are Proteins that Act as Neurotransmitters A neurotransmitter carries messages from one neuron to another within the central nervous system. Endorphins are what are known as inhibitory neurotransmitters. This means that they block other signals—in particular, pain signals.
2. Other Endorphins Act as Hormones in the Circulatory System These endorphins are created in the pituitary gland and released into the bloodstream. They function similarly to the central nervous system—blocking pain signals throughout the body. These endorphins, for instance, may block pain sensations within muscles. Both hormones and neurotransmitters carry messages to either start or stop something from happening within the body. The only difference is that neurotransmitters stay within the nervous system while hormones travel through the bloodstream. Both types of endorphins (neurotransmitters and hormones) block pain signals.
How Endorphins were Discovered Opioid medications (aka narcotics) are often prescribed for short-term use after surgery or acute pain relief. In the 1970s, scientists became curious about how and why opioids such as morphine, codeine, or heroin worked to reduce pain. Their subsequent experiments discovered that the human body has specialized brain and spinal cord receptors. Opioids bind to these receptors and then block the transmission of pain. Certain chemicals within the body behaved similarly to opioid medications, and scientists discovered that these chemicals were endorphins. So, endorphins are the body’s medicine chest: its natural narcotic.
Endorphins vs. Opioid Pain Medications Opioid pain-relief medications work by mimicking the body’s natural endorphins. While such medications may be helpful and necessary in the short term, ongoing use carries significant risks—including addiction. Also, the administration of exogenous opioids (i.e., prescription or illicit narcotics) tends to inhibit the production of endogenous opiates. In other words, misusing opioid medications can harm the body’s ability to produce its endorphins8. Natural endorphins work in a similar way to opioid pain relievers. Though their results may not be as dramatic, endorphins create a “high.” This high feeling is healthy and safe, without the risk of addiction or overdose.