by Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio
You’re probably most familiar with endorphins as they relate to the so-called “runner’s high,” the calm, euphoric feeling that people report after a long run. And it’s true that vigorous aerobic activity is a proven way to spark the release of these feel-good peptides. But if you’re dealing with the daily ups and downs of chronic Lyme disease, lacing up your sneakers to pound the pavement is likely on the bottom of your to-do list.
While exercise gets most of the credit when it comes to endorphins, it’s certainly not the only way your body generates these little wonder molecules that improve your sense of wellbeing. Here, we’ll take a look at endorphins and why they might hold the key to easing such Lyme symptoms as pain, immune dysfunction, and chronic stress, plus offer ways to reap the benefits even when you’re not feeling up to moving, no exercise needed.
An Overview of Endorphins
When your body experiences pain or stress, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland — your body’s largest producers of endorphins —generate these chemicals as a way of coping with physical and emotional pressures. Endorphins may arise from other parts of the body as well: Research suggests immune cells make endorphins in response to inflammatory processes in the body and help to quell certain pain-producing substances.
Endorphins have garnered the reputation of being “feel good” chemicals because they play a pivotal role in the body’s natural pain management process and possess opioid-like qualities. The term endorphin comes from two words: “endogenous,” meaning originating from within the body, and “morphine,” the opioid pain reliever. Indeed, endorphin is a fitting name for the morphine-like chemical produced in the body.
In the mid-70s, scientists were researching the mechanisms by which opioids alleviated pain. At that point, morphine had been around for nearly 200 years, but how and why it worked was still relatively unknown. The research led to the discovery of opioid receptors: When opioid medications like morphine bound to receptors in the peripheral and central nervous system, the drugs blocked pain signals.
Furthermore, researchers also noticed that other, natural chemicals in the body could bind to the same receptors and act in a manner comparable to opioid medications. They called these similar chemicals endorphins.
The Link Between Endorphins, Lyme Disease + Other Chronic Illnesses
There are many different types of endorphins, but the ones most often discussed in the research are beta-endorphins. Although we still have a lot to learn when it comes to endorphins, we know they’re responsible for mitigating pain, modulating the immune system, and enhancing pleasure. Besides stress, endorphins are released during activities you typically enjoy doing — sex, eating, and drinking, to name a few.
Although research has yet to look specifically at Lyme disease and endorphins, evidence indicates that when beta-endorphins are secreted in the brain, they trigger the release of natural killer (NK) cells. These immune cells are our first line of defense against infectious agents like Borrelia burgdorferi and abnormal cell growth.
One therapeutic intervention yielding positive results for some Lyme patients, particularly those with neurological Lyme, is the endorphin-enhancing medication low-dose naltrexone (LDN). LDN partially blocks opioid receptors, leading to a slow increase of endorphins while supporting a healthier immune response, dampening inflammatory cytokines, and curbing neuroinflammation.
Endorphin levels can vary from one person to another, and low levels of endorphins have also been associated with several chronic conditions. On the list: fibromyalgia, ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome), depression, and headaches — and that’s probably just scratching the surface.
But can you begin to reap the benefits of endorphins without a prescription medication or running an all-out marathon? The answer is yes. The following are natural ways to boost endorphins so that you can experience lower pain levels, increased immune function, and a greater sense of wellbeing.
5 Natural Ways to Boost Endorphins + Ease Lyme Symptoms
1. Laugh Out Loud.
You’ve probably typed “LOL” countless times this week, but how many times have you actually done it? A hearty belly laugh has a host of mental and physical benefits, including a satisfying release of endorphins. It gets your heart, lungs, and muscles pumping, which in turn triggers the release of these euphoric molecules, according to a study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
Additionally, the pain thresholds of the study participants were significantly higher after participating in laughter-inducing activities (like watching a comedy) compared to those who engaged in neutral or factually-based activities (like watching a documentary). The researchers believe it’s the endorphins’ effects on opioid receptors that create these positive changes.
To get your laugh on, watch a comedy, practice your amateur stand-up routine, find a laughter yoga class online, or do whatever you have to do to get the giggles flowing. The deeper the belly laugh, the more likely you are to experience that pleasant endorphin rush.
2. Try Full-Spectrum CBD Oil.
Many Lyme patients have chronic pain — like myofascial pain or neuropathy — as a predominant symptom. Finding ways to manage that pain effectively can be quite a challenge, however, CBD from hemp oil may be up to the task.
CBD (short for cannabidiol) shuts off nerve impulses that send uncomfortable pain signals and counteracts inflammation. Plus, it increases the body’s natural endorphin levels without suppressing them the way opioid medications do. Pain medications run the risk of causing dependence or withdrawal symptoms, but CBD doesn’t have those addictive qualities — most likely because it doesn’t contain the psychoactive component THC.
CBD dosing can vary from person to person, but a standard starting dose is 10-50 mg, one to three times per day. The concentrations of CBD differ by brand, so be sure to check the product label to find out how much CBD is in each dropperful or capsule. Some CBD users might notice its benefits immediately, while others may require two or three weeks of steady use to see improvements.
3. Sweat It Out, Exercise-Free.
You may be familiar with the use of far infrared saunas (FIR) as a means of detoxifying the body during Lyme treatment and managing uncomfortable Herxheimer reactions. But saunas have a longstanding history of being used around the globe due to their health-promoting properties.
The heat from FIR saunas is deeply penetrating, reaching up to a few inches beneath the skin’s surface. Research demonstrates sauna use may stimulate the release of endorphins and other opioid-like chemicals to fight pain, relieve inflammation, and facilitate a healthy immune system.
Not sure of how to use a sauna? Begin slowly (as little as 5 minutes a day) and increase your time to 30 minutes as your body adjusts to the heat. And aim for two to three times a week — consistency of use rather than intensity wins this race!
4. Get a Massage.
Looking for a reason to indulge in some extra self-care? Think about getting a massage because it can be helpful for increasing endorphins as well as other mood-boosting and pain-relieving chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.
One small-scale study showed that participants who received a connective tissue massage had a 16% increase in beta-endorphin levels, lasting approximately 1 hour after the massage was finished. Additionally, because some opioid receptors are located in deep tissues of the body, massages incorporating deeper pressure may even generate higher levels of endorphins compared to the mild touch of connective tissue release work.
If getting to a professional massage therapist isn’t in the cards right now, no problem. Similar to exercise and sauna use, any massage-type activity can get you headed in the right direction. Try a foam roller, a handheld massager, or a massage chair to relax tense muscles and let go of stress.
5. Get Moving at an Accessible Pace.
Yes, running has beneficial effects on endorphin production, but you can achieve results with less demanding forms of exercise as well — including activities that might be more appropriate for the needs and fitness levels of many chronic Lyme patients. Although the greatest endorphin high occurs with intense physical activity that lasts about an hour, almost all forms of exercise will have a beneficial impact.
In fact, research suggests even 15 minutes of exercise per day can increase endorphins. Although it might not lead to a giant rush of the feel-good chemicals, you’re still likely to experience an uptick in your mood, a decrease in pain levels, and better immune function.
And there’s no need to push yourself to the max. You can mobilize endorphins with low-impact activities like walking, Pilates, power yoga, or qigong to bring on results. As you get further along in your Lyme disease recovery, the more you’ll be able to up the intensity of your workouts.
No doubt, there’s still a lot to learn about the benefits of endorphins and how they impact Lyme disease and your health. But aiming to get a daily dose of them in your life may enhance immune function, improve pain levels, provide a more optimistic outlook, and more.
Best of all, boosting your endorphin levels is another cost-effective tool to add to your toolbox of healing modalities. Combine it with a comprehensive herbal therapy protocol, a healthy diet, and lifestyle modifications to achieve optimal healing results on your recovery journey.
1. Cabanas H, Muraki K, Staines D, Marshall-Gradisnik S. Naltrexone Restores Impaired Transient Receptor Potential Melastatin 3 Ion Channel Function in Natural Killer Cells From Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Patients. Front Immunol. 2019;10:2545. Published 2019 Oct 31. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2019.02545
2. Chaudhry SR, Gossman W. Biochemistry, Endorphin. [Updated 2020 Aug 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470306/
3. Dunbar RIM, Baron R, Frangou A, et al. Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold. Proc. R. Soc. 2012 September; 279(1731):1161-7. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1373
4. Hsueh CM, Chen SF, Ghanta VK, Hiramoto RN. Expression of the conditioned NK cell activity is beta-endorphin dependent. Brain Res. 1995 Apr 24;678(1-2):76-82. doi: 10.1016/0006-8993(95)00172-m
5. Hussain J, Cohen M. Clinical Effects of Regular Dry Sauna Bathing: A Systematic Review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2018;2018:1857413. Published 2018 Apr 24. doi: 10.1155/2018/1857413
6. Kaada B, Torsteinbø O. Increase of plasma beta-endorphins in connective tissue massage. Gen Pharmacol. 1989;20(4):487-9. doi: 10.1016/0306-3623(89)90200-0
7. Klockgether-Radke AP. F. W. Sertürner und die Entdeckung des Morphins – 200 Jahre Schmerztherapie mit Opioiden – [F. W. Sertürner and the discovery of morphine. 200 years of pain therapy with opioids]. Anasthesiol Intensivmed Notfallmed Schmerzther. 2002 May;37(5):244-9. German. doi: 10.1055/s-2002-30132
8. Ramanathan S, Panksepp J, Johnson B. Is fibromyalgia an endocrine/endorphin deficit disorder? Is low dose naltrexone a new treatment option? Psychosomatics. 2012 Nov-Dec;53(6):591-4. doi: 10.1016/j.psym.2011.11.006
9. Sprouse-Blum AS, Smith G, Sugai D, Parsa FD. Understanding endorphins and their importance in pain management. Hawaii Med J. 2010;69(3):70-71.