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The Role of Endorphins in Learning: Revealing Brain Insights

Brain hot air balloonAll of our behaviour, including every move, thought, and action, is regulated by our brain. In fact, nothing we do is random. This is because all the chemicals we release in our brain follow a pattern.

Endorphins are included amongst this mix of chemical messengers. They’re one of the body’s natural feel-good neurotransmitters. However, they also serve many other important functions, like relieving pain and decreasing stress.

As such, endorphins are a part of the chemical mix that we should strive to understand better. Luckily, there are ways to boost your endorphin levels to set the stage for effective learning.

Join us as we explore how to harness endorphins for a better learning experience. But first, let’s go back to the basics!

What Are Endorphins?

Endorphins are neurotransmitters that pass messages from one neuron to another.

Endorphins are created in your pituitary gland and hypothalamus, both of which are located in your brain. As a result, the hormone plays a key role in the function of your central nervous system.

The name of the hormone comes from the words ‘endogenous’, which translates to ‘within the body’, and ‘morphine’, an opiate pain reliever. Put together, the name explains the main purpose of endorphins.

There are over 20 different types of endorphins in your body. Typically, we talk about beta-endorphins when it comes to the endorphins involved in stress relief and pain management.

In fact, beta-endorphins have a stronger effect on your body than morphine.

Function and Purpose

Endorphins attach to your brain’s reward centres, called opioid receptors, and carry signals across your nervous system. In fact, they interact with the receptors in cells found in regions of the brain responsible for controlling pain and emotion.

When you feel pain, nerves in your body send signals to your brain. Your brain then releases endorphins to block the nerve cells that receive the pain signals.

The nature of this neurotransmitter means that endorphins are typically produced as a response to certain stimuli, often involving stress, fear or pain. In fact, your brain produces endorphins when your body feels distressed to help relieve pain or improve your mood.

When endorphins interact with brain cells and get activated, we get a little rush — a short-lasting euphoric state that helps to distract us from the pain we are feeling. If you’ve ever felt a runner’s high, you’ll know what we’re talking about.

As such, endorphins are often referred to as our brain’s natural painkiller or a ‘feel-good’ hormone.

In a nutshell, endorphins help you to survive. These hormones help you to continue functioning, even in painful or stressful situations. However, the hormone also produces feelings of pleasure, relaxation and general composure.

This stunning clip shows an endorphin being carried along an active filament into the inner part of the brain’s parietal cortex. Even the process looks mood-boosting:

Effects of Low Endorphins

Just like other hormones in your brain, endorphins come with many positive effects.

Imagine a situation where you hurt yourself, yet you feel no pain. This is because endorphins help you to cope with the stress of the situation.

Their protective nature is the reason why endorphins reduce pain, minimise mental disorders like depression and anxiety, enhance immune response, regulate appetite and improve our self-esteem.

Considering the extensive benefits of endorphins, it only makes sense that there are also detrimental effects to having low endorphin levels.

If your body doesn’t produce enough of the hormone, you may be at an increased risk of developing certain health conditions or symptoms. These include, for example:

  • Increased aches and pains
  • Stronger symptoms of depression
  • Heightened anxiety
  • Increased mood swings
  • Problems with sleeping
  • Impulsivity

Endorphins vs Dopamine

dopamine illustration

Every now and then, endorphins get confused with dopamine, another hormone working hard to keep us happy and functioning as well as we can. However, there are some key differences between these two chemicals, as they work in different ways.

Whereas endorphins help you to cope with pain and stress, dopamine is a hormone that boosts your mood and motivation. It’s involved in the reward circuit in your brain.

However, the production of endorphins and dopamine are linked. When endorphins attach to your brain’s reward system, opiate receptors, your brain releases dopamine. In fact, high endorphin levels can boost your overall dopamine production.

Endorphins affect your in-the-moment feelings, while dopamine is typically associated with the ‘afterglow’. As such, endorphins are released quickly during a specific act, whereas dopamine is released slowly.

For example, you might be motivated to run a marathon because of your dopamine reward system, but the endorphins released during your run will enhance the effect.

Endorphins and Learning

human brain working

Neurochemistry suggests that the learning process is modulated by many endogenous substances. As such, feel-good hormones, like endorphins, contribute to learning.

Our mind and body have a strong connection. This explains why endorphins are typically triggered by physical activity. With this in mind, you should always seek to develop and stimulate your whole self.

Physical activity, among other stimuli, leads to an increase in endorphins. This, in turn, leads to better learning and better learning to increased knowledge. As a result, you’ll feel more confident in your abilities and skills.

In fact, studies suggest that students with positive feelings achieve overwhelmingly better grades.

Learning aside, endorphins in the working environment are just as important. Did you know that employees are 12% more productive when they’re happy?

As such, when we feel good, we learn better. Stimulating our brain and body to trigger endorphin release ensures we are in the optimal mood for learning.

But how can you boost those endorphin levels? Let’s explore activities that trigger the release of the feel-good hormone in question.

How to Increase Endorphin Levels to Support Learning

Even though endorphins are sometimes produced as a response to negative stimuli, like fear, pain or stress, there are numerous other ways to encourage their release. And you are happy to know that none of them requires standing on a rake or jumping out of a plane.

Let’s have a look at a few of them now!

1. Eat Dark Chocolate

All chocolate lovers know the feeling of being left longing for more once you have devoured your favourite treat. But why does chocolate make us feel good?

Simple! Because eating chocolate can boost your endorphin levels, along with other feel-good hormones, like dopamine.

While all cocoa beans release endorphins, dark chocolate has the highest cocoa bean content. The more cocoa in your chocolate, the more endorphins your brain releases into your system.

Dark chocolate is also rich in polyphenolic compounds, like flavonoids. Cocoa polyphenols are antioxidants and perform anti-inflammatory activities.

These compounds can trigger the brain to release endorphins. In addition, dark chocolate is a moderate source of caffeine, which can elicit a boost in mood.

As such, why not try consuming some dark chocolate, ideally containing at least 70% of cocoa, before learning. And, of course, try to stick with a few small squares per serving!

2. Exercise

Earlier we mentioned the concept of a runner’s high. This is when your body releases a cocktail of endorphins and other chemicals after you push yourself physically.

learner exercising with a bench press.

But don’t be fooled by the name! You can reach this state of natural euphoria through other forms of exercise, especially cardiovascular activities. Exercise, in general, is known for its mood-boosting effects.

By leading to a surge in chemicals like endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, exercise can decrease most mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety. In addition, further investigations have demonstrated that working out in a group can improve mental health by 13%.

With this in mind, try to exercise regularly to maintain healthy brain activity. Similarly, short 20-30 minute workouts can help you to boost your endorphin levels, preparing you for your study session.

3. Listen to Music

Listening to or creating music goes beyond entertainment. When you listen to music that you really love, the reward centre of the brain lights up. The same area reacts when you eat the food you love, including the previously mentioned chocolate.

As such, listening to music can support your wellbeing by releasing — you guessed it — endorphins. In addition, music promotes a positive mood by releasing dopamine.

This is the exact reason why music therapy is becoming a popular and effective approach in many medical settings. With this in mind, try adding your favourite music to your day to ensure your brain is ready to learn.

This is also useful if you are responsible for planning training content or programmes. You can, for example, include music in your eLearning units. Not only will this make your material more engaging, it will also boost those endorphin levels.

4. Laugh

Two people laughing together

Most of us are familiar with the saying ‘laughter is the best medicine’. But most of us do not know that the saying rings true on a scientific basis.

Laughing releases endorphins and other previously mentioned feel-good chemicals. In addition, laughter is an excellent way to suppress stress hormones, like cortisol. In turn, this helps you to improve your mood, reduce stress, lower blood pressure and support a stronger immune system.

With this in mind, it only makes sense to have some fun while learning. In fact, fun in learning is essential for high-impact training. It skyrockets productivity and increases creativity.

As such, make sure to turn on a comedy show or have a giggle with your friends to get a good laugh. You will be in a better mood for learning!

5. Volunteer

The Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University studied volunteerism and hypertension. They found that those who volunteered four hours of their time per week were less likely to develop hypertension.

In fact, it has become clear that volunteering and generosity trigger neurotransmitters, releasing endorphins. It’s like your brain is wired to reward kindness!

With this in mind, try incorporating volunteering into your daily life. For example, helping your local charity shops or supporting sporting events is a sure way to get those endorphin levels up!

You will notice your overall mood improve as your endorphin levels get a consistent boost. This, in turn, will lead to the optimal mood for learning.

6. Meditate

Meditation is the practice of training one’s awareness. It helps the meditator become more mindful and present.

Better still, meditation triggers the release of endorphins. It also helps to increase dopamine, serotonin and melatonin. This chemical cocktail leaves you feeling calmer, happier and more content.

If you are new to meditation, try the steps Mindful suggests:

Person meditating

  1. Find a calming and quiet place to sit
  2. Consider lighting a candle or adding soothing music
  3. Set a time limit, like 5 or 10 minutes
  4. Focus on your breathing – take slow, deep and conscious breaths
  5. Notice when your mind starts wandering and return your attention to your breathing
  6. When you are ready, take notice of your environment

7. Get a Massage or Try Acupuncture

A good massage helps you to relax, both physically and mentally. We tend to notice the changes in our body first, as it moves and feels a lot better. However, there are various mental benefits too.

When you get a massage, your body releases endorphins. In addition, your brain decreases your cortisol levels and increases serotonin. As a result, you’ll feel happier, your stress levels will be lower, and your immune system better than before.

Massage also enables you to boost your dopamine levels, which helps you to sleep. And as we know, steady sleep habits help you to learn better by improving your memory function.

Similarly, acupuncture, a traditional Chinese medicine, is an effective treatment for pain and other disorders. Acupuncture involves inserting tiny needles into the skin. The purpose is to stimulate the central nervous system.

This leads to the release of many chemicals, including endorphins. In fact, research suggests that your endorphin levels increase for up to 24 hours after an acupuncture session.

As such, incorporating acupuncture or massage into your life can have a good influence on your ability to learn effectively.

8. Eat Spicy Food

We have good news for you if you like spicy food! Eating spicy food tricks your brain into thinking that you have hurt yourself. As a result, our brain releases endorphins in the same way as if we were actually injured.

In fact, this endorphin release is believed to be the reason why some people enjoy spicy food. After all, we get an endorphin rush reward even though we perceive the food as mildly painful.

However, eating spicy food can have harmful consequences. As such, don’t force yourself to consume the world’s hottest chilli just to get an endorphin high. There are easier ways to get that feel-good rush!

9. Repeat Affirmations

In the past, affirmations were considered a slightly fruitless exercise. However, the stresses of modern-day living have seen society consider the science of positivity in a more serious way.

The University of Pennsylvania used MRI technology to discover changes in blood flow. They found that self-affirmations activated the reward centre of the brain, producing endorphins.

Research suggests that 80% of our thoughts are negative. By repeating affirmations every day, you can use your brain plasticity to rewire the way you think.

To get that endorphin boost, try repeating some handy affirmations before learning:

  • Every day I learn something new and amazing.
  • I improve my ability to retain information daily.
  • I am a non-stop learning machine.
  • Applying the facts I have learned is easy.
  • My learning skills improve every day.

Final Words

Neuroscience tells us that there are certain things you can do to prepare your mind for learning. These activities trigger the release of chemicals that ensure our brains function at optimal levels to support health and wellbeing.

From cardio exercises and affirmations to munching on dark chocolate and spicy food, the more endorphins produced in the pituitary gland, the more ready you’ll be to learn. As a result, the feeling of euphoria is in full flow.

Would you like to optimise your training programme with neuroscience in mind? Our ultimate brain science tip sheet will get you started!

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