Beta-endorphins, or B-endorphins, are substances created by the pituitary gland. They specifically function as neurotransmitters, or conductors of messages between nerve cells. These substances are found around both the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.
Since it contains 31 amino acids linked together, the b-endorphin is classified as a peptide neurotransmitter. It circulates around the brain, spinal cord, and secondary nerve systems in the body. Two glands, the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus, have a particular prevalence of the substance. The pituitary gland is responsible for releasing this endorphin into the blood, where it then travels to the central nervous system in the first legs of its journey.
The neurotransmitter qualities of beta-endorphins are facilitated by the substance’s role as an agonist. In other words, the endorphin connects to a cell and kick-starts a response. B-endorphin targets portions of a cell called opiate receptors in particular. The substance can reach these receptors in bodily tissue via a process called diffusion.
Drug experiments facilitated the discovery of beta-endorphins by David Chung and C. H. Li. They eventually surmised that the substance produces a numbing effect. When an individual experiences trauma and subsequent pain, the endorphins trigger the opiate receptors, which in turn dulls the pain.
Endorphins indeed serve as the body’s natural pain-killers, as they are released during bouts of pain or other bodily stress. Sufferers of chronic pain, for example, have high levels of endorphins — particularly beta-endorphins — in the body. The neurotransmitter also often appears in pregnant women. In many ways, endorphins mimic the effects of pain medications like morphine, which also functions by binding to opiate receptors.
Along with other body chemicals, beta endorphins may be responsible for a physical effect known as runner's high. Long periods of strenuous physical activity like intense workouts or athletic events foster both breathing difficulties and sore muscles due to decreased glycogen supplies. When an individual has reached a pain threshold, the body releases several chemicals like B-endorphins. These chemicals in turn often create a higher tolerance for body stress or pain, allowing the individual to continue performing the strenuous task.
Due to their drug-like qualities, beta-endorphins can create a number of other effects in humans. In addition to pain response, they are also released during periods of intense excitement. Therefore, they can enhance mood and foster feelings of relaxation. For this reason, both traditional and alternative treatments like acupuncture seek to stimulate the release of b-endorphins. Some researchers even theorize that B-endorphin neurotransmitters can bolster the immune system and hinder cancer growth.