Endorphins and serotonin are two of the six main neurotransmitters produced naturally by the brain. They are responsible for modulating mood and brain chemistry. Known as inhibitory brain chemicals, they can inhibit feelings ranging from pain to pleasure. At high levels, they prevent pain and sadness, while low levels of these natural chemicals tend to inhibit positive feelings. The pituitary gland produces endorphins, while the thyroid gland produces serotonin; production of the two chemicals is often correlated so that elevating endorphin levels can produce a natural rise in serotonin levels.
While both endorphins and serotonin are known for boosting emotions, serotonin produces a milder effect, causing happiness and feelings of security. Endorphins, on the other hand, are a more intense form of pleasure, sparking such intense reactions as euphoria and ecstasy, depending on the amount of endorphins circulating in the bloodstream at any given time. At low levels, endorphins can produce the mild effects of relaxation and joy, similar to those produced by serotonin.
The amounts of endorphins and serotonin in circulation in the body are different for everyone and are highly affected by physical activity and nutrition. Strenuous exercise can raise levels of both substances, although endorphins are more likely to be triggered and released by exercise, research shows. Physical activities ranging from running to sexual intercourse are known for stimulating endorphin production.
Highly susceptible to food intake, serotonin production can also be triggered by carbohydrate-based foods, such as pasta and grains. Serotonin released after eating these starches can produce calming effects and a sense of comfort and wellness. In the presence of excess carbohydrates, so much serotonin can be released that the eater feels overly sedated and sleepy. With a dearth of serotonin, however, stress, anxiety, frustration and aggression can result — as is sometimes the case with too few endorphins. Drugs can also trigger the production of serotonin, leading to drug addiction; when the body is too low on serotonin, cravings for starchy foods or drugs may result.
A few foods are known to spike the release of endorphins because they contain the alkaloid theobromine. Mainly found in the cacao bean, the kola nut and in certain tea leaves, theobromine exists at high levels in certain chocolate bars, hot cocoa or chocolate ice creams. Carbonated cola drinks with kola nut as a main ingredient can also trigger production of endorphins.
The positive mood effects of endorphins and serotonin have resulted in these neurotransmitters being manipulated in both traditional and alternative medicine. Mainstream doctors often prescribe certain foods, supplements or activities to elevate endorphins and serotonin in people suffering from manic depression or schizophrenia. Some studies show these natural chemicals can be as effective as prescription medication for curing depression. In alternative medicine, acupuncture is often used to stimulate production of these feel-good chemicals in emotionally despondent patients.