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Enkephalins: what they are, types, and what functions they have in the human body

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The enkephalins are an endogenous opiate pentapeptide that participate in many of the regulatory functions of the organism, being especially linked to the reduction of the sensation of pain.

In this article We will talk about enkephalins and we will see what type of molecule they are, what their main functions are in the body, what types exist and how it increases its release.

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What are enkephalins?

Enkephalins are a class of endogenous opiate pentapeptides. Peptides are molecules formed by a set of amino acids, in the case of enkephalins, being pentapeptides, it will be 5, linked by peptide bonds, hence the name. Opioids refer to molecules that act as pain relievers for the nervous systemThey have a calming function. Finally, the term endogenous indicates that it is the human body that produces them.

Within the group of endogenous opiates we find other types, such as endorphins and dynorphins. In general, this group of opiates act in

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the generation of inhibition responses that people carry out and in sensations of pleasure, since they participate in the reinforcement circuit. Likewise, they also act in the regulation, stability, body temperature, breathing and cardiovascular response and in the correct functioning of memory and attention.

enkephalin functions

As with other types of molecules, must interact with a receptor located on a cell to produce the effect. In the case of the enkephalins, they bind with the kappa, mu and delta receptors, which are the main receptors for opiates. Enkephalins are produced in the pituitary gland, a gland of the central nervous system that participates in the endocrine system, that is, in the correct functioning of hormones and is transmitted to different body areas both in the brain, such as the adrenal medulla or the tract digestive.

The adrenal medulla has the function of producing neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and noradrenaline that are responsible for the transmission of nerve impulses. On the other hand, the intestinal tract, which is located outside the central nervous system, is responsible for the functions of ingestion, digestion, absorption of necessary substances and excretion. In this way, the enkephalins will not be in constant operation, but can remain stored until their intervention is necessary.

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Main functions of the enkephalins

What are these molecules for? Next we will see its main functions in the body.

1. Induces a state of relaxation

The main function of this peptide is to relax, calm down, in short, reduce body arousal. In this way, it has a depressant function in the central nervous system, formed by the brain and the spinal cord, which is the main director of our body.

2. decrease in pain

As we have already seen, enkephalins are involved in different body processes, but it is in pain control where this molecule shows the greatest impact.

Physical pain is a sensation that arises in our body, which makes us stay alert and act to combat the cause that generates discomfort. In this way, we can consider that pain has an adaptive function, since it makes us act and motivates us to restore our state.

Both an input and an output circuit act on the sensation of pain.. We refer to the fact that at first the damage produced in a part of the body activates the nociceptors (pain receptors) that send a signal to the nervous system central, specifically to the spinal cord, which transmits information to the brain to generate the sensation of pain and retransmit the information to the damaged area to let him act Well, the enkephalins are responsible for regulating this pain signal that reaches the spinal cord, so that it is not very intense and allows us to act.

In situations in which the pain is so high that feeling it is no longer functional, it is not conducive to survival, the body itself inhibits this sensation so that we can seek help or get to safety.

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3. Other functions of the enkephalins

Although the most notable function of the enkephalins is the reduction of the sensation of pain, they are also involved in many other functions of our body. It is very important to maintain the homeostasis of our body, that is, to maintain the balance of different bodily processes, such as breathing, heart rate, body temperature, or even the amount of glucose in blood.

Also they help increase the creation of new cells, reduce the feeling of stress and restore the state of the immune system after his performance. Likewise, it is involved in the function of some substance addictions, helping to generate the pleasurable and reinforcing effect. In short, we realize how, in general, the role of the enkephalins is the recovery and reestablishment of the balance of the physical and mental state.

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The different types of enkephalins

The peptide molecule of endorphins is made up of five amino acids, hence it is called pentapeptide. Of this combination of amino acids, four of them are repeated in the same way in all enkephalins., but the fifth shows distinction according to the type of molecule.

Thus, we can speak of: methionine-enkephalin, which has methionine as its distinctive amino acid (it has been discovered as a powerful antioxidant), and leucine-enkephalin, in which the different amino acid will be leucine (essential for the repair and maintenance of the muscle tissue).

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How to increase the release of enkephalins

Now that we know better the main characteristics of enkephalins and the functions they perform in our body, we see the need to act to try to increase its production or in the case of requiring its action, to have reserves of this molecule. Below we will mention some activities that we can carry out in our day to day to facilitate the release of this type of peptide.

1. Do sport

It has been observed that the practice of sport helps to increase the release of endogenous opiate peptides, enkephalins being one of them. By exercising regularly we increase the production of these molecules, helping the recovery and reestablishment of the corporal state and producing a paradoxical sensation of Energy. Despite having tired ourselves with sports practice, the body sensation we have is more energetic.

Sport is good for both our mental and physical health. Try to establish an exercise routine that is affordable. The intention is not to get very tired in a single day, but to be able to exercise continuously.

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2. Laugh

The positive state, laughing, has also been linked to an increase in opioid peptides. We know that life entails many responsibilities, many areas where we must spend time, but it is It is also important that we have time for ourselves, to do things that we like and thus be able to enjoy ourselves. These moments are the ones that will help us reduce the level of stress and to keep our body stable.

3. relaxation exercises

As we have seen, the enkephalins have a depressant function in the organism, that is, they decrease their activation. In this way, the practice of activities that increase our state of relaxation such as yoga, meditation, Mindfulness, breathing techniques... will help increase the release of opiate peptides.

The different relaxation exercises show different practices, thus adapting to different tastes. Try the different proposals and choose which one is more similar to your preferences.

  • Related article: "6 easy relaxation techniques to combat stress"

4. interpersonal contact

Physical contact with other people (either through hugs, kisses, caresses...) also promotes increased production and release of peptide molecules. We can relate this point to dedicating time to ourselves, disconnecting from the fast-paced and stressful life and sharing, spending time with the people we love.

5. The music

Any activity linked to music, whether listening to it, dancing to it or singing it, has been related to an increase in enkephalins and other endogenous peptides. It depends on the type of music; if it is relaxed, there is a decrease in body activationboth breathing and heart rate.

6. Artistic activities

Carry out activities such as drawing, painting, making ceramics... Artistic and creative practices are linked to a increased release of endogenous peptides and improved body state more relaxed and heightened sensation pleasant.

7. food consumption

It has been observed that the consumption of some foods help to increase the release of endogenous opiate peptides. Examples of these foods are: some fruits such as pineapple, banana, strawberry or avocado; chocolate (being better the one with the highest percentage of cocoa); dairy products such as yogurts; the seaweed; fish rich in Omega 3, such as salmon, sardines or tuna; legumes; and some nuts such as walnuts and peanuts.
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