What are enkephalins?

Enkephalins are neurotransmitters that work to suppress pain. The goal of pain suppression is to allow the body to cope with the pain while remaining focused, rather than allowing the perception of pain to overwhelm the system and cause panic, distress, or confusion. These neurotransmitters are polypeptides, which means that they consist of very short chains of amino acids. Two different enkephalins have been identified: met-enkephalin and leu-enkephalin.

These neurotransmitters are released by the brain and central nervous system when the brain perceives pain. In addition to attenuating the sensation of pain, usually in the short term, enkephalins also change the way people perceive pain. This may be important, as people can still feel panicky or unwell even when their pain is off, a problem that commonly occurs when people are given synthetic painkillers that relieve pain without addressing underlying emotions.

As these neurotransmitters can influence perception, they can also play a role in memory formation and mood. They can also influence appetite and the functioning of the digestive system. All of these physical and emotional changes can be beneficial to someone experiencing pain, making the release of enkephalins an important part of the body's response to sources of pain and injury. These polypeptides are classified as endorphins, among the family of compounds that create a "rush" in the body.

Researchers began identifying these compounds and how they work in the 1970s. Like the many other substances secreted by the body to transmit signals through the nervous system, enkephalins are automatically released when the body detects that they are necessary. People cannot control the timing or amount of a neurotransmitter release, and the compound acts instantly to perform its function as soon as it is needed. The rapid response time involved can be critical for many neurotransmitters, as circumstances in the body are constantly changing, so sending the right signal at the right time is important.

Enkephalins bind to opiate transmitters in the body. This trait is what allows them to control pain effectively, but it can also make them addictive. Numerous studies have shown the addictive and behavior-modifying qualities of enkephalins, and these effects are greatly increased when people use synthetic painkillers that bind to the same receptors. Addiction is, in fact, a major concern when administering pain medication to a patient, as a physician wants to provide pain medication without making a patient dependent on it in the future.

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