How The Body's Own Opioids Reduce Stress
2 min

How The Body's Own Opioids Reduce Stress

2 min
When it comes to breakup, none are hit harder than those suffering from depression, and it could be a lack of natural opioids in the brain that is to blame.

Going through a break up is hard. To fall out with, or lose someone that was important to your life can leave you feeling empty, like something has been ripped out of you. However, the stress of a break up hits some people harder than others, making it more difficult to move on. Unsurprisingly, it is people who suffer from depression who are worst hit, but now research has uncovered interesting information explaining why, and it all has to do with natural opioid levels.


The research was conducted using PET brain scans to monitor the body’s natural opioid system. Whilst having the scan, a group of depressive participants and a group of non-depressive participants were asked to look through the social profiles and photos of hundreds of potential romantic interests. Each participant picked out the ones that they were most interested in. The scientists then bluntly told each participant that the people they chose were not into them, and never would be. The reactions this caused in the brain were recorded.

The results showed that those who suffer from depression had lower levels of activation in the brains natural opioid system when compared to the ‘normal’ group, and were hit harder by the news. It is worth mentioning, that just before the experiment took place, each participant was told that the social profiles they were looking up were fake. This still didn’t prevent the social response.

Possibly a small silver lining for those suffering from depression is that the scientists also found that when depressed people feel liked by someone, the feeling is more intense than it would be for a regular person. This in itself is a surprising insight, as it was previously thought that a depressed brain dampened potential feelings of happiness.


The implications outlined by these findings are pretty significant, and may explain why those suffering depression find it so hard to shake off rejection! Most treatment surrounding depression tends to focus on serotonin, but this new research also implies that natural opioid levels are important in reducing stress and negative feelings. It sets up the foundation and theoretical framework for new research into the field, and helps science come up with new ways of treating it. This isn’t to say that opioids are the answer, as opioid based medication can be very addictive, dangerous and destructive – but it certainly opens up a new avenue of enquiry.

“Our findings suggest that a depressed person’s ability to regulate emotions during these interactions is compromised, potentially because of an altered opioid system. This may be one reason for depression’s tendency to linger or return, especially in a negative social environment,” said Dr. David Hsu, lead author of the research.

It just goes to show, we still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding the way the brain works!

Luke Sumpter
Luke Sumpter
With a BSc (Hons) degree in Clinical Health Sciences and a passion for growing plants, Luke Sumpter has worked as a professional journalist and writer at the intersection of cannabis and science for the past 7 years.
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