Studying Natural Opioids Could Lead to New Analgesics


An opioid is a medication prescribed to relieve moderate to severe pain by weakening pain signals from nerves to the brain. Opioids have been a standard of care in pain management for decades. They can be made synthetically or derived from the opium poppy plant.

Opioid side effects can be dangerous. This is especially true if combining opioids with alcohol or other medications. Side effects include constipation, respiratory depression, risk of addiction, itching, lower blood pressure, etc. Currently, scientists are studying the body’s natural opioids in an effort to develop lower-risk analgesics. This could work towards ensuring that health care providers have the option of prescribing opioids without worrying about the risks.

Natural opioids vs. opioid drugs

The body has an opioid system made up of neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters, which have pain and pleasure regulating proteins called enkephalins and endorphins, can activate receptors throughout the body. They are normally produced in small quantities so that the body can remain balanced.

Opioid drugs, such as morphine and fentanyl, activate all the receptors in the body as they travel through the bloodstream. When these medications come in contact with the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, it can cause a euphoric high. With repeated, and long-term use, this can lead to possible addiction.

Using natural opioids for pain relief

New studies are emerging that show the ability to stimulate the body’s natural opioid system without the use of opioid drugs. Positive allosteric modulators are only activated in the presence of endorphins or enkephalins, resulting in them only starting to work when the body needs pain relief. They also enhance the receptor’s ability to respond to natural pain relief by binding to a different receptor than the one opioid drugs bind to. The enkephalins are pulsated in specific regions of the body and quickly metabolized, as opposed to flooding the body and remaining present for hours.

These discoveries are pivotal in providing pain relief without the risk of negative side effects. Scientists are hopeful that they will be able to apply these findings to the creation of new, lower-risk medications.

Additional sources: and University of California San Francisco

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