Role of endogenous opioid system in the regulation of the stress response

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2001 May;25(4):729-41. doi: 10.1016/s0278-5846(01)00161-0.


Numerous studies and reviews support an important contribution of endogenous opioid peptide systems in the mediation, modulation, and regulation of stress responses including endocrine (hypothalamopituitary-adrenal, HPA axis), autonomic nervous system (ANS axis), and behavioral responses. Although several discrepancies exist, the most consistent finding among such studies using different species and stressors is that opioids not only diminish stress-induced neuroendocrine and autonomic responses, but also stimulate these effector systems in the non-stressed state. A distinctive feature of the analgesic action of opioids is the blunting of the distressing, affective component of pain without dulling the sensation itself. Therefore, opioid peptides may diminish the impact of stress by attenuating an array of physiologic responses including emotional and affective states. The widespread distribution of enkephalin (ENK) throughout the limbic system (including the extended amygdala, cingulate cortex, entorhinal cortex, septum, hippocampus, and the hypothalamus) is consistent with a direct role in the modulation the stress responses. The predictability of stressful events reduces the impact of a wide range of stressors and ENK appears to play an important role in this process. Therefore, ENK and its receptors could represent a major modulatory system in the adaptation of an organism to stress, balancing the response that the stressor places on the central stress system with the potentially detrimental effects that a sustained stress may produce. Chronic neurogenic stressors will induce changes in specific components of the stress-induced ENKergic system, including ENK, delta- and mu-opioid receptors. This review presents evidences for adaptive cellular mechanisms underlying the response of the central stress system when assaulted by repeated psychogenic stress, and the involvement of ENK in these processes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological / physiology
  • Animals
  • Endorphins / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*


  • Endorphins