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Substance P is a neuropeptide (neurotransmitter) most known for its role in pain perception. It also has a wide range of effects in nausea, stress responses, emotional behavior, learning, and memory.

However, although substance P is important for survival, excess levels are harmful and can lead to a variety of diseases. Read more to learn about what conditions are associated with high and low levels of substance P and how to increase and decrease it.


What is Substance P?

Substance P was first isolated from horse brain and gut extracts in the 1930’s as a mystery substance with strong blood pressure-lowering and smooth muscle contractile properties [R].

Because it was in powdered form, it was named substance P (“P” for powder) [R].

Today, it is fully recognized as a neurotransmitter that is widely dispersed throughout the body, with high levels in the brain, gut, and spinal cord [R, R].

Substance P Function

Because of its broad distribution in the body, substance P influences a diverse range of functions. It also amplifies or excites most cellular processes [R].

Substance P is involved in:

  • Pain perception [R]
  • Emotional behavior [R]
  • Stress [R]
  • Nausea and vomiting [R]
  • Inflammation [R]
  • Smooth muscle contraction [R]
  • Saliva production [R]
  • Blood cell formation [R]
  • Wound healing [R]
  • Allergy [R]

Most actions of Substance P’s binding to NK-1 (neurokinin receptor subtype) receptors mediate its actions. The receptors are found in a variety of cell types (e.g., neurons, muscle cells, immune cells) [R].

The cell quickly takes NK1 receptors back up after substance P binding. The cells remove and break down substance P, while NK-1 receptors are recycled to the cell membrane [R].

Substance P and the NK-1 receptor have been extensively researched for their role in a variety of diseases [R].

Drugs that block Nk1 receptors have been used to treat mood disorders (depression, anxiety, and stress), nausea from chemotherapy, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease [R, R].

Substance P Activation

Substance P levels are increased in stressful or anxiety-provoking situations [R].

Stressful stimuli like heat and pain trigger the release of substance P from sensory nerve endings. The amount of its release is proportional to the intensity and frequency of stimulation [R].

Once released, substance P may have direct actions as a neurotransmitter or other functions on non-nerve cell targets [R].

It can also be cleared and inactivated by enzymes that break down proteins (e.g., NEP and ACE) [R, R].

Roles of Substance P

1) Substance P Widens Blood Vessels

Substance P is a powerful vasodilator (widens blood vessels) of large blood vessels in animals and humans [R, R].

It widens blood vessels by binding to NK1 receptors on the vessel wall and causing the release of nitric oxide [R].

Unlike other neurotransmitters, vasodilation caused by substance P declines during continuous injection. This is likely due to the rapid internalization of Nk1 receptors after activation [R].

2) Substance P Plays a Dual Role in Pain Management

Substance P helps transmit pain signals from different parts of the body to the spinal cord and brain (where the pain is perceived) [R, R, R].

Specifically, sensory nerve fibers (i.e., primary afferent nerve fibers) detect pain and release substance P, which in turn binds to Nk-1 receptors in the spinal cord. Nerve cells in the spinal cord then relay the pain information to the brain [R, R].

Substance P also increases sensitivity to pain indirectly by its inflammatory effects (swelling, immune cell recruitment, vasodilation) [R].

Interestingly, in some studies, substance P has a pain relieving effect. For example, in mice with acid-induced chronic muscle pain, substance P reduced pain by decreasing the detection of pain signals in muscle sensory neurons [R].

This dual role of substance P in pain management may explain why drugs that block Nk-1 receptors have been unsuccessful in relieving pain in clinical trials [R, R, R].

3) Substance P Increases Inflammation

Substance P is secreted by many inflammatory immune cells (i.e., macrophages, eosinophils, lymphocytes, and dendritic cells) and initiates the production of inflammatory cytokines (IL-1β, IL-6, and IL-8) [R, R, R].

In turn, most cytokines bind to substance P and NK-1 receptors [R].

Substance P causes brain inflammation, a local inflammatory response to some types of infection or injury [R].

All of these effects are mediated by the Nk-1 receptor [R, R].

4) Substance P Improves Learning and Memory

Substance P has excitatory effects in the hippocampus or the memory center of the brain. It promotes long-term potentiation, which is associated with learning and the formation of memories [R, R, R].

Moreover, injection of substance P in parts of the brain that control motivation and reward facilitated learning and memory in rats [R, R].

Substance P stimulated the growth of nerve stem cells of adult rats under both normal conditions and during injury. It may help with nerve cell formation after injury [R].

5) Substance P Causes Nausea

Substance P and its receptor are present in high levels in the Area Postrema (the vomiting center in the medulla) along with other neurotransmitters (e.g., choline, histamine, dopamine) [R].

It activates the NK-1 receptors. Applying substance P in the vomiting center of the brain causes dry heaving in ferrets [RR, R].

Drugs that block Nk1 receptors can help treat nausea associated with chemotherapy [R].

6) Substance P Causes an Itching Sensation

Substance P (injected in the skin) causes an itch sensation in human skin by stimulating histamine release from mast cells [R].

Substance P also causes scratching behavior in mice but through mechanisms independent of histamine [R, R].

7) Substance P Enhances Wound Healing

Substance P accelerated wound healing in the eyes (in rabbits) and spinal cord (in rats) by promoting a local inflammatory response essential for healing [R, R, R].

Conditions with Elevated Substance P

1) Substance P Causes Skin Disorders

Substance P and Eczema

Patients with eczema have higher blood levels of substance P [R].

Substance P causes mast cell accumulation and inflammation, which is involved in the development of eczema. Mast cells are white blood cells that play a role in allergic and inflammatory reactions [R].

Substance P and Psoriasis

Because of its role in inflammation and cell growth, substance P can contribute to psoriasis progression. Psoriasis skin and patches have an increased production of substance P and the Nk-1 receptor [R, R, R].

Substance P and Pruritus

Substance P can cause pruritus, or itchy skin, in humans indirectly by stimulating histamine release from skin mast cells [R, R].

There is a positive correlation between substance P levels and itchiness in disorders involving pruritus (e.g., contact dermatitis) [R, R].

Aprepitant, a drug that blocks substance P receptors, was effective in treating chronic pruritus in in one clinical study [R].

2) Substance P May Cause Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

Substance P and neurokinin 1 (NK1) receptors are abundant in brain areas involved in emotion and behavioral responses to stress [R, R, R].

The brain releases substance P during stressful situations at a rate proportional to the intensity and frequency of stimulation [R].

Also, direct injections of substance P in the brain induced a range of fear and anxiety-related behaviors in animals [R, R, R].

Depression and PTSD patients have markedly higher levels of substance P in their cerebrospinal fluid [R].

In a study (DB-RCT) of patients with major depression and anxiety, a drug that blocks NK1 receptors reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety [R].

3) Substance P May Cause Aggression

Substance P levels are directly associated with rage and aggression in mammals [R, R, R].

It also caused aggressive behavior in rats and cats. Although mechanisms remain unclear, Nk-1 receptors in the hypothalamus may be involved [R, R, R].

4) Substance P May Be a Factor in Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia patients have higher spinal fluid levels of substance P [R].

Chronic stress, a factor linked to fibromyalgia, increases substance P levels [R, R].

4) Substance P May Contribute to Obesity

Substance P promotes appetite in mice. Drugs that block its receptor reduce weight gain and blood levels of insulin and leptin after a high-fat diet [R, R].

Mice without Nk-1 receptors also have reduced weight gain and lower insulin levels [R].

5) Substance P May Promote Cancer Growth

Tumor cells have high levels of substance P and NK-1 receptors [R].

In cell-based studies, substance P promoted tumor cell growth, tumor cell migration (invasion, infiltration, and metastasis), and the formation of new blood vessels by binding to Nk-1 receptors [R].

In contrast, drugs that block Nk-1 receptors inhibited cancer cell growth, prevented cancer cell movement, and stopped the growth of new blood vessels [R].

6) Substance P May Be a Factor in Arthritis

Substance P blood levels are positively associated with chronic rheumatoid arthritis [R].

Higher levels are also linked to increased chronic pain intensity in arthritis patients [R].

Substance P release is enhanced in inflamed tissues, which may explain the increase in pain sensitivity [R].

7) Substance P May Be a Factor in Gut Disorders

Substance P and IBS

People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have elevated substance P and mast cell levels [R, R].

Substance P activates and induces the secretion of mast cells. Mast cell count is positively correlated with gut leakiness and inflammation, both key factors in IBS development [R, RR, R].

Substance P and IBD

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) patients have higher substance P and NK-1 receptor levels in their rectums and colons [R].

Substance P increases inflammatory cytokine production from pre-fat cells in the gut, which contributes towards IBD development [R].

8) Substance P Worsens Sickle Cell Disease Symptoms

Blood levels of substance P are elevated in patients with sickle cell disease and increase further during sickle cell crisis. A sickle cell crisis occurs when blood cells get stuck in small blood vessels and slow or block blood flow [R].

Substance P stimulates cytokines (TNF-α and IL-8) that promote the adherence of sickle red blood cells to the vessel wall, which raises the risk of a sickle cell crisis [R].

Also, the increased levels of substance P may partly account for the high pain sensitivity experienced in this disease [R].

9) Substance P Contributes to Cystitis

Patients with interstitial cystitis (inflammation of the bladder) have increased numbers of substance P positive nerve fibers and mast cells in the bladder [R].

Substance P triggers mast cell secretion, which promotes a local inflammatory response and contributes to bladder inflammation and pain[R].

10) Substance P and Infections – HIV, Measles, RSV

The Nk-1 receptor and Substance P have specific effects in different types of injections [R].

Substance P and HIV

It has a bidirectional relationship with HIV. It can enhance HIV infection by:

  • facilitating HIV entry into immune cells [R, R]
  • promoting HIV replication within immune cells [R, R]

In turn, HIV increases the production of substance P in immune cells. This effect explains why HIV-infected men and women have higher blood substance P levels compared to healthy individuals [R, R].

Substance P and Measles

Nk-1 receptors levels are higher during measles virus (MV) infection, which facilitates measles viral entry and replication in cells. However, substance P blocks the entry of measles virus in cells, likely by displacing it from Nk-1 receptors [R, RR, R].

Substance P and RSV

Substance P production is higher in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Airways inside the lung are more susceptible to the inflammatory effects of substance P during RSV infection in rats [R, R].

Conditions with Low Substance P

1) Substance P and Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer‘s patients have lower substance P levels in their brain and spinal fluids [R].

Since substance P improved learning, memory, and the survival of neurons during injury in animal studies, its deficiency may contribute to Alzheimer’s development [R].

In a rat model of Alzheimer’s disease, substance P treatment recovered cognitive function by reducing the toxic effects of amyloid-β (Aβ) deposits on neurons [R].

2) Substance P and Type 1 Diabetes

Substance P is decreased in the blood of type 1 diabetes patients, especially in those with diabetic neuropathy [R].

Injection of substance P in the pancreatic arteries of non-obese diabetic mice (genetically prone to develop type 1 diabetes) reversed abnormal insulin resistance, insulitis (inflammation of the hormonal tissue in the pancreas), and diabetes for weeks [R].

In contrast, substance P has a different effect in Type 2 diabetes. In cell-based studies, substance P promoted insulin resistance, likely a result of its inflammatory effects [R, R, R].

Normal Blood Levels of Substance P

Substance P levels in humans are highly variable and range from 12.25 to 397 pg/ml. These values depend on the sample preparation and method of measurement [R].

Factors that Decrease Substance P

Natural Substances That Lower Substance P

  • Capsaicin: Capsaicin, an active component of chili peppers, makes the sensory receptors release substance P. Eventually, substance P becomes depleted and the nerve endings reduces its release. It also works by de-sensitizing sensory receptors on the skin, which helps reduce pain [R, R, R].
  • Internal opioids (e.g., enkephalin): These help decrease the release of substance P from sensory nerve endings [R, R].
  • Adenosine: It reduces substance P in the cerebrospinal fluid [R]

Drugs that Lower Substance P

  • Nk-1 Receptor Blockers: These drugs work by preventing the binding of substance P to its main receptor, Nk-1. They have been successful in treating mood disorders, nausea from chemotherapy, itchiness, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease [R, R, R].
  • Narcotics: Morphine inhibits substance P release from nerve endings [R].

Hormones that Lower Substance P

Lifestyle Factors that Lower Substance P

  • Massage therapy: Substance P levels decreased after massage therapy in fibromyalgia patients [R].

Factors that Increase Substance P

Natural Substances That Increase Substance P

Drugs that Increase Substance P

  • Muscarinic acetylcholine receptor activators: Anethole trithione, pilocarpine, and cevimeline elevate substance P levels in human saliva [R]
  • THC increases the production of substance P [R]

Lifestyle Factors that Increase Substance P:

  • Stress: Physical and emotional stressors stimulate the release of substance P from sensory nerves [R].

Genes that Increase Substance P

A polymorphism in the angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) (the enzyme that degrades substance P) gene is associated with substance P levels in parts of the brain. Individuals with the DD genotype have higher substance P levels [R].

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  • Cynthia L. Pederson

    I have Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Ankolosing Spondolytis and Fibromyalgia. This is very interesting to me. I am currently on Enbrel. Does Enbrel help with this?

  • Jim

    The Potassium connection is interesting. I think I might need to watch my potassium supplementation.
    But this
    “Natural Substances That Lower Substance P

    Capsaicin: Capsaicin, an active component of chili peppers, depletes substance P from nerve endings. It also works by de-sensitizing sensory receptors on the skin, which helps reduce pain [R, R].”
    –and yes I realize it’s from references–

    seems to contradict the reference about potassium:
    Substance P release evoked by capsaicin or potassium from rat cultured dorsal root ganglion neurons is conversely modulated with bradykinin.

    1. Helen

      We added a clarification to the post. Check this doi: 10.13140/2.1.4232.6721 for more information.

  • al darfco

    Potassium bicarbonate such as used in club soda is a much better form of potassium to take for supplementation.

  • Jeff

    Potassium itself is caustic and will cause gut irritation. This is why supplements are limited to 99 mg per pill usually – it can burn through the stomach lining if too much is taken without sufficie t fluid.

  • Rob White

    Fascinating. I have Interstitial cystitis and Find that high potassium foods really aggravate the pain and dysfunction, so it was interesting to read that potassium increases pain chemical signalling

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