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So You Think Running Gives You an Endorphin High?

Maybe it’s time to think again…

We know that exercise makes most people feel good. It affects both our body and our mind. A great example is the way regular exercise has been proven as effective as any drug to control depression.

It seems endorphins aren't the key ingredient of the runner's high!
It seems endorphins aren’t the key ingredient of the runner’s high!

Conventional thinking is that those who get their exercise through running are doubly rewarded with an endorphin high.

What are endorphons?

  • Endorphins are a group of chemicals made in the body when we’re stressed or in pain (the word is short for endogenous morphine)
  • They’re produced in the brain and spinal cord, and are also made and churned out into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland
  • Endorphins induce a feeling of pleasure and pain relief by latching onto opioid receptors in the brain.

But it seems likely that the high comes from another source of self-made drugs: endogenous cannabinoids, or endocannabinoids. Yes, as in the cannabis present in marijuana, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.

What are endocannabinoids?

  • Endocannabinoids are a group of molecules that activate cannabinoid receptors, which are found throughout the body and mainly in the brain
  • The endocannabinoid system is involved in regulating appetite, pain and stress
  • The first endocannabinoid, which was discovered in 1992, is called anandamide. Its name is derived from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss or joy.

Johannes Fuss, a psychiatrist who now heads up the Human Behaviour Laboratory at the University of Hamburg, started investigating endocannabinoids as a potential source of the runner’s high during his PhD studies.

He and his colleagues started with animals. They found mice that were free to scamper on a running wheel for a couple of hours were less anxious and felt less pain than their wheel-less counterparts.

No wonder Micky was always smiling!

When the mice were given drugs that stop endorphins from latching onto opioid receptorsthey still got those good post-run effects.

“But when we gave the mice endocannabinoid receptor blockers, all the positive effects vanished,” Dr Fuss says.

Of Mice and Men…

As any researcher will point out, what’s good for mice isn’t neceassarily good for us. So Fuss did a trial using 63 humans replacing the wheel with a treadmill.

You can read the results here, but the summary confirms that endocannabinoids are better candidates than endorphins to explain a runner’s high in humans… and mice 🙂

Are you inspired to take up running to get your high?

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