If you’re new to running, you probably haven’t felt the sensational feeling of euphoria known to runners as the “runner’s high”. It’s not exactly a sensation that a lot of runner’s experience, so it’s often left to the imagination of amateur runners. Is it real, or some made-up phenomenon to encourage amateur runners to keep going?

 

Runner's High - Fact of Fiction?

By Edmund Arellano

Let me make this clear – it is very real, and it is awesome.

Back in the 80’s scientist noticed that the endorphin levels in the blood increased after prolonged exercise.  They associated the feeling of euphoria with the spike of endorphins, which they maintained for decades.

There’s a problem with this theory.

The molecular structure of endorphins is too large to pass through the blood-brain barrier, the brain’s gatekeeper.  Scientists went back to the chalkboard and in 2003 found that mice were responding to the same chemical feeling when scientist used drugs to block their endorphins.  What they found was that another chemical, anandamide, a neurotransmitter that naturally triggers the cannabinoid system, was small enough to pass through these barriers and activate the endocannabinoid system of the brain.  You read that right.  Endocannabinoid, a chemical compound similar to the one found in pot.  Endocannabinoid is produced naturally in your body.

You might want to re-think that tattoo of the chemical structure of endorphins you're thinking of getting.

Neo AnandamideNeo Endorphins

Neo Still LegalExercise causes an increase in another of the body’s chemicals called anandamide, a neurotransmitter also known as the “bliss” molecule. This molecule does cross the blood-brain barrier, and when it does, it activates neurons’ cannabinoid receptors—the same ones activated when THC or other chemicals from marijuana are in the blood stream.” – Popular Science 2015

How do you achieve a runner’s high?

Here’s the downside to all this hype.  You typically have to run a long distance in order for your brain to trigger the endocannabinoid system, usually after 5 or more miles.  In fact, on a 10-mile run I completed on March 12th, my runner’s high finally kicked in at around 8 miles.  I “floated” the last two miles to the finish line with relative ease.

Neo sinfest 

Why does it take so long to get a runner’s high?  One theory suggests that your body is going into survival mode.  Your brain is registering all this pain and discomfort that it finally decides it’s had enough and blocks your pain receptors, usually towards the end of your exercise.

There are benefits beyond the physical nature of exercise.  You’re not just going to look good, or lose weight.  You’re going to feel good too.  The increased levels of endocannabinoids in your body reduces pain and elevates your mood.  So, the next time you finish a long distance run with a smile on your face, you may have the research on marijuana to thank for.


Resources:

Sparling, P.B., Giuffrida, A., Piomelli, D., Rosskopf, L., & Dietrich, A. (2003). Exercise activates the endocannabinoid system. Neuroreport. 14(17). 2209-2211. Found on https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14625449.

Tantimonaco, M., Ceci, R., Sabatini, S., Catani, M.V., Rossi, A., Gasperi, V., & Maccarrone, M. (2014). Physical activity and the endocannabinoid system: an overview. Cell Mol Life Sci. 71 (14). 2681-2689. Found onhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24526057

Johannes, F., et al. (2015). A runner’s high depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 112(42). 13105-13108. Found on http://www.pnas.org/content/112/42/13105.abstract


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