University study: runner's high caused by 'endocannabinoid' molecules, similar to cannabis

Edward Cooper
·2-min read

From Runner's World

Whether you're a regular parkrunner or a runner with a home weighed down by countless race medals and itchy race T-shirts, the common denominator for every member of the sport is the 'runner's high' – a euphoric, floaty feeling that's often produced by our bodies at the end of a particularly hard, or enjoyable, depending on your attitude towards discomfort, run or jog.

Typically, the feeling of a 'runner's high' is linked to endorphins, the feel-good hormone that's released after exercise. Endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that are responsible for your perception of pain, triggering a buzzy and positive feeling in your body that mirrors the effect of morphine.

However, a new study is changing this narrative by analysing how our body responds to pain and the associated 'high' that comes with overcoming it. In the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf and Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University study, researchers observed participants that were used to regular running or other endurance exercise and analysed neurochemical activity twice-over — once while participants were running and once while walking, with both taking place on a treadmill.

Of course, some subjects developed the 'high' after running, but, as the researchers blocked some participants' ability to respond to endorphins using opioid blockers, the results suggested that the hormone wasn't responsible for the post-sweat buzz. Despite increased euphoria and decreased anxiety — the standard indicators of a 'runner's high' — something else was at play.

A different set of biochemicals known as endocannabinoids (eCBs) were thought to be responsible. Acting similarly to cannabis, endocannabinoids have also been linked to improving symptoms of anxiety and low moods, even when produced naturally through exercise. The study proved this, with participants naturally getting 'high' while exercising.

Previous German studies on mice have also found that a spike in eCBs, not endorphins, was found in subjects after exercise. Similarly, researchers agree that eCBs can easily pass from the bloodstream into the brain, helping nix painful feelings during hard exercise.

Unfortunately, the study is still preliminary, as it's hard to prove that eCBs are directly responsible for a 'runner's high' as researchers can't see what happens when eCBs can't impact the brain.

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