For many runners, especially seasoned ones, the famous runner’s high is a powerful experience – a euphoric flow state that helps athletes gain strength, relieve anxiety, and reduce stress through high-mileage runs. Conventional wisdom holds that it is caused by endorphins, a class of pain relieving chemicals that are naturally produced by the body. But emerging research is turning this theory on its head. According to a new study, a runner’s high is caused by endocannabinoids, naturally occurring cannabis-like compounds released during enjoyable activities like an orgasm.
Previous studies found that endorphins were not a factor when mice developed similarly high levels while running, but cannabinoid receptors did. Researchers hypothesized that similar mechanisms could also play a role in humans.
“These earlier results were based on a mixture of behavioral, pharmacological and molecular genetic studies,” Johannes Fuss, lead author of the new study, told Runner’s World. “But obviously we haven’t been able to study the effects of euphoric feelings in mice. So we repeated the experiment with humans. “
For this new study, the researchers recruited 63 experienced runners, both men and women, and focused on two clear markers of the typical runner high: euphoria and reduced anxiety, reports the New York Times. Half of the participants were given naloxone, a drug that blocks opioids such as endorphins. Then ran every 45 minutes at moderate intensity on a treadmill.
The researchers then analyzed the participants’ blood and made an important discovery: all of them showed elevated endocannabinoid levels. In addition, most of them said they were experiencing highs, including runners who were given naloxone. In other words, the cutting out of endorphins had no significant effect and the runners were able to enter their flow state as usual.
It’s strong evidence that the body’s naturally occurring cannabis-like chemicals are the real cause of the runner’s high. In addition, endorphins cannot cross the blood brain barrier, making them an unlikely candidate for triggering the altered state of mind that runners experience. Endocannabinoids, on the other hand, can get into the brain and play an important role in the body’s signaling mechanisms. The data makes a strong case: if there’s one type of chemical that makes double-digit mileage feel as good as sex, it’s likely endocannabinoids.
So who needs weed? The easiest way to get up could be to take a run.
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