In your opinion, what does the following quote describe?
“A subjective sense of well being associated with a pleasant feeling of euphoria, anxiolysis (reduced anxiety), sedation, and analgesia (reduced pain)”
If you didn’t have a headline to prime your thoughts, most people would associate this with cannabis. But it’s not.
This is a description taken from one of the latest scientific studies into the nature of the “Runner’s High.” And as it turns out, the similarity in language between the high from prolonged exercise and the high from the cannabis actually has a biochemical foundation.
Endorphins: A Case of Mistaken Identity
Most people have heard something or other about how exercise will get your endorphins flowing. An idea started getting circulated in the 1980s about magical chemicals secreted by your body supposedly responsible for all your most wonderful sensations. Like morphine without needles.
The problem with this idea is that endorphins are actually pretty large molecules. They’re neuropeptides, tiny proteins that bind to receptors on neurons. Large molecules like neuropeptides can’t actually cross the blood-brain barrier, a very tight seal that insulates protects the brain from things that might happen to get into your blood.
Only smaller molecules can pass through this barrier, so if endorphins are produced by your body, there’s no way they could create the euphoria experienced in a long run.
The real source of the runner’s high must be a different agent.
Anandamide: Your Body’s Natural High
Looking for another target, researchers found that in dogs, and humans, anandamide blood levels went up following exercise. Anandamide is an endocannabinoid, structurally very similar to THC, and activates both CB1 receptors found in the brain and CB2 receptors mostly found in the body. It gets its name from the Sanskrit word “ananda,” which translates to bliss, joy, or happiness.
That should give you a pretty good hint to its role in the body. And why it became a target for research into runner’s high.
In the most recent study, researchers looked at mice. After running, the mice showed decreased measures of pain and anxiety and increased anandamide levels. When the researchers blocked the CB1 receptor, the measures of anxiety and pain went back up.
So what does that mean?
It means the physical and psychological benefits of exercise are mediated by the endocannabinoid system.
Running and Cannabis: The Same, But Different
The high you experience from running and the high you experience from smoking cannabis are functionally similar. They are like cousins, from the same family tree, but with some important differences.
With a runner’s high, chemically-speaking you are only getting anandamide. But this is attenuated with increased heart rate and blood flow, increased oxygenation, and changes in metabolism, all of which change how you feel.
With cannabis, you get a whole cocktail of different cannabinoids and terpenes. The exact composition of this cocktail will change how the cannabis makes you feel, known as the entourage effect.
Running and Cannabis: Kissing Cousins?
Given the relatedness between cannabis and runner’s high, what about combining them together and running while high? Could their synergy be a whole new level of the entourage effect?
As the lingering stigma of cannabis consumption slowly ebbs away, this combination may very well fuel a revolution in how we exercise and train.