- According to new research, the runner’s high is a result of endocannabinoid receptors in your body, rather than the release of endorphins, which was previously believed to be true.
- Here’s why that’s good news: Endocannabinoid receptors are in your your lungs, kidneys, and bone marrow, and they affect your immune response, reproductive health, and pain modulation.
- Being able to get a natural boost in your endocannabinoid receptors through running is an excellent way to give yourself a “full-body tune-up,” while getting that burst of euphoria along the way.
For many runners, experiencing the “runner’s high” is one of the major perks of the sport. The prevailing belief has been that the release of endorphins causes this feeling, but a new study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology suggests that may not be the case.
Quick anatomy refresher before digging into the study results: Your body has different types of sensory receptors that detect and respond to changes in chemical levels, pain, temperature, movement, and light.
The sensors related to pain response are called opioid receptors, and when they detect a pain issue, that triggers a cascade of chemical responses, including production of endorphins and naturally made opioids. Then there’s your endocannabinoid system, which works to regulate all your other systems with receptors throughout your body and also plays a role in pain modulation—these are the receptors targeted with CBD products, for example.
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Previous research in mice found that beneficial effects of exercise don’t depend on opioid receptors as assumed; instead, they rely heavily on the endocannabinoid system’s receptors, according to the lead author of the recent study, Johannes Fuss, M.D., a psychiatry consultant at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Hamburg, Germany.
“Those previous findings were based on a mixture of behavioral, pharmacological, and molecular genetics studies,” he told Runner’s World. “But obviously, we couldn’t study the effects of euphoric feelings in mice. So, we repeated the experiment with humans.”
He and his fellow researchers recruited 63 participants and had them run on a treadmill for 45 minutes. In a separate session, the participants walked for the same amount of time. They found that the running increased feelings of euphoria and decreased anxiety levels, an effect that happened even when opioid receptors were blocked.
“This means endorphins don’t seem to play a major role,” said Fuss. “We found, instead, that running stimulates endocannabinoid release, and based on our present and earlier findings, we conclude that endocannabinoids are responsible for a ‘runner’s high.’”
Here’s why that’s really good news: Although this surge of wellbeing can reduce anxiety and help with pain levels, those are far from the only benefits of an endocannabinoid response.
“Endocannabinoid receptors are in every system, from your lungs, kidneys, and bone marrow to your immune response, reproductive health, and pain modulation,” Jordan Tishler, M.D., professor at Harvard Medical School, told Runner’s World. “It affects pretty much everything in the body you can name.”
Although some products like CBD promise to optimize this system, Tishler said the lack of regulation and breadth of claims makes it necessary to pursue more research on the realistic benefits of CBD options.
In the meantime, being able to get a natural boost in your endocannabinoid receptors through running is an excellent way to give yourself a “full-body tune-up” as well as get that burst of euphoria along the way.
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health, wellness, fitness, and food.