The Runner’s High

By Dev Mishra, M.D., President, Sideline Sports Doc, Clinical Assistant Professor of, Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University

Key Points:

  • When your body comes under stress or experiences pain, neurochemicals called endorphins and endocannabinoids are produced in the brain. This happens in all age groups.
  • Endorphins and endocannabinoids are considered natural painkillers because they activate receptors in the brain that help minimize discomfort
  • These brain chemicals are naturally produced as a result of exercise and are likely responsible for the feeling called “a runner’s high”

Whether you’re a young athlete or an adult, many of you have experienced a post-workout high. People love the feeling so much that “endorphin junkie” has even become synonymous with someone who’s constantly chasing that exercise high.

When your body experiences physical or even emotional stress, neurochemicals called endorphins are produced in the brain. Endorphins, which are structurally similar to the drug morphine, are considered natural painkillers because they activate receptors in the brain that help minimize discomfort. They can also help bring about feelings of euphoria and general well being.

The idea that exercise creates a huge endorphin rush entered popular culture soon after endorphins were discovered around 40 years ago. The legendary Dr. Jim Fixx started America’s running revolution back in the 1970’s, and there was thinking that endorphins could play a big role in the psychological benefits of running and exercise. But no one really knew for sure.

The problem with jumping to the conclusion that endorphins cause your “exercise high” is that in large-scale studies, scientists measure endorphins present in the blood — not the brain. Then, they make the assumption that if endorphin levels rise in the blood, then it must be because of an increase of endorphins in the brain. It’s a logical assumption but the reality is a bit more complex.

In fact, a German study found that, while endorphin levels are higher after a run, the real brain chemicals responsible for the runner’s high are called “endocannabinoids”. These substances are similar to the key chemical in marijuana. At least that’s true in running mice, who kindly volunteered for the study…

So if you aren’t an endorphin junkie, then what are you? You’re probably an endocannabinoid junkie! That just doesn’t have the same nice ring to it though, does it?

Regardless of what the actual reason is for the good feelings after exercise, the point is that you need to just get out and do something. It’s good for what ails you.

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