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Marijuana, Morphine and the Runners High

Marijuana, Morphine and the Runners High
In experiments, dogs were able to experience
the runners high just like people. From this
picture, it looks like Spike is definitely on his way.

For decades, runners talked about a magical point that sometimes happened in their run where they crossed over. The pain from their activity seemed to melt away and was replaced by a sense of euphoria. Some people even experienced a loss of time. It's called a "runners high" but any type of intense or prolonged exercise could bring it on.

At first, scientists dismissed the idea. Because there was no known mechanism for triggering such an event, it was largely ignored. That all changed in 1974 with the discovery of endorphins. John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz of Scotland found them in the brain of a pig while around the same time Rabi Simantov and Solomon H. Snyder of the United States found them in the brain of a calf.

The word "endorphin" is a combination of two words, "endogenous morphine" which literally means "morphine produced naturally in the body." 

Researchers discovered that endorphins were produced by the central nervous system and pituitary gland. Our bodies make them to slow down or inhibit pain. When we get injured, our body pumps out endorphins to blunt the pain response. It was logical for scientists to conclude that the stress of intense exercise or a major endurance event, would trigger an endorphin release and the runners high.

Surprisingly, it wasn't until 2008 that researchers in Germany, lead by Dr. Henning Boecker used PET Scans (positron emission tomography) to prove that endorphins were not only produced during running, but that they were attaching themselves to the limbic and prefrontal areas of the brain connected to emotions.

There was just one problem. Scientists found that people could still experience a runners high, even when endorphins were blocked. So researchers started looking at norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters. But none of them were being produced in high enough quantities to account for the feeling.

Researchers were also looking at something else. In 2004 a review was published in the Journal of Sports Medicine by Dietrich and McDaniel. They had found that our bodies produce something called Anandamide. It's a cannabinoid (a lipid molecule) that produces sensations similar to THC, the stuff in marijuana that makes us high. It was entirely possible runners weren't feeling good because of naturally occurring morphine, but naturally occurring pot.

In July of 2012, a study was published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology that looked at how exercise stress affected the endocannabinoid system. Sure enough, researchers found that "the endocannabinoid system is activated upon strenuous exercise..." The feelings people experience from that type of high are also more consistent with marijuana than morphine.

That doesn't mean the endorphins aren't partially responsible, but it seems more likely that runners are getting a naturally created pot high, rather than a naturally created morphine high.

So when does it happen? The answer is different for every person based on their unique body chemistry and levels of physical fitness. But as a general rule, the runners high can be most easily set off by a particularly intense workout after 20 to 30 minutes, or an endurance activity that lasts for two hours or more.

The key is to push yourself hard, but not too hard. Runs where you stress your body to the max may overwhelm your ability to feel good. Likewise, a light jog isn't going to be intense enough to kick out any feel-good chemicals.

  1. Try running at 70 to 85 percent of your age-adjusted maximum heart rate. That's the optimal range to release the stress hormone cortisol and make your body produce endocannabinoids.

  2. You should also schedule runs earlier in the day. Research seems to indicate that endocannabinoid levels are three times greater first thing in the morning compared to the end of the day. That means a morning run could potentially be more "euphoric" than one late at night.

  3. Finally, stress can also heighten or help bring on the experience. Running a competitive race with other people like a 5K is an example. Surrounded by others, you tend to push yourself harder than normal and the anxiety and anticipation of what the race will bring can more easily trigger the flood of chemicals.

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