Does Your Runner’s High Mimic A Marijuana High?

By Zachary Siegel 10/09/15

New study suggests “runner’s high” may depend on cannabinoid receptors in mice.

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That warm relaxing feeling after a workout has long been attributed to the release of endorphins, Latin for morphine within. But a new study challenges this idea by demonstrating “runner's high” may actually be due to endocannabinoids, your brain's very own version of THC.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study gave mice exercise wheels and found that after runs the mice were less anxious and were better able to tolerate pain. Many studies have found this correlation between exercise and relaxation in mice and humans.

But where this study differs is that the researchers used drugs to block the animals’ endocannabinoid system. The results: the same mice that were more pain tolerant and less anxious after running did not exhibit the runner’s high when their endocannabinoids were blocked. The mice were just as anxious before running as they were after.

"We thus show for the first time to our knowledge that cannabinoid receptors are crucial for [the] main aspects of a runner’s high," the researchers wrote.

The post-workout high could actually turn out to be the effects of natural cannabis being released in our brains. The effects of THC impact a wide range of processes, such as appetite, pain, memory, and mood. That you get hungry after a workout, or maybe feel a bit more relaxed, may in fact mimic a cannabis, not endorphin, high.

What does all this mean for humans? Given the study was done in mice, that remains unclear. But because results of this study came as such a surprise, it may inspire translational follow-up studies. For instance, would those who have had problems with abusing marijuana benefit from a prescribed workout regiment?

This line of inquiry is being investigated. Studies have shown exercise may help those sustain recovery from substance use.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.