The title of this article—“Getting ‘High’ On Your Own Supply”—is attractive enough in itself to get many young people’s attention. The author starts by saying that part of “runner’s high” (the euphoria one feels after running for a long period of time) comes from the effects of endocannabinoids: “the body’s counterpart to some of marijuana’s mood-enhancing chemicals.” For decades, researchers and runners alike have claimed that this feeling comes from endorphins. While endorphin molecules do work to numb muscles, its molecule is too large to be transferred from the blood to the brain in order to spur the “high” feeling. It is important to note, though, that endocannabinoids are not solely responsible for the high, it is rather a concoction of chemicals that work harmoniously to make you feel “stoned”.
The first is of course, the endocannabinoid. It activates the same chemical receptors as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—one of the psychoactive drugs in cannabis (hence the name). The body produces endocannabinoids when nerves are activated by stress or pain. They travel to the source neuron that is sending out the signals and dampens its effects.
The second molecule is the endorphin. Just as the THC in marijuana affects the body’s cannabinoid receptors, heroin and morphine affect the body’s opioid receptors. Endorphins are the body’s natural chemical counterparts to these intoxicating drugs. “Endorphins” covers a very broad range of molecules that perform a wide variety of tasks such as respond to exercise, meditation, tattooing, or even eating spicy food (which actually causes a small amount of tissue damage to which endorphins work to dampen the effects of). Scientists have proven that endorphins are not the only culprit for the intoxicating effects, because when endorphin production is blocked with naloxone, the subject’s mood still improved. This has led scientists to believe that the feeling comes more from a “neurohormonal cocktail” as John Raglin of Indiana University Bloomington states.
Next is the enkephalin, a chemical sometimes categorized under the broad dome of endorphins. These tend to bind to opioid receptors, but not the exact receptors that endorphins do. Enkephalins are usually only released in the presence of acute pain, not things like meditation or spicy food. It is believed that enkephalins merely numb the pain before endorphins go in for the kill and impose their intoxicating effects. Enkephalins simply take a small role in the complex process of the body’s pain-dampening processes.
Lastly is dopamine. Dopamine is a bit special in that its relation to pleasure-making is primarily centered around the reward of doing such an act, not the actually doing of the act. It makes you anticipate a reward and if the expected results precipitate, then it helps link the action with the reward. A surplus, although, does not mean high effects of pleasure, but rather can lead to paranoia and diseases such as schizophrenia. Subjects with an overactive dopamine system have been found to have many of these diseases. So in moderation, its work in the “runner’s high” equation is to link the feeling of pleasure (created by the mixture of all the other chemicals) with the act of exercising or working out.
“Long before we humans discovered the blissful effects of cannabis or the addictive sleep of morphine, our distant evolutionary ancestors were already evolving complex internal systems for regulating pain and managing mood. When we use, or abuse, drugs that activate these receptors, we’re tapping into systems that have already been humming along for millions of years, serving up relaxation and dampening agony when we need help the most. As we continue to learn more about our bodies’ diverse toolkit of endogenous pain relievers and psychoactive chemicals — many of which are still poorly understood — we gain a better understanding of the ways these systems work. That way, we can get better at turning on a natural high right when we need one, delivered for free by the cutting-edge manufacturing equipment in our own muscles, bones and brains.”