What is the runner’s high?
Many of us are familiar with the concept of the “runner’s high”. A natural rush of euphoria which occurs in some individuals when the body is pushed to its physical limits, this runner’s high is, well, highly sought after. Often also described as a second wind, the term is defined as “an exercise-induced altered state of consciousness long-appreciated by endurance athletes… described subjectively as pure happiness, elation, a feeling of unity with one’s self/nature, endless peacefulness, inner harmony, boundless energy, and a reduction in pain sensation.”1 While the existence of this phenomenon has been known for decades, the science surrounding what causes it has been incredibly limited. It’s only recently that scientists have begun to understand it – and much of it remains a mystery.
The confusion surrounding the runner’s high is due in part to the fact that the experience doesn’t seem consistent; described as “ephemeral”, certain runners may never encounter this sensation. And others won’t be able to access it each time they exercise, even if it’s something they’ve felt before. Though much of the conversation surrounding this effect is already speculative, newer research suggests that it may be tied to something even less thoroughly understood: the endocannabinoid system.1
Endogenous opioids or cannabinoids?
Exercise physiologists first thought that the cause of the runner’s high was tied to a boost in epinephrine (adrenaline). With the discovery of the opioid receptor network and endogenous opioids (opioid-like chemicals produced naturally in the body) in the late 1950s and early 60s, the theory was switched around a bit to include this new understanding: it was thought that this effect was “a direct consequence of alterations in endogenous opioid release.”1 For decades, this was the operating hypothesis. However, with the discovery of the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) in the 1990s and the subsequent discovery of the body’s first endogenous (naturally-occurring) cannabinoid Anandamide in 1992, the theory slowly began to take on a new shape once more. Anandamide, named using the Sanskrit root word for “bliss”, can boost happiness, assist with increasing memory, appetite, & motivation, increase neurogenesis, and more.
While the body’s own endocannabinoids were discovered in the 1990s, it took quite a bit of additional time before it began to be thought that Anandamide could play a role in activating the euphoria of the runner’s high. The new theory arose when it was discovered that endorphin and endogenous opioid molecules are large and therefore cannot cross the blood-brain barrier – but Anandamide can.2 As Anandamide is often found in high concentrations in the brain after intense exercise, the natural conclusion was that Anandamide may be the compound primarily responsible for helping elicit the runner’s high.
Although this hypothesis was first expressed in the late 1990s, it wasn’t really explored in much detail until 2015, when German scientists began to experiment with the theory in mice. Anandamide levels in the blood increased significantly in a group of mice that ran on a wheel for five hours when compared with a control group of sedentary mice. Additionally, the mice that were part of the running group displayed far less anxiety and a higher tolerance for pain than those in the control group.2 Studies have also been done on humans, however, further research is still needed.1
CBD and Anandamide
So what does any of this have to do with CBD? According to a study published in 2012, Cannabidiol (CBD) helps to inhibit the degradation of Anandamide in the body,3 meaning that the effects felt from this endocannabinoid can last for a longer period of time if CBD is in someone’s system. While many people enjoy using CBD products after exercise, this information makes it apparent that the benefits can likely be extended if CBD is used before exercise, as well. Since CBD can also support pain management, stress relief, and endurance – all without the intoxicating high experienced with THC use – it only makes sense to incorporate CBD products into your workout routine. See our blog post on CBD for athletic performance here!