Wired to Run (the runners high)

“We all need something to help us unwind at the end of the day. You might have a glass of wine, or a joint, or a big delicious blob of heroin to silence your silly brainbox of its witterings but there has to be some form of punctuation, or life just seems utterly relentless”

Russell Brand

A running-induced altered state of consciousness is known as the ‘runner’s high’. The ‘runner’s high’ has been described subjectively as pure happiness, elation, a feeling of unity with one’s self and/or nature, endless peacefulness, inner harmony, boundless energy, and a reduction in pain sensation. It would appear that there is an intrinsic, neurobiological reward for humans who run long distances, that might explain why humans run for ‘pleasure’, despite the increased metabolic cost and risk of injury. An emerging theory in the sports medicine and evolutionary biology literature is that endurance exercise elevates endocannabinoids (produced internally), eliciting the same ‘psychoactive’ effects experienced from exogenous (ingested) cannabinoids such as marijuana. Cannabis and cannabinoid-based medications have been used for centuries to treat pain, spasms, asthma, sleep disorders, depression and loss of appetite. More recently (the last 30 years), their antispastic, analgesic, neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties have been confirmed in over 100 clinical trials. The anticipation of the endocannabinoid ‘high’ experienced after a long run is instrumental in establishing a long-term running habit (fig 1). Some researchers consider this an ‘addiction’, with potentially negative consequences to family life and work commitments if an ‘addicted’, habitual runner is prevented from running (due to injury, weather, travel etc,) and begins to suffer from ‘withdrawal symptoms’. These symptoms (irritability, restlessness, frustration, depression, insomnia and general fatigue) are remarkably similar to the ‘symptoms’ experienced by people prevented from eating and sleeping. Should these species-specific, health-promoting activities also be classified as ‘addictions’ with potentially-negative-withdrawal symptoms? If homo sapiens did evolve as endurance walking, running, hunter gatherers, then low-intensity-long-duration movement is probably a species-specific requirement for optimal-metabolic and psychological health. However, not all species are ‘wired to run’, and many non-cursorial animals such as rats, ferrets and bodybuilders experience a negative-biochemical reaction to endurance exercise (fig 2), and must seek alternative strategies to meet their cannabinoid needs (fig 3).

runners-high-fig1

 

runners-high-fig2

runners-high-fig3

Bibliography

Dietrich A, McDaniel WF (2004). Endocannabinoids and Exercise. Br J Sports Med

GrotenhermenF, Muller-Vahl K (2012) The therapeutic potential of cannabis and cannabinoids. Dtsch Arztebl Int

Duhigg C (2012) The Power of Habit

Glasser W (1976). Positive Addiction

Robbins JM, Joseph P (1985) Experiencing Exercise Withdrawal: Possible Consequences of Therapeutic and Mastery Running. Journal of Sports Psychology

Raichlen DA et al (2012) Wired to Run: exercise induced endocannabinoid signalling in humans and cursorial mammals with implications for the ‘runner’s high’. J Exp Biol