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HomeBlogHow we get a runner’s high: new biological mechanisms give endorphins a run for their money

How we get a runner’s high: new biological mechanisms give endorphins a run for their money

By: Medix Team
How we get a runner’s high: new biological mechanisms give endorphins a run for their money

We all know that exercise is physically good for us, strengthening our heart and building our muscles. But it also has plenty of psychological benefits too, warding off depression and anxiety. Recent research sheds new light on why.

When jogging first took off in the US during the 1960’s many people didn’t quite know what to make of it. In 1968, The New York Times ran an article about how the police were ticketing early advocates for “illegal use of the highway by a pedestrian.”


The newspaper concluded that jogging “might well develop into a national pastime,” and it was right. Within a decade, 25 million Americans had taken the sport up to improve their fitness including the then president, Jimmy Carter.


Some reported a feeling of euphoria and elation that was dubbed a runner’s high. Scientists set to work trying to explain why and settled on endorphins (full name endogenous opioid peptides) as the likely reason.


Endorphins are type of chemical called a neurotransmitter, which are produced by the brain’s pituitary gland and hypothalamus before flooding into the bloodstream. They’re the body’s natural form of an opioid such as morphine, increasing pleasure and reducing pain. Exercise increases levels.  


However, in recent years attention has turned more to endocannabinoids: natural biochemical forms of the same compounds found in the cannabis plant. In the 1990s, scientists discovered that endocannabinoids such as anandamide help to regulate the central nervous system by binding to receptors in it.


Last year, researchers in Germany conducted an experiment on a group of runners to see what happened when they gave them a drug to switch off their ability to produce endorphins. They discovered that the participants not only still experienced a runner’s high but also clocked up increased blood levels of endocannabinoids.


However, endocannabinoids aren’t the end of the story. Exercise is known to produce a heady cocktail of feel-good chemicals including serotonin and dopamine.


Scientists have also researched the role of galanin, a neuropeptide (a protein like molecule produced in the brain).


They discovered that mice given access to an exercise wheel for three weeks after a stressful event were far less anxious than those that weren’t able to run it off. The active mice, which averaged 10-16 kilometres per day on the wheel, had far higher levels of galanin in their locus coeruleus (blue spot in Latin), the part of the brain stem that regulates stress.


Scientists also believe that exercise changes the brain on an epigenetic level too. In simple terms, this means that our behaviour and our environment can alter the way that our genes work and our children can potentially inherit those changes too.


A runner’s high is a transitory feeling but the health benefits are clearly much longer lasting and not just to us on an individual level. World Mental Health Day falls in October, so why not mark it by going for a run, or any other form of moderate exercise. As the saying goes: one run can change your day, many runs can change your life.

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