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Neurobiological Basis of Runner's High

"Runner's High" is a mood-enhancing and anxiety-reducing phenomenon that occurs during and shortly after running. Although the driving neurobiological mechanisms behind it are not yet fully understood, it is assumed that it is the endocannabinoids that play an important role in the euphoric state. A research team from HEALTH, the Institute for Biomedical Research and Technologies at JOANNEUM RESEARCH, has investigated what this role is.

Laufen führt zu einem Stimmungshoch

Endocannabinoide sorgen für das Stimmungshoch beim Laufen, Foto: istock/Michelangeloop

Endocannabinoids and „Runner’s High“

Endocannabinoids are cannabis-like biochemical substances that are produced by the body itself. Anita Eberl, a researcher at our HEALTH Institute, came across the controversial debate about which substances are responsible for runners' high moods as part of commissioned research.

"In general, the release of endogenous opioids such as endorphins was thought to be responsible for the feeling of elation when running. But endorphins are not able to cross the blood-brain barrier. In contrast, the highly lipophilic (fat-soluble) endocannabinoid molecules are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and subsequently bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain. And this influences mood," explains the researcher.

The Study

The team in Styria has now taken a closer look at this process and its effects: "The aim of our study was to examine the changes in concentration of the two endocannabinoids AEA and 2-AG in the blood of 16 healthy participants and also to analyse their mood changes before and after an outdoor endurance run. We also wanted to find out more about the role of age, gender and running frequency in the 'runner's high' phenomenon," says Eberl.

The analysis using mass spectrometry showed that the concentration of both endocannabinoids increased significantly in all runners in comparison. The increase in AEA concentrations before and after the run was greater in women than in men. The average mood of all participants was significantly better after the run than before. This improvement in mood was consistent with the significant increase in mean AEA levels in all individuals before and after running, indicating the key role of AEA in the runner's high. There was also a correlation with how often and regularly people ran. Regular runners had lower mood levels before the run than occasional runners, but after the run their mood was significantly better than those who only ran occasionally. This is also reflected in the AEA concentrations: in contrast to the findings in 2-AG, the AEA concentrations after the run were higher in regular runners than in occasional runners, which is consistent with their better mood after the run.

Conclusion: running has addictive potential and brings sunshine into your life.


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