Runner's High Is Real, and We Have the Endocannabinoid System to Thank
New research points to the role of the endocannabinoid system in giving exercisers that euphoric feeling.
Many Americans of a particular generation vividly remember the anti-cannabis ads run on broadcast television during their adolescence. Educators hung posters on school bulletin boards. Cartoon characters taught everyone how to "just say no." The public was told with unquestionable certainty that "marijuana is a gateway drug."
It turns out that gateway might be the finish line of a marathon.
The legalization of cannabis research has not only discredited cannabis propaganda but also shined a light on the Endocannabinoid System's involvement in human health and the "Runner's High."
Discovered at the end of the 20th century, the Endocannabinoid System has proven to be pivotal in understanding mental and physical health, providing a bounty of holistic and natural solutions to many modern ailments. Now, cannabis has shown to be vital in improving anxiety, inflammation, nausea, joy, pain, and unlocking access to the endocannabinoid system.
A brief history of the Runner's High
In the 1960s, the popularity of running was burgeoning across the country, launching some of the world's biggest brands today, such as Nike and Asics. Researchers began attempting to understand the Runner's High since it entered the pop-culture lexicon.
At first, the data was anecdotal. Runners began sharing their feats of endurance, mentioning an inexplicable and intoxicating experience of euphoria, clarity, calm, and pain relief only after they reached a point where they were about to give up on their run. The mass adoption of running made it clear that the Runner's High was not an isolated event but something many could (and did) experience.
The term "Runner's High" became the de facto label for the biological effect humans experienced during endurance sports (in retrospect, it is unlikely that it is only a coincidence that the popularity of illicit cannabis use and running took parallel paths in their growth along the same timeline). The effect many runners experienced was often compared to the high cannabis users experienced. Both cheeky and accurate, "Runner's High" stuck as the favorite term for cardio and endurance exercise, even as other activities' popularity also brought their high, including cycling, swimming, weight lifting, rowing, and many others.
No matter the sport, athletes who experienced the Runner's High found it very addicting. People across the country began chasing the high. Although not entirely understood back then, the undisputed truth that exercise is good for your mind and body is prevalent today. The motivation as to why so many became addicted to staying healthy, while others found no purpose in it, was a mystery for some time. That mystery is just now being explained.
Born to run
When considering the evolutionary theory as to why people experience a Runner's High, today's popular view is that for hundreds-of-thousands of years, humans (specifically Homo Sapiens) developed the ability to run long distances for survival. In short, the flight portion of "fight or flight" meant that when climbing a tree was not enough to get away from a big-cat, the next best thing was to run.
While many predators prevalent in prehistoric times were capable of reaching much faster speeds for short distances, homo-sapiens could run for much longer at a relatively fast pace. The human anatomy evolved to better cope with the impact, energy depletion, and mental stress of running by deploying the endocannabinoid system. Rather than giving up halfway and being mauled by a big-cat, humans were given a second wind in the form of a Runner's High to continue their escape and survival. Those that could outrun the danger would procreate the next generation of runners.
The agricultural revolution led to the development of cooperative strategies amongst humans, which resulted in more need for working the land, rather than running away from prey. But the development of the Runner's High was already coded in our DNA, only to return to a wider population once again with sport creation.
Understanding the high
As runners began telling their version of the experience, it became clear that this was not an isolated phenomenon. Researchers were curious as to how and why so many people were sharing similar stories. There was already an obvious correlation in the slang between getting high on cannabis and a Runner's High, but academia was not buying it, nor were they legally able to. Cannabis research laws were strictly enforced by the federal government, making it bureaucratically impossible to connect the dots in a lab setting without years of debilitating red tape.
Many even claimed that the Runner's High was a placebo effect from eager runners trying to reach euphoria having heard of others' experience.
For decades, experts debunked theories of the Runner's High like these. Early studies conducted on the Runner's High found that endorphins (naturally produced opioids) were being released. Yet, endorphins alone were unable to produce the full experience of the Runner's High. Unlike endocannabinoids (that scientists hadn't yet discovered), endorphins cannot travel past the brain stem, making them obsolete when it comes to decreasing inflammation and improving circulation in the joints and muscles most fatigued by running.
The 1990s brought a wave of understanding with the discovery of the biological endocannabinoid system (ECS) found in humans and other mammals. The ECS consists of endocannabinoids that bind to cannabinoid receptors. Researchers identified two primary cannabinoid receptors: CB1 in 1990 and CB2 in 1993, believing they could identify more receptors as they gained a better understanding of the ECS. CB1 receptors are the main molecular target of exogenous THC and endogenous Anandamide (discovered in 1993). In comparison, CBD acts as an antagonist at both CB1 and CB2 receptors.
Anandamide (named after the Sanskrit word for "bliss") is created naturally in the human body in relatively low quantities and has very similar THC properties. It produces pleasant feelings of relaxation, pain cessation, and euphoria, much like the shared experience for running enthusiasts over the years.
In 2015, a team of German scientists released research that proved "a Runner's High depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice." Their ability to use pharmacologic, molecular genetic, and behavioral studies in mice allowed them to demonstrate that the endocannabinoid system is crucial for a Runner's High. Debunking the myth that endorphins alone were the cause by proving running exercises increase blood levels of both endorphins and anandamide. Unfortunately, euphoria cannot be studied in mouse models. However, anecdotal accounts of people experiencing euphoria during a Runner's High are frequent and consistent.
Mental euphoria and physical health
Although the Runner's High is analogous to running, naming it an Exercise High would be more accurate given the many modern forms of exertion people can perform to create the same effect on a biological level. Non-running fitness enthusiasts and cannabis users have been found to use similar language to explain their experience and affection for their sport of choice. We can attribute much of these comparisons to the similar reaction endo, and phytocannabinoids have on people.
In 2015, researchers released "Cannabis and Exercise Science: A Commentary on Existing Studies and Suggestions for Future Directions" claiming that "policies regarding cannabis use are rapidly changing, yet public officials have limited access to scientific information that might inform the creation of these policies. One important area in which to begin investigations is the link between recreational cannabis use and health, specifically exercise."
Inability to conduct adequate research led to relying solely on anecdotal reports, which were mixed. Pointing out a peculiar fact (given that policymakers tended to lean towards the notion of "cannabis makes you lazy"), the World Anti-Doping Agency includes cannabis as a prohibited substance in sport, partly because they believe it can "enhance" sports performance.
In 2019, the University of Colorado Boulder published research in Frontiers in Public Health that found many people use cannabis before or after their workouts. The survey noted that cannabis users tend to exercise more than the average American. And more than 80 percent of respondents said they used cannabis before starting to exercise or within four hours of ending a workout. Many participants reported that cannabis motivated them to train and allowed them to enjoy the activity even more. Although the findings are conducted exclusively in legal cannabis states, experts must do more research with a larger population of participants and a non-user control group.
Another survey conducted on social media by Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, targeted people that specifically used cannabis for exercise. The study of 126 men and women uncovered cannabis use before numerous types of activities lead not only to greater enjoyment, but participants believed that cannabis increased their focus, concentration, and mind-body awareness.
What the future holds
With America divided into two halves on almost every issue, how is it that Cannabis Legalization became the one thing Americans agreed on most in 2020?
Other than Gen-Z, every living generation has grown up under the influence of an "anti-drug" propaganda machine, funded by our own tax dollars. State legalization and capitalism are now forcing everyone to wake up to the smell of money. Revealing the ridiculousness of having fought a war against a plant, only to find out the plant is a pacifist.
Gallup polls show that 68% of Americans are in favor of federal legalization. With overwhelming positive sentiment towards Cannabis Reform from voters, politicians are doing their best to usher in legislation without making themselves look like fools for their involvement in the war on drugs. Just now, South Dakota jumped headfirst and legalized medical and recreational cannabis simultaneously. California is on track to become the largest cannabis market globally, and less than a decade ago, California was still conducting military-style raids on marijuana cultivators and dealers.
As cannabis commerce has expanded rapidly, research has been limited. In December of 2020, the federal government has presented separate bills. The Cannabidiol and Marihuana Research Expansion Act allows cannabis research to be streamlined, removing excessive barriers that make it difficult for researchers to study cannabis and giving the FDA power to analyze CBD and medical cannabis products. The Medical Marijuana Research Act offers researchers access to state-legal cannabis, removing the over half a century-long requirement that cannabis research may only be conducted on marijuana grown at a single federally approved facility at the University of Mississippi. This grants access to consumer products that are actually consumed as opposed to what is produced federally.
At the time of writing this article, both bills show some rare signs of bi-partisan support. No matter the vote, private enterprises continue to fund and advance the industry through innovation and scientific breakthroughs, circumventing federal bureaucracy in the name of state-sanctioned progress, capitalism, and living a plant enhanced life.