Runner's High (and we know why)

I have a confession to make. I’m terrible at running. I’ve changed trainers, I’ve tried changing my gait, but nothing works. It makes my knees hurt. I’ve accepted that it’s not for me.

But I really envy people who’ve made it part of their lives. I’m a big fan of Tony Riddle (The Natural Life-Stylist) and his adventures in rewilding and barefoot running. I can see that, for so many runners, it’s an amazing way of keeping healthy – mentally and physically. And I’m fascinated by the ‘runner’s high’...but it may surprise you to know that, even for a non-runner like me, that feeling is within reach.

The ‘runner’s high’ - that euphoric effect people get when they push their body to the limits – is a well-known phenomenon. But what you might not know is how it’s linked to the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) and that elusive, delightful ‘bliss molecule’ called Anandamide.

I’m particularly interested in what it shows us about how endocannabinoids, including CBD, affect mind, body and soul. And to understand that, we need to look at what it is and how it works.

The runner’s high is actually a hunter’s high. It’s an evolutionary adaptation that rewards us for the type of high-intensity activity that echoes how our ancestors would’ve moved when hunting. Professor David Raichlen, at the time working at the University of Arizona, made this connection. He proved his hypothesis – that it would shared by other hunting species - by recruiting local dogs (with owners’ consent), putting them on a treadmill and, after some moderate endurance exercise, measuring their endocannabinoid levels.

Just like the humans he measured, he found elevated EC levels – meaning they were also experiencing the natural high triggered by these neurotransmitters interacting with the body’s ECS. To check this was a reward for hunting-like exercise, he also measured the EC levels in ferrets, a nocturnal forager, and found no EC elevation. (I have struggled, since discovering this information, to get the image of a ferret trotting on a treadmill out of my head…and I suspect you will too.)

The high is a heady mix of euphoria, pain reduction, less anxiety and relaxation.  “It may only be chemicals shooting around in your brain,” says runner and author Adharanand Finn, “but after a long run everything seems right in the world.” But funnily enough, the famous ‘rush of endorphins’ usually credited with those effects isn’t the full story.

Endorphins are actually too big to cross the blood/brain barrier, and a study published in the PNAS found that it was activity in the ECS that seemed to have the biggest effect on pain tolerance and reduced anxiety. Anandamide, the endocannabinoid referred to as ‘the body’s own antidepressant’ (which as I’ve described elsewhere, has a unique relationship with CBD) also plays a part in the zen-like contentment.

Like the ‘entourage effect’ of cannabinoids in full-spectrum CBD oil, there’s a really interesting cumulative interplay between the runner’s high, the ECS and social activity. In Kelly McGonigal’s The Joy Of Movement, the Stanford psychologist explores the powerful bonding effect of group exercise (possibly another evolutionary adaptation), and references a study that identifies the three things that most effectively get the ECS working well: Cannabis (thanks to CBD), exercise and social connections. And the evidence suggests that an active ECS system responds better to more input, in turn making you feel better.

So whether you’re choosing to relax on the sofa with an indulgent bar of CBD chocolate or running the hard yards in the wind and rain, the message is simple: do it with other people, and the benefits are multiplied (though you might need more than one bar of choc).