Endorphins and the Runner's High
Often called the body's natural pain relievers, endorphins are biochemicals made by the body. They have some of the same properties as opiates. Released in your body in response to situations such as pain or stress, endorphins help reduce pain and can cause feelings of euphoria, calm, relaxation, and well-being. Since vigorous exercise, especially running, can produce endorphins, these feelings of euphoria are sometimes referred to as a "runner's high."
How Endorphins Work
There are more than 20 different types of endorphins. They are proteins produced by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus during exercise and in response to pain, arousal, and other stress stimuli. Acupuncture, chocolate, and pepper can also stimulate your body to produce endorphins.
In response to pain, endorphins are distributed throughout the nervous system, where they interact with opiate receptors to reduce the perception of pain. In addition, endorphins also make us feel happy, stimulate our immune system, help with memory, balance our appetite, contribute to the release of sex hormones, and help regulate our body temperature. Therefore, every time we laugh, are stressed, engage in sexual activity, exercise, or feel pain, endorphins are released into the bloodstream.
Endorphins were first discovered in the 1970s by two separate groups of independent researchers, both studying the brains of animals. Scientists John Hughes and Hans W. Kosterlitz from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland have identified and isolated endorphins in the brain of a pig. Simultaneously, Rabbi Simantov and Solomon Snyder, both from the United States, identified endorphins in the brain of a calf. It was also discovered at this time that these endorphins in the human body, as well as in the body of many animals, are capable of producing morphine-like effects.
The Analgesic Effect
The results of this varied research allowed neuroscientists to determine that the human brain contains endorphins, which are released by the pituitary gland when the body is under stress or in pain. These endorphins interact with receptors to allow more dopamine to be released in the body, reducing the overall perception of pain. The effects of this process are similar to those of a drug like morphine.
Therefore, if an artificial pain reliever such as morphine is introduced into your body, it will have an effect on natural endorphins. The pain reliever absorbs more of the pain receptors from your brain. Your body realizes this and, in turn, produces fewer natural pain relievers. However, when the artificial source is removed (the effect of the drug wears off), many pain receptors deflate. This causes a craving for endorphins, and this is where the addiction can begin. But endorphins alone are not dangerous or addictive.
The Runner’s High
For some people, running long distances can cause a feeling of euphoria comparable to the feeling experienced by drugs. The ecstatic sensations reported by this runner include feelings of extreme peace, floating sensation, ecstasy, euphoria, and increased pain tolerance.
This running effect has been attributed to an elevated level of endorphins in the brain, especially in a small study first published in 2008. Although endorphins are constantly being released into your body as you run and certainly increase in your bloodstream, Research has already shown that it may be too large to pass from the blood to the brain. Therefore, they may not actually be the chemical responsible for creating the feeling of euphoria in a runner.
According to a 2015 study in rats, what may be behind these feelings is a neurotransmitter called anandamide, an endocannabinoid that is released into the blood (along with endorphins) when you run. Since the two chemicals are also released in rats when they run, the study was conducted with rats running on a wheel, using drugs to block the effects of each chemical. When endorphins were blocked, there were no changes in the runner's unloading symptoms, such as calm, pain tolerance, and sedation. However, when they blocked the anandamide, all the positive signs in the hallway disappeared. So the researchers found that the release of anandamide may be the key to the feelings behind the runner's euphoria.
Bottom line: it may take scientists a while to figure out exactly which chemicals are responsible for a runner's high, but research is increasingly pointing to endocannabinoids rather than endorphins.
Long-Term Benefits of Endorphins
Thanks to brain chemicals, if you're a regular long-distance runner, your anxiety level is probably much lower than that of a normal person, and you may also have less sensitivity to pain. The neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine also increase when you exercise, which may be responsible for the good feeling many of us feel when we finish training.
If you're just starting out, you can also increase that level of calm, relaxation, pain tolerance, and a sense of well-being by consistently engaging in moderate to intense levels of exercise. In fact, it is often the reward for those good feelings we feel after a long career, which seem to be heavily influenced by endocannabinoids like anandamide, that inspires us to do it again and again, despite the risk of injury and the time and energy that goes with it run takes.
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