Natural highs: are all runners just organic junkies?

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 22/06/2016
Sophie Nicholson and Sue Roberts running in Chamonix. Photo: Sarah Stirling
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People often say to me: “Wow, you’re so good doing all that running!” The truth, though, is perhaps a little darker: I'm a secret hedonistic junkie. But why can running be so addictive? Well, it turns out we have an intimate pharmacy hidden within us, and running unlocks all the doors.

The natural drugs cabinet

Did you know that when you exercise, your body sneakily secretes substances similar to a range of sought-after mind-altering drugs? It’s not surprising that this is possible if you think about it: almost all man-made drugs work by mimicking, enhancing or blocking the effects of existing brain chemicals. And runners, well runners shoot up on a wide range of organic highs.

Morphine

In 1973, two American scientists called Solomon Snyder and Candace Pert discovered the body can produce a natural substance that has a similar effect to morphine. These ‘endorphins’ (the word is a blend of ‘morphine’ and ‘endogenous’: morphine originating within the body) reduce the perception of pain and stress, making you feel happier and more relaxed. During exercise of a certain intensity – running for example – their production significantly increases.

Cannabis

In the late 80s, scientists were puzzled to discover receptors in the brain for THC (terahydrocannabinol – the main psychoactive component in marijuana), because THC doesn't occur naturally in the body. The mystery was solved in the 90s when a team led by Raphael Mechoulam at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem first isolated ‘anandamide’. Production of this natural, cannabis-like substance known as 'the bliss molecule' (‘ananda’ is Sanskrit for ‘bliss’) increases significantly when you do something particularly energetic, like running. As well as happiness, the neurotransmitter is involved with motivation, feeling pain, appetite and even fertility. (Don't worry non-runners, in 1996 anandamide was discovered in chocolate, too!)

Amphetamines

Running has also been proven to significantly help with depression: in 2001 a study in England proved that running for just half an hour per day increased the concentration in the brain of a small molecule called phenylethylamine (PEA), which has a strong structural and pharmacological similarity to amphetamines in terms of causing euphoria. PEA (which is also a neurotransmitter) is known to boost dopamine, too – so along with improving focus and concentration, it’s also connected to sexual drive and our brain’s reward system.

Masochism

Well, that was a bit of a turnaround, wasn’t it? That’s right, as well as being hedonistic junkies, some runners are masochists, too. People usually associate masochism with sex, but the pain-pleasure relationship can be very similar in endurance sports and racing.

But why does pain lead to pleasure?

In the 1970s, behavioural psychologist Richard Solomon of the University of Pennsylvania came up with the ‘opponent-process theory of emotion’. He theorised that if you feel any major primary sensory or emotional stimulus, whether pleasurable or unpleasant, then compensatory neural mechanisms engage to swing you the other way, to protect you from experiences that are too intense and keep you in balance. That's why the natural pleasure-giving neurotransmitters that the body produces are fragile and break down quickly: so you won't dive into perpetual bliss (apparently your body doesn't think this will be good for you)!

A rather sneaky trick

So, in the same way that pain can lead to pleasure, euphoria can turn to dissatisfaction and, over time, your body even performs a sneaky trick to keep you away from nirvana: you grow to need more of something to get the same fix. How to solve it? Go running again of course, but for even longer!

Speaking of which, it must be time to hit the trails. Oh, I'm such a goody two-shoes...

 

A photo posted by Sarah Stirling (@sarah_stirling) on

READ: Trail secrets: how to run downhill

READ: Trail running: 5 things I wish I'd known when starting out

WATCH: Find your trail on BMC TV



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