Why Runner’s High Is a Great Replacement for Drugs and Alcohol

runner's high

Addiction to a specific drug (alcohol included), food or sex is fueled by the same premise – the need for it overrides sound mind, judgment and self-control putting the person at risk. On a more basic level, any addiction can be driven by a person’s desire to feel something whether it be a sense of euphoria, numbness or sustained high. Depending on the addiction, breaking the habit can be challenging especially when the person is addicted to that rush. But numerous studies across the globe may change the way we view healthy addictions, especially when it comes to physical exertion. It isn’t just a runner’s high that may prove to be a replacement for drugs or alcohol but anything that engages moderate cardiovascular activity.

Moderation Shouldn’t Be This Difficult

People who have never had an issue with drug use or overindulgence of alcohol may not understand why it’s so hard for those who do, to stop. But there are many factors that go into why one person falls victim to addiction while others can bypass it.

Predisposition to drug or alcohol addiction is prevalent in families with a generational history of abuse. Environmental or situational trauma can also cause a person to seek drugs or alcohol use to numb the physical and emotional pain or to simply forget it ever happened. And there are differences in drug preference from person to person. Some prefer heroin while others prefer methamphetamines. What one is exposed to is important but personality, socio-economics, ease of accessibility and internal chemistry play a part in determining one’s drug preference.

No matter the mitigating circumstance or reason behind the addiction, once it takes hold of the individual, the cycle is never-ending and often requires a Herculean effort to break free. And the source is physiological.

The Temptation of Feeling Good Comes by Us Honestly

In studies conducted in Europe and Canada, respectively, researchers uncovered indications that give decades-long evidence a “run” for its money. Accepted theories that stress the connection between the body-brain response to endorphins released during exercise are now being revisited. The results opened the door to new ways of looking at the fine line between pleasure and pain.

Of Mice and Men

Scientists at the University of Heidelberg used test participants (mice) as a gage to assess how running affects the body, the brain and perception of pain all of which are important to a runner’s ability to increase endurance and performance. What they found in part, debunks old theory.

The mice were each given a running wheel. After using the wheel, pain and anxiety levels dropped. This aligns with research on how endorphins respond to extended periods of exercise. But upon review and subsequent follow up studies, it wasn’t the endorphins that were at the root of the process.

Endocannabinoids to the Rescue

It turns out that when runners engage in a prolonged, sustained level of activity (consistent heart rate) runner’s high can be realized. But the process doesn’t come from endorphins but due to something humans naturally produce called endocannabinoids. This is what affects our emotional/mental disposition, memory, appetite and pain.

Moreover, when the researchers gave the same mice a drug to block the effects of endocannabinoids, their anxiety levels matched their pre-running state with increases in pain sensitivity.

For the Love of Leptin

Canadian researchers examined how the body would react without STAT₃ a leptin-sensitive protein. Leptin is a hormone known to regulate energy output while reducing hunger and instrumental in maintaining weight. Science does point to a condition known as leptin resistant as a potential cause for obesity and weight gain.

The mice who did not receive the protein ran without the release of dopamine, at a distance nearly twice as far as the mice on the running wheel reaching six kilometers.

Was it the lack of reaching and feeling runner’s high that kept them running farther?

Do People Need a Sense of High to Strive?

endocannabinoid boost

Where’s our sense of satiety? When do we determine when enough is enough? Isn’t this the foundation for addiction when we lose track of healthy boundaries and push beyond the limits of moderation? Perhaps addiction mirrors personal discontent when being content just isn’t good enough anymore.

Success seekers will always push beyond the goals of others already established to reach new heights. Is this just how some people are wired? Maybe even you? Or is this more about how we need something to strive for to keep ourselves in check and focused on being the best we can be?

Exercise Can Get You High

If you were to take a survey of people who admittedly had a drug or alcohol problem in their past, some would tell you that they have an issue in living with excesses. Another common denominator in addiction is the need or craving for a heightened focus or obsession with something.

Former users of heroin, prescription pain pills or alcohol often transfer their addiction for those substances to cannabis. But if the body has its own form of built-in cannabis, endocannabinoids, then how bad could a healthy addiction to exercise be?

I asked an active, long-distance runner Amy Laak, just what a runner’s high feels like and if she enjoys the sport less when the high doesn’t come about.

Feeling High Isn’t a Universal Language

When I first mentioned the notion that a runner’s high was like a marijuana high, Amy laughed. “I don’t like what it feels like to be high on marijuana. But I do like a runner’s high. I only get it when I run 15 miles or more but it doesn’t happen all the time. And the high is more about me having a good run, one I feel good about.” She explains the feeling further.

“it’s not like a buzz but this overwhelming sense of euphoria that hits all my emotions at once. It isn’t that I’m pain free but more like my mind just isn’t focused on the pain. After a marathon, I’ve got that high for two days after but boy my legs hurt!”

Amy did add that she enjoys yoga as well and the sensation she gets from yoga is like floating, more akin to a cannabis high. She mentioned that she has bouts of anxiety and that running and yoga help her with it – common knowledge as to the benefits of mindfulness practices.

Discover How Human Connectivity and Mindfulness Generate a Natural High, Here

Melanie SternAuthored by Melanie Stern, Content Director for Scottsdale Recovery Center, Arizona Addiction Recovery Centers and Cohn Media, LLC. Writer and broadcaster covering the following industries: addiction rehab, health care, entertainment, technology and advocate of clear communication, positivity and humanity at its best.