Current medical research shows how the mental habits of exercise addiction can lead to a phenomena known as "athlete's heart," the official medical term referring to both the natural and pathological enlargement of the heart of someone who engages in strenuous exercise over a long period of time. The good news is that “athlete’s heart” is not the inevitable consequence of training hard. Intensity and rest modifications, effective medicines, and safe supplements are all proven treatments that protect the heart. The information-rich fields of Emotional Physiology and Neurocardiology are also beginning to offer valuable contributions to the conversation.
Although running is an elegantly simple endeavor, understanding the bio-psychological processes of the experience is somewhat more involved. For those new to the term, biopsychology applies biological principles to the study of “physiological, genetic and developmental mechanisms of behavior.” It is also referred to as behavioral neuroscience, psychobiology and biological psychology.
Multiple Aspects of the Runner’s High
Studies help us to better understand the runner’s high, which is commonly associated with feelings of:
For many years, the release of beta-endorphins has been credited with the well-being and elation runners often experience. However, according to research conducted by Fuss, Steinle and their associates in Germany, there is another process in play. The researchers assert that running releases both an opiod (beta-endorphins) and an endocannabinoid (anandamide). Their work is the subject of an abstract published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The findings challenge the traditional hypothesis that “exercise-induced endorphin release is solely responsible for a runner’s high.” They define the runner’s high as an “ephemeral pleasant phenomenon that may be experienced during long-term running.”
According to one of the lead researchers, Johannes Fuss, they surmised that their must be another process involved in the runner’s high because endorphins cannot defeat the barrier between the brain and blood. By contrast, anandamide is lipid-soluble, meaning it can in fact travel from the blood to the brain. The brain’s endocannabinoid system is the same one impacted by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.
First, researchers had one group of mice use a running wheel for five hours while another group remained sedentary. The exercising group later displayed less anxiety than the control group. The team used a dark-to-light box test to measure anxiety. Researchers observed the frequency with which mice dart from a brightly lit area to the dark to hide. The team also measured pain tolerance. When tested, the running mice demonstrated a higher tolerance for pain.
In an article in Chemical and Engineering News, David Raichlen credits the team with moving “the field forward by providing such a complete view of how this key reward system is involved in allowing exercise to improve psychological state and pain sensitivity.” Raichlen is a brain evolution expert at the University of Arizona.
Enhanced Anxiolysis and Analgesia
The researchers demonstrated that the endocannabinoid system is vital to inducing a runner’s high in two ways – inducing acute anxiolysis and analgesia. An anxiolytic is a psychoactive compound that inhibits anxiety. Such compounds occur naturally within the body as well as in prescription medications. Concentrated doses of anxiolytics may even be used treat anxiety disorders. Analgesics reduce pain sensation while maintaining consciousness. For example, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) are non-opioid analgesics, while morphine is an opioid analgesic.
The study concludes that cannabinoid receptors are vital in producing anxiolysis and analgesia – key aspects of the runner’s high. Ultimately, the research team demonstrated “that the endocannabinoid system is crucial for two main aspects of a runner’s high.” Ultimately, the study demonstrated that wheel running increases endocannabinoids while reducing anxiety and pain sensations in mice.
According to the German research team, this is the first study to demonstrate that both endorphins and endocannabinoids contribute to the runner’s high.
I believe that a deeper understanding of the biopsychology of running is intimately connected to better performance. A basic goal always remains – to address specific aspects of the running experience while maintaining a holistic perspective.
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