Sara Bellum
July 26 2012

Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of NIDA, is an avid runner—6 miles a day!

We all know the benefits of physical activity on the body, but as a neuroscientist, Dr. Volkow is also interested in how exercise helps the brain.

Working your body can definitely make you feel good—but can you really get a “high” without drugs?

Doing exercise like running actually stimulates the brain's reward system and releases the same feel-good brain chemicals that drugs do. The best part of “getting high” through exercise is that you avoid the negative health effects of drugs, while also making your body stronger.

What causes this natural high?  Here are a couple theories from research:

Theory 1: Endorphins and Dopamine

The body produces its own kind of opioids—chemicals closely related to the drugs morphine or heroin—called endorphins. Endorphins are produced when we feel excitement or love, or when we eat tasty food. The brain also produces endorphins during intense workouts.

The release of endorphins stimulates the brain's reward system to release dopamine—the brain’s #1 feel-good chemical. Increased dopamine in the brain causes the euphoria people get from drugs and may explain the runner’s high too.

Theory 2: Endocannabinoids

Other research suggests that a different class of chemicals, called cannabinoids, are also released by exercise and may contribute to the runner’s high.

Your body actually makes cannabinoids—called endocannabinoids—that act on the same brain receptors as the THC in marijuana. It’s no surprise then that cannabinoids are associated with the pleasant sensation, reduced anxiety, and pain reduction that marijuana can bring.

The runner’s high might even help people who are addicted to drugs. NIDA is supporting research to find out how exercise and the release of those feel-good brain chemicals might help prevent substance abuse, or even encourage people who do drugs to replace one habit with another—in a good way.

So, does knowing that exercise can make you feel happy make you want to pop in your earbuds and take a run??

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