The complexity of our bodies allows scientists to continue to make discoveries that increase our understanding of why we react to the world the way we do.

Back in the 1970s, it was discovered that our bodies could produce endogenous opiate-like chemicals (endorphins) that made us feel better and tolerate pain more effectively.

It was thought to be involved in the production of the “runner’s high” that is brought on by an intense run or after a lengthy bout of exercise. It is a deeply relaxing and euphoric state that some say makes them feel like they could run forever.

The chemicals released during this phenomenon temporarily elevate mood, reduce stress and anxiety, provide feelings of calm, and shield us from pain. This was believed to be the result of an endorphin rush, but a study published in 2015 discovered that endocannabinoids may also be heavily linked to this feeling of exercise-related ecstasy.

The endogenous cannabinoid system (also known as the endocannabinoid system) was named for the plant cannabis (also known as marijuana) that led to its discovery and is the same system activated by compounds found in cannabis, including cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

While exercising, both endorphins and endocannabinoids are released into the bloodstream. But endocannabinoids are smaller molecules that can cross the blood-brain barrier, which is a system that allows only certain, vital nutrients and substances to reach the brain.

The brain’s endocannabinoid system plays a central role in the control of fear, anxiety and stress. When endocannabinoids stimulate the receptors in that system, it helps to calm us, soothe us, and grant us a general sense of well-being.

Not everyone experiences the sudden, short-lived feeling of energy, accomplishment, optimism, strength, power, or calm while running. But there are some other activities that can trigger endocannabinoids and produce the feeling responsible for a runner’s high without actually running.

Just like endocannabinoids can bridge between the mind and the body, yoga is said to be a mind-body-spirit connection. Some 2020 research found that “inner engineering practices” at a yoga retreat, including meditation and breath work, increased endocannabinoids in the body and showed both short-term and sustained mental-health improvement.

The researchers found through surveys that the participants’ depression and anxiety scores decreased, while focus, happiness, and positive well-being scores increased immediately after the retreat compared to their baseline values. All improvements were reported to last for at least one month afterward.

Stress and anxiety have a negative effect on endocannabinoid levels, so when you slow down and relax your mind and control your breathing, you can boost these levels back up, which positively affects the endocannabinoid system.

If yoga seems like too much work for you, you might try acupuncture, which is a healing practice in traditional Chinese medicine where thin needles are strategically inserted into the body at specific “acupoints.” This activates the body’s opioid system, which can relieve pain and relax the body and mind. Recent research suggests that the endocannabinoid system may also play a role in how acupuncture is able to reduce the sensation of pain.

A 2009 study published in the journal Stroke discovered that electroacupuncture activates receptors in the central nervous system and increases the number of endocannabinoids in the brain, as well as endorphins.

If acupuncture is not a good choice for you, social interaction is another way to stimulate the endocannabinoid system, specifically an endocannabinoid known as anandamide.

It has been suggested that the company of others stimulates the brain to produce oxytocin, which in turn stimulates the production of anandamide. The pleasure that social animals experience when in the company of others seems to require both oxytocin and anandamide.

People who experience a runner’s high say it often happens when they run in a beautiful, meaningful, or relaxing place, and the same goes for other endocannabinoid-inducing activities. The endocannabinoid system thrives in a stress-free environment when worries are nonexistent.

The key ingredients to a euphoric cannabinoid-induced experience seem to be a great environment, engaging in something enjoyable, and doing an activity that is physical. Instead of using marijuana, you might find your way to a natural high.

Dr. Terry Gaff is a physician in northeast Indiana. Contact him at drgaff@kpcmedia.com or on Facebook. To read past columns and to post comments go to kpcnews.com/columnists/terry_gaff.

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