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‘Runner’s high’ is no joke — you make your own ‘cannabis’ during exercise, study finds

These “cannabis-like substances” can have a positive impact on some medical conditions.
Treadmill - AP
A new study found physical activity boosts your body’s own “cannabis-like substances” called endocannabinoids that can reduce inflammation and treat certain medical conditions such as arthritis, cancer and heart disease. (Sue Ogrocki | AP)

Exercise can trigger a euphoric feeling in some people called a “runner’s high.” Now, new research gives that phrase a whole new meaning. 

A study found physical activity boosts your body’s own “cannabis-like substances” called endocannabinoids that can reduce inflammation and treat certain medical conditions such as arthritis, cancer and heart disease. 

And with the help of stool and blood samples from 78 study participants, researchers learned exercise is capable of pumping these anti-inflammatory and cannabis-like molecules by altering bacteria in your gut, according to the research published Nov. 17 in the journal Gut Microbes.

Researchers call them “cannabis-like substances” because they behave similarly to the cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant. Endocannabinoids (“endo-” means “within”), however, are naturally produced by your body. 

“Our study clearly shows that exercise increases the body’s own cannabis-type substances. Which can have a positive impact on many conditions,” study first author Dr. Amrita Vijay, a research fellow with the University of Nottingham’s school of medicine in England, said in a news release. “As interest in cannabidiol [CBD] oil and other supplements increases, it is important to know that simple lifestyle interventions like exercise can modulate endocannabinoids.”

Among the 78 study participants — all of whom had painful knee osteoarthritis — 38 performed “15 minutes of muscle strengthening exercises every day for six weeks” while 40 did nothing. All participants were over 45 years old and were compared to a group of healthy adults without arthritis. 

Blood and stool samples revealed the participants who exercised felt relief from their pain and had more specific bacteria in their guts that produce anti-inflammatory substances. They also had lower levels of cytokines — molecules that regulate inflammation.

Active participants had higher levels of endocannabinoids, too, which were responsible for a third of the anti-inflammatory effects found in the gut, the researchers said. These bodily shifts were not found among the inactive, healthy group. 

Endocannabinoids are part of a system that helps regulate metabolism, inflammation, pain control, muscle strength, memory, mood and more with the help of cannabinoids.

There are more than 100 types of cannabinoids that originate from the cannabis plant. The main ones are THC — the psychoactive ingredient that causes people to get high — and cannabidiol, or CBD, which some studies show helps with anxiety, pain and depression.
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