Northside Hospital - Runner’s High – Endorphins & Running

Runner’s High – Endorphins & Running

By Dr. Joseph Powers

To understand runner’s high we need to start in an unlikely spot… the poppy plant.

As early as 3,400 B.C. the opium poppy was cultivated in lower Mesopotamia and was referred to by the Sumerians as hul gil, or “the plant of joy.” Opium, a resinous secretion obtained from the poppy plant, has long been known to relieve pain and for millennia has been used to treat variety of conditions. In the early 1800s, Friedrich Serturner, a pharmacist assistant, isolated a compound from opium that was noted to be 10 times more potent than opium itself. Named after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, Serturner called his discovery morphine.

Morphine, and other opiates, stimulate specific receptors in our brains to control pain and produce pleasurable effects. But why would our brain have receptors that respond to the secretions of a poppy plant?

Researchers asking this same question surmised there must be something produced by our own bodies that effects these receptors and the interaction produced by opium must just be a coincidence. In the 1970s Dr. Hans Kosterlitz identified these naturally occurring molecules produced by our pituitary glands. Researchers called these molecules endorphins, derived from “endogenous morphine,” meaning internally produced morphine. This name gives a good idea of what endorphins do for us— their release causes pain relief and a sense of well-being.

Endorphins are released for a variety of reasons and in response to a wide variety of stimuli. Not only associated with pain relief, endorphins are responsible for the pleasurable feelings associated with other activities like eating, drinking, sex and exercise. Given their wide ranging effects on our bodies, since the 1970s there has been increased research directed at endorphins, their receptors, and medications that may mimic their effects.

The running boom of the 1970s coincided with the discovery of endorphins. There was thought that perhaps the anecdotal reports of euphoria and analgesia some long-distance runners described may be related to these newly discovered molecules. As research has progressed, there has been conflicting results.

In 2008, German researchers scanned the brains of athletes before and after a two-hour run. They noted after exercise, in certain portions of the brain important for mood and emotion, receptors were more likely to have been bound by endorphins. More recently, other researchers have suggested that different naturally produced molecules, endocannabinoids (think the same receptors targeted by cannabis) may play a role. Regardless of the exact mechanism, the body’s response to prolonged exercise appears to be real.

Dr. Joseph Powers is a fellowship-trained, board-certified sports medicine physician at Northside Hospital, specializing in non-operative orthopedics and sports medicine. Visit for more information.


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