Behind the “Runner’s High”: a Systematic Review on the Effects of Exercise on the Endocannabinoid System

Shreya Desai, Breanna Borg, and Hilary Marusak, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, Wayne State University, Tolan Park Medical Building 3901 Chrysler Service Drive, Suite 2B Detroit, MI 48201

The endocannabinoid (eCB) system plays a key role in maintaining homeostasis and disruptions in eCB signaling have been linked to obesity, anxiety, and depression. Pharmacological interventions that boost or mimic the effects of eCBs have been shown to have anxiolytic and analgesic effects. Emerging data suggest that behavioral interventions, such as physical exercise, may also boost circulating eCB levels. Indeed, the classic “runner’s high” - the sense of wellbeing and mood elevation felt after exercise - is thought to be due, in part, to increasing eCB levels. We conducted a PubMed search to identify original research articles published prior to 9/10/2020 that examined the impact of exercise on circulating eCB levels. Twenty-nine articles were included in the final review. Twenty of the 29 studies included humans (n=12 healthy; n=8 patients with pre-existing conditions) and 10 studies included animals (1 study included both humans and animals). Eighteen of the 29 studies examined acute effects (i.e., a single bout) of exercise and 11 examined chronic effects (i.e., exercise program). All 29 studies reported levels of the eCB anandamide (AEA), and 83% of studies (n=24) reported an increase in AEA following exercise. One study reported no change in AEA levels and four studies reported a decrease in AEA after exercise. In addition, 86% of studies (n=25) examined other eCBs, such as 2-AG; however, the results were inconsistent. The reviewed studies indicate a consistent increase in circulating AEA levels following acute exercise. Given that elevated eCB levels are linked to improved mood, reduced pain, and neuroprotection, increases in eCB levels may underlie some of the long-term beneficial effects of exercise on “brain health”. Interestingly, four studies reported a decrease in baseline AEA levels following longer-term aerobic exercise programs (e.g., treadmill running), suggesting a modulation of baseline eCB system functioning that warrants further study.


Additional Abstract Information

Presenter: Shreya Desai

Institution: Wayne State University

Type: Oral

Subject: Exercise Science & Nutrition

Status: Approved

Time and Location

Session: Oral 3
Date/Time: Mon 4:30pm-5:30pm
Session Number: 321
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