In 2008, German researchers finally proved that running releases endorphins in the body—and human beings are programmed to love endorphins. As a natural opiate, they act as painkillers, intuitively treating our worn bodies when we’re in need. In another study, active mice were found to have less anxiety and a higher tolerance for pain than inactive mice. Running has also been shown to trigger endocannabanoids in the brain, which can make a positive impact on a person’s appetite, energy, metabolism, stress and sleep.
These aren’t the only benefits of exercise—when we work out, we subject our bodies to stress. As a result, our brains release a protein to protect and repair itself. So, instead of feeling the physical strain, we feel a pleasant sense of relaxation.
Our brains create these chemicals to reward us for behaviors that we otherwise may not enjoy, and human beings have been genetically built this way, going all the way back to the cavemen. In those days, it was necessary for survival; we needed to run to catch food or to escape danger, and that’s not going to happen if doing so feels physically unbearable. Life is much easier these days, but we still get to reap the added benefits of our biology, without the added dangers.
The Science Behind Feeling “High”
Together, these good feelings are better known as a “natural high.” But there’s another way to attain this kind of gratification—one that’s unnatural, unpredictable, and unsafe: with narcotics, or a drug high. Morphine, heroin and other painkillers mimic the effects of endorphins, while the THC in marijuana imitates your organic ethnocannaboids. Plenty of other drugs play with our brain’s systems, too, amplifying whatever satisfaction a person could get from their own endorphins. And unfortunately, for some people, this synthetic high is much more desirable.
Is it easier to attain a natural high or a drug high? The answer depends on who you ask. It’s less difficult to track down a gym, a sports league, or a decent pair of running shoes than it is to find a prescription or a dealer. After that, all it takes is 45 minutes or so of just-demanding-enough exercise to improve your mood. But some people aren’t willing to put in that kind of work. Instead, they’d rather make a purchase and inject, smoke, snort, or swallow to get on an equal level. It’s instant gratification and, for some, that’s more important than the damage it causes.
Regardless of the method, the high works mostly the same: Your brain is deluged with dopamine. This creates a sense of euphoria that anyone would find pleasurable.
Problems With Chasing Any High
Oddly enough, this isn’t the only thing that natural and drug highs have in common. For example, let’s say you decide to start training for a marathon. During your first few weeks, you’ll feel an incredible rush—but it will start to wane the more time you put in. The same is true when you start using drugs; nothing will compare to that very first high, but addicts will do anything to come close. In both instances, when we start getting added dopamine in our systems, our brains compensate by producing less of it and by reducing our ability to absorb it. Consequently, it’s impossible to replicate those early highs.
And that causes new problems, like depression and potentially addiction. This is an important fact that many people may not realize: the natural high is just as addictive as a drug high, which can be a great thing, but there can also be negative consequences including withdrawal should you choose to quit or cut back.
Both types of addiction can also lead to overdose. In a drug overdose, there is so much of a drug in a person’s system that their liver is no longer able to metabolize it, and their body can’t protect itself from the dangerous side effects. That means fever, tremors, and nausea, or the results can even be fatal. Meanwhile, when you overdose on exercise, you are doing serious damage to your heart and its rhythm, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. It may take more time to hit that mark than a drug overdose, but it can still have similar lethal consequences.
Finding Health and Balance
While there are some surprising similarities between a natural high and a drug high, there’s no question which one is worth seeking. Though attaining a natural high can sometimes have its drawbacks, it’s still infinitely safer than a drug high. There’s a lot more to gain with a natural high—you’ll lose weight, build muscle, maybe you’ll even win a race. With a drug high, you’ll only lose, and the deeper you get, the more likely you are to irreversibly harm your personal and professional relationships, drain your finances, and put your health at serious risk.
In fact, there’s a special added bonus to the natural high: people who chase it are less likely to get addicted to drugs in the first place. For this reason, exercise regimens have been incorporated into many treatment programs. Relying on any single thing to produce a feeling, that will be a consistent attempt to escape reality, can be dangerous. With balance in mind, though, natural highs can add healthy joy and pleasure to life—and help people in recovery to stay sober at the same time.