Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of NIDA, is an avid runner—6 miles a day!
We all know the benefits of physical activity on the body, but as a neuroscientist, Dr. Volkow is also interested in how exercise helps the brain.
Working your body can definitely make you feel good—but can you really get a “high” without drugs?
Doing exercise like running actually stimulates the brain's reward system and releases the same feel-good brain chemicals that drugs do. The best part of “getting high” through exercise is that you avoid the negative health effects of drugs, while also making your body stronger.
What causes this natural high? Here are a couple theories from research:
Theory 1: Endorphins and Dopamine
The body produces its own kind of opioids—chemicals closely related to the drugs morphine or heroin—called endorphins. Endorphins are produced when we feel excitement or love, or when we eat tasty food. The brain also produces endorphins during intense workouts.
The release of endorphins stimulates the brain's reward system to release dopamine—the brain’s #1 feel-good chemical. Increased dopamine in the brain causes the euphoria people get from drugs and may explain the runner’s high too.
Theory 2: Endocannabinoids
Other research suggests that a different class of chemicals, called cannabinoids, are also released by exercise and may contribute to the runner’s high.
Your body actually makes cannabinoids—called endocannabinoids—that act on the same brain receptors as the THC in marijuana. It’s no surprise then that cannabinoids are associated with the pleasant sensation, reduced anxiety, and pain reduction that marijuana can bring.
The runner’s high might even help people who are addicted to drugs. NIDA is supporting research to find out how exercise and the release of those feel-good brain chemicals might help prevent substance abuse, or even encourage people who do drugs to replace one habit with another—in a good way.
So, does knowing that exercise can make you feel happy make you want to pop in your earbuds and take a run??
There’ve been lots of headlines lately about the dangers of prescription drug abuse—like taking a friend’s.
From this positron emission tomography (PET) scan, you can see how natural dopamine levels are different in people with and without ADHD. The scan on the left shows the brain of someone without ADHD, and the scan on the right shows the brain of someone with ADHD. The greater concentration of yellow, orange, and red in the nucleus accumbens in the scan on the left reflects a higher amount of dopamine.
BUT—for people who do not have ADHD, stimulants flood the brain with dopamine, causing a dopamine overload. So instead of having a calming effect as they would on people with ADHD, stimulants taken without a medical reason can disrupt brain communication and cause euphoria. It might feel good at first, but repeated abuse of stimulants can:
- Increase blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature.
- Decrease appetite and sleep.
- Cause feelings of hostility and paranoia.
- Increase a person’s risk for addiction.
Doctors take many factors into account when prescribing a drug for a person who needs it: dose size, the person’s weight and height, how long the drug should be taken, and much more. The bottom line is that drugs affect everyone differently. Want to see how abusing Adderall could affect you physically and academically? Choose Your Path.
Imagine this: You're playing basketball; it's the last quarter. In fact, you only have 30 seconds to make the winning shot. You shoot, it soars through the air, you hear the buzzer go off...and then you see the swoosh.
You just won the game for your team. How do you feel?
The answer to that question involves a chemical in your brain, called dopamine—our word of the day. Dopamine delivers important messages between neurons (brain cells). That's why it's called a "neurotransmitter." Dopamine is an especially important neurotransmitter, because it helps to control movement, motivation, emotions, and sensations like pleasure.
Back to the basketball game. After you made that winning basket, dopamine sent "messages" to your neurons to help you feel happy, pumped, and overjoyed that you made that winning shot. Dopamine would also be working away in your teammates' brains as they ran out onto the court to celebrate, and in the brains of the cheering fans jumping up and down in the stands.
But it doesn't stop there. Dopamine is at work all the time, delivering messages to neurons and motivating you to participate in the more basic activities of life, like eating foods you like or spending time with family and friends. How dopamine works in the brain is especially important in teens since teens' brains are still developing. When dopamine levels are affected by drugs like cocaine, it can affect the brain's "wiring," causing important messages to get lost in translation. Messing with dopamine can affect your motivation to go to prom or ability to make that winning basketball shot,—even your ability to feel happiness. And that's why drugs might cost you more than just the basketball game.
For more in-depth resources and other brainy words, check out NIDA's interactive glossary that fuels my "Words of the Day."
A lot of celebrities are making headlines lately for all the wrong reasons. First we hear about tennis star Andre Agassi admitting to meth (a toxic stimulant drug) use when he was on the tennis circuit (what was he thinking?) and now Tiger Woods, with everyone speculating about his personal problems. All of this news has made SBB think a lot about how we make choices in our lives. Why do intelligent, successful people make bad choices when they have so much to lose—even (and maybe especially) superstars?
We look at this question of personal choices and self control a lot at NIDA while we study drug abuse. Initially, taking drugs is a choice. Over time, drug abuse can become a disease we call addiction. But what makes us risk the consequences of making the choice to try drugs? Not everyone becomes addicted to them, but many do, so why do people risk it?
To find answers, scientists are studying the brain chemical called dopamine. Dopamine gives us a feeling of euphoria, a physical surge of pleasure in response to things we enjoy, which are different for different people. From healthy pleasures, like eating a good meal or scoring a goal, to unhealthy ones, like doing drugs or stealing from stores. Once you become addicted to that rush of dopamine it is hard to stop the behavior. And, once you become addicted it is hard to feel pleasure from the simple things in life—like a great piece of music, holding hands with someone you really like, spending a fun day with the family, or having a laugh with friends.
So how do we avoid making bad choices in the first place? SBB suggests focusing on the genuine pleasures in your life. Fill your day with them. Go shopping with your sister, watch a game with friends, join a club at school, see a movie, read a great book…Protect the simple pleasures in your life—and when it comes to drugs, maybe think about what you might lose.
Euphoria: A feeling of well-being or elation.
Euphoria is that excitement you get from getting a perfect score on a test, or attention from someone you have a crush on. It can come from a roller coaster ride or as the rush from a physical activity like downhill skiing, especially the first time. These feelings of euphoria are all healthy and natural.
What's not healthy or natural is taking drugs to feel "euphoric." Drugs of abuse artificially produce euphoria by manipulating your brain chemistry to make it seem that something exciting is happening. To get this feeling again, you may choose to use the drugs again-and again. And that can lead to craving and addiction.
Over time, the brain needs more of the drug to get the same feelings of pleasure. Why? The drug causes surges, like waves, of the brain chemical dopamine, which initially produce the euphoria. After repeated hits, though, the brain adjusts to this higher level of dopamine by making less of it and by reducing the number of receptors that can receive and transmit the signals it sends. Pretty soon, the drug abuser is taking the drug just to bring the dopamine functions back up to normal and to avoid the horrible craving that compels them to seek and use drugs even when their lives and health are falling apart. That is really the essence of addiction.
But the good news is that natural, healthy experiences of euphoria don't wreck the brain's chemistry. So think about what you do in life that makes you feel good. Spending time with friends, playing with your dog, doing sports, seeing a good movie? Any of these activities can create a natural euphoria by triggering the brain's reward system the way it was meant to work.
So don't let drugs fool your brain, and then wreck it.
- Try new fruits and veggies. Add variety to your meals to make eating healthier, fun, and interesting.
- Drink smart. Skip soda and other drinks flavored with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Choose water—make it more exciting by adding a splash of lemon or a few mint leaves.
- Move every day. Walk or bike to your destination. Turn off the TV and go outside.