April 2014

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Happy chemicals and the ‘runner’s high’

Have you ever wondered why, when you finally finish a piece of work, go on a long run or even eat your favourite meal, you feel happy? Well it’s all thanks to our brain and the different chemicals it produces. All our feelings of happiness can be pinned down to a rise in the amount of a certain chemical depending on the situation. Scientists have discovered seven molecules that can be attributed to these feelings:

Endorphins [1]

• Release is triggered by pain

• They provide a short feeling of euphoria

• Evolved to allow our ancestors to escape from any predators if they were injured

Serotonin [1]

Serotonin 27feb

• Is released when you feel important

• Its release is linked to food, e.g. in the past when food was scarce to find a supply would make you dominant/important. As finding food is essential to survival serotonin release makes you feel good to prompt you to find food again

Oxytocin [1]

• Known as the ‘bonding molecule’

• Is released if you trust the people you are around

• Is important in cementing relationships e.g. mother-child

GABA [2]

• Anti-anxiety molecule

• Secreted to produce a feeling of calmness

Adrenaline [2]

Bungee Jumping at the Pearl Qatar (5739933159)

• Known as the ‘energy molecule’

• Once secreted it makes you feel ‘alive’ and heightens responses

• Kicks in when you are under stress or do something exhilarating e.g. a bungee jump

• Evolved as part of the fight or flight response

Dopamine [1]

• Secreted when you do something good

• It is known as the ‘reward molecule’ as its secretion brings a feeling of happiness rewarding you for your behaviour and encouraging you to do it again

Endocannabinoids [2]

Anandamid

• ‘Bliss molecule’

• Closely associated with exercise and a ‘runner’s high’

• Most common one is Anandamide


All of these are secreted when we do things that are beneficial to ourselves. It is the bodies’ way of rewarding us, and by generating a good feeling, encourages us to repeat this beneficial behaviour in the future [1]. These ‘happy chemicals’ are only released in short bursts, as if they were present at high levels all the time they would not be as effective [1]. I have chosen to focus on the endocannabinoid group for the rest of my article as they are associated with the runner’s high and this is an interesting phenomenon.

The ‘runner’s high’, that has been linked to the endocannabinoid system, has been described by many as a feeling of pure happiness, and internal harmony where they have boundless energy [3]. The YouTube video below shows a man describing what it felt to him when he experienced a ‘runner’s high’ [4].

Like the other happy chemicals endocannabinoids (Anandamide), are always present in the body but not at high enough levels to have an impact. It’s if you carry out an activity like long periods of exercise, that there is a change in the brain and much more is produced [1]. They are made when the activity you are doing stimulates your neurons in the brain causing the release of calcium ions [5]. It’s the calcium that results in the production of endocannabinoids and their release into the space between neurons, which is called the synapse [5]. Because they are released by neurons and act as small messenger molecules, they are called neurotransmitters [5].

Once they have diffused across the synapse they will bind to their target receptor. This receptor is called CB1 [6]. It is this binding that causes the effects in the body resulting in the feelings of happiness. These receptors are found throughout the body not just in the brain, e.g. in muscles, skin and other organs like the lungs [3]. This means endocannabinoids can diffuse throughout the body having widespread effects. One of the ways in which they exhibit their effects is thought to be through the manipulation of ion concentrations causing the inhibition/stimulation of other molecules [3].

It has also been found that endocannabinoids can work with other neurotransmitters. Like the endocannabinoids, dopamine also binds to specific receptors, these are called D1 and D2 [3]. Endocannabinoids can influence dopamine activity because its CB1 receptors are located nextdoor to D1 and D2. Because of this interaction it is believed endocannabinoids may play as small role in the reward pathway, which is primarily controlled by dopamine [3].

Overall, your feelings of happiness and wellbeing are all generated by your brain producing different chemicals. The balance of these chemicals is important in maintaining mental wellbeing. If you produce too few you may become sad more easily or frequently. But equally if you produce too many, too often you may become resistant to their effects. A healthy balance of these chemicals is needed to remain happy. So maybe the next time you go for a run, or spend time with people you love, see how it makes you feel and know it’s all down to these microscopic molecules on their journey around your body.



References

[1]. ‘Nature gave us four kinds of happiness’ available from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-neurochemical-self/201107/nature-gave-us-four-kinds-happiness. [Accessed 18.03.14].

[2]. ‘The neurochemicals of happiness’ available from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201211/the-neurochemicals-happiness . [Accessed 18.03.14].

[3]. Dietrich. A and McDaniel. WF 2004. ‘Endocannabinoids and exercise’. Br. J. Sports Med. 38(5), 536-541.

[4]. ‘Explaining a runner’s high’- iHealthTube.com available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CV-sioJAJQQ>/a> . [Accessed 21.03.14].

[5]. ‘The human endocannabinoid system’-Robert Weber, available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUEvzNBTPxc . [Accessed 21.03.14].

[6]. Rodríguez de Fonseca. F et al. 2005.’ The endocannabinoid system: physiology and pharmacology’. Alcohol & Alcoholism 40(1), 2-14.

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