Running Addictions: Are They Possible?

If there's a runner's high, is there also a runner's low?  Can running lead to addiction similar to drug addiction?  A new study says, "yes," but researchers say runner's high is a good thing for most people and may even lead to treatment options for heroin and opiate addicts.  The downside, however, is that "addicted" runners who don't get their daily fix may experience withdrawal symptoms that affect their sense of wellbeing. 

What causes a runner's high?  The sense of elation and euphoria some runners experience as the result of a long run has long been recognized as caused by endorphin release-our body's natural "feel good" chemical.  The pituitary gland and hypothalamus release endorphins during long runs after the body has used up all its glycogen stores.  This is what keeps runners running instead of hitting a wall. It's also what makes runners feel like they have to keep running.

Researchers at Tufts University may now have confirmed this addiction by showing that an intense running regimen in rats can release brain chemicals that mimic the same sense of euphoria and pain-relieving state as opiate use.

But what if they don't run?  Do they experience the same withdrawal symptoms as drug abusers?  A team led by Robin Kanarek, professor of psychology at Tufts University, wondered whether they could produce similar withdrawal symptoms, which would indicate that intense running and opiate abuse have a similar biochemical effect.

In the study, 40 male rats and 44 female rats were divided into four groups. One group was housed inside an exercise wheel, another group housed without one.  These groups were again divided into two groups-one allowed access to food only one hour per day, the other had access 24-hours per day.  After several weeks in their environments/groups, all rats were given Naloxone (a drug given to counteract an opiate overdose and produce immediate withdrawal symptoms).  Then they watched the rats to see who had the most withdrawal symptoms.

The rats who lived within the exercise wheel (active rats) displayed a significantly higher level of withdrawal symptoms than those who didn't exercise.  The active rats with limited food intact showed the most intense reaction to Naloxone.  These study results are similar to actions of people with anorexia athletica (an obsession with weight and exercise to lose weight). 

Researchers say that more studies on humans and the effects of exercise and exercise withdrawal symptoms are necessary before making any conclusive connections. They hope to use these results to design treatment programs for heroin and morphine addicts that substitute the all-natural high of exercise in place of the drugs.

Does that mean that all long distance runner's are at risk for addiction?  Kanarek says, "Moderation seems to be the key. Exercise, as long as it doesn't interfere with other aspects of one's life, is a good thing with respect to both physical and mental health."