Are Workout ‘Highs’ Real? Study Finds Cannabis-Like Substances Released After Exercise

  • New research finds that exercise can stimulate microbes in our guts.
  • These microbes can produce pain- and inflammation-relieving substances called endocannabinoids.
  • It’s important to talk with your doctor before starting an exercise regimen, especially after a recent injury or if you have cardiovascular disease.

New research finds that exercising can increase production of our body’s own cannabis-like substances, which reduce inflammation and could potentially help prevent conditions like arthritis, heart disease, and even cancer.

The study, published in the journal Gut Microbes, found that people with arthritis not only experienced reduced pain, but also lowered levels of inflammatory markers called cytokines and increased levels of endocannabinoids, which are substances naturally produced by gut microbes in our microbiomes.

“The microbiome plays a key role in many bodily functions, such as digestion and the immune system,” Elena A. Ivanina, DO, director of neurogastroenterology and motility at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told Healthline.

Only 15 minutes of exercise per day for significant pain relief

For the study, a research team from the University of Nottingham School of Medicine in the United Kingdom recruited 78 people with knee arthritis.

Thirty-eight participants performed 15 minutes of muscle-strengthening exercises every day for 6 weeks, while the other 40 did nothing.

Researchers found that those who exercised not only reduced their pain, but also had more of a type of microbe in their guts that produces anti-inflammatory substances.

The participants also had lower levels of cytokines (an indicator of inflammation) and higher endocannabinoid levels.

According to researchers, at least one-third of the anti-inflammatory effect of the gut microbiome was due to the increased endocannabinoids.

“Endocannabinoids are naturally occurring neurotransmitters that are produced in the body,” explained Peter C. Lascarides, DO, attending physician in pain management at Northwell Health’s Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, New York.

He added that these substances are “tied” to various functions and influence things like mood, energy, memory, appetite, and pain levels.

Amrita Vijay, PhD, a research fellow at the University of Nottingham School of Medicine and first author of the paper, admitted she was surprised by the findings.

“The findings are novel as we may have found a key link between how substances produced by gut microbes interact with the substances produced by our own bodies which tell us how physical exercise reduces inflammation,” she told Healthline in an emailed statement.

According to Vijay, the findings from this study highlight that lifestyle interventions like exercise can influence endocannabinoid production.

“This is a timely discovery, especially in the time when there is increasing interest around the use of cannabidiol and other related supplements in reducing levels of inflammation,” she said.

Looking at how to lower inflammation in the body may be key in improving multiple health systems.

Lascarides noted that inflammation is a natural part of the body’s defense mechanism. But when inflammation becomes chronic, it can lead to disease and disability.

“The effects of chronic inflammation can lead to conditions such as fatigue, pain, mood disturbance, as well as gastrointestinal and immune system disruption,” he said.

According to Ivanina, the microbiome plays a critical role in the training and development of major components of our innate and adaptive immune system.

“In addition, the microbiome can make certain vitamins and amino acids, including the B vitamins and vitamin K,” she explained.

However, it’s a delicate system. What we put in our bodies can easily disrupt it.

“Antibiotics are very disruptive to the microbiome and its function,” Ivanina said. “In addition, alcohol, smoking, stress, not sleeping, not exercising, and lack of fiber and prebiotics in the diet all disturb the microbiome.”