The Role Of Endorphins In Long Distance Human Endurance & Evolution

One of the unique physical attributes of humans is the ability to travel for long distances. Special populations outline this ability, such as the high landers of Kenya and Ethiopia, who can out run about 90% of the rest of the humanity. This observation has lead many a discussion over the role nature versus nurture of this phenomenon.

Long-distance runners train in the high-altitude village of Iten, Kenya
Evelyn Hockstein for ESPN.com. Long-distance runners train in the high-altitude village of Iten, Kenya.

So just what is it that rewards us to exercise — Why do we get that “runner’s high” after a long work out? A recently published paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology, lead by anthropologist David A. Raichlen, investigated the blood of humans, dogs and ferrets before and after 30 minutes of exercise. It was observed that an endocannabinoid, or endorphin, named anandamide spiked in humans and dogs, but not in ferrets.

Among the many roles of the anandamide neurotransmitter, the role of it in neural generation of motivation and pleasure in particularly important. In previous studies, anandamide injected directly into the forebrain reward-related brain structure nucleus accumbens enhanced the pleasurable responses of rats. Raichlen writes,

“These results suggest that natural selection may have been motivating higher rather than low-intensity activities in groups of mammals that evolved to engage in these types of aerobic activities.”

A co-author, Greg Gerdeman, adds,

“The experimental results prove that “anandamide-inspired motivation to run was the evolution of an ‘endurance athlete phenotype’ that played a major role in the survival and reproductive success of our Homo sapiens ancestors…”

Raichlen, D., Foster, A., Gerdeman, G., Seillier, A., & Giuffrida, A. (2012). Wired to run: exercise-induced endocannabinoid signaling in humans and cursorial mammals with implications for the ‘runner’s high’ Journal of Experimental Biology, 215 (8), 1331-1336 DOI: 10.1242/jeb.063677

3 thoughts on “The Role Of Endorphins In Long Distance Human Endurance & Evolution

  1. Hi Kambiz

    I originally studied and practiced physiotherapy, then I spent some 30 years in the food industry as chef, food producer ( plant and animal), educator and presenter. After 7 years spent investigating grazer diets and meat flavour I returned to university for my Masters in Environmental Management and Sustainable Agriculture. I was then offered a Ph D scholarship by Australia’s Primary Industries Innovation Centre but declined for family reasons. I am now researching, writing about and presenting at Ideas Festivals the interdepence of fertile soil and its companion plants and animals. Cereals – the ultimate robber plants – are very much in my sights as poor foods and major soil destructors.
    I am currently researching for my book on the anthropology of human food which led me to your site. Running is a pleasure when you are aerobiaclly fit and early hominins were very fit on a lung function basis. They were also helped by skeletal adaptations that made running or jogging easy.
    With regard to the design of the human skeleton and its capacity for distance running you should research the slightly different tendon and ligament insertion points across highly mobile races such as those from Kenya, Ethiopia and those less bipedally mobile such as those from Pacific Island populations. Specifically look at the height of the plantar arch, the ‘spring’ or length of the achilles. We get a great amount of endorphin like pleasure also from springing and jumping which, added to the lung/oxygen efficiency/capacity to keep running for hours helped us cross grasslands, narrow water ways, jump chasms, leap over fallen trees – all activities which we take endorphic pleasure and pride in to this day. It allowed us to be what we still are, hunter gatherers.

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