2 December 2021

Exercise creates ‘cannabis’ that alters gut microbiome

Clinical Drugs Exercise Rheumatology

This type of runner's high could help treat inflammatory diseases, heart disease and cancer.


Exercise boosts the body’s natural cannabis-like substances to reduce pain and inflammation, according to new research.

The findings put a healthy spin on the notion of a “runners high” and could potentially help treat inflammatory diseases, heart disease and cancer, said researchers.

The small British study, published in Gut Microbes, found that exercise created endocannabinoids that were responsible for at least a third of the gut’s anti-inflammatory effects. Endocannabinoids shifted the gut microbiome in a way that boosted certain bacteria responsible for reducing inflammation.

Researchers divided 78 patients with knee osteoarthritis into two groups: one that did 15 minutes of strength exercises daily for six weeks and a no-exercise control group. They also collected baseline data from a cross-sectional cohort of healthy individuals.

Blood tests from all groups were assessed for pro- and anti-inflammatory markers and genomic sequencing was conducted on stool samples to map the gut microbiome composition.

They found that patients who exercised reported less pain and had lower inflammation markers than the control group.

Those who exercised had higher levels of circulating endocannabinoids, and these were strongly tied to a greater abundance of short-chain fatty acids. The researchers found that one third of the anti-inflammatory effects of these fatty acids could be attributed to endocannabinoids.

People who had higher levels of endocannabinoids also had a greater diversity and abundance of healthy gut bacteria and a reduction in pro-inflammatory Collinsella bacteria.

“Our study clearly shows that exercise increases the body’s own cannabis-type substances. Which can have a positive impact on many conditions,” said lead author Dr Amrita Vijay, from the University of Nottingham, in a statement.

Interest in the health benefits of medicinal cannabis has ramped up in recent years, as researchers have investigated its possible benefits on conditions such as insomnia, inflammatory disease, pain and endometriosis.

 “As interest in cannabidiol oil and other supplements increases, it is important to know that simple lifestyle interventions like exercise can modulate endocannabinoids.”

Gut Microbes 2021, online 17 November