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IT NEVER FAILS THAT ABOUT THREE TO FOUR HOURS INTO A HIKE I GET WHAT I'VE COME TO CALL A "HIKER'S HIGH," WHEN I'M SUDDENLY SEIZED WITH A FIT OF THE GIGGLES. WHAT'S GOING ON?

Illustration of a hiker"The average person might get the idea that you're packing something more than just trail mix for these outings. Ask any endurance athlete, however, and he or she will know what you're talking about. Runners and other athletes frequently report feeling a "high"—a giddy sense of well-being or euphoria—after a sustained workout, and by the mid-1970s, neurologists believed they had found out why. Certain types of physical exertion, they theorized, released endorphins, a newly discovered class of naturally occurring chemicals akin to morphine. The theory more or less held for nearly 20 years, but by the mid-1990s, it was determined that endorphin molecules are in fact too large to pass from the bloodstream to the brain's receptors and therefore cannot be the source of those groovy, post-exercise feelings. "The endorphin hypothesis has completely been trashed," says Arne Dietrich, a doctor specializing in cognitive neuroscience and a competitor in the Ironman triathlon. Dietrich's theory, now widely accepted, is that runner's (or hiker's) high has something to do with elevated levels of anandamide (from ānanda, the Sanskrit word for bliss), a natural chemical, first discovered in 1992, that binds to the brain's cannabinoid receptors. You guessed it—that's the same part of our gray matter that processes THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Last year, Dietrich definitively proved that strenuous, pain-producing exercise actually sends a rush of anandamides right to these receptors. "This explains the main four factors that endurance athletes report: anogesia [absence of pain], sedation, ansiolysis [a reduction of anxiety], and an overall feeling of well-being," says Dietrich. And the giggles? "That's a new one. I'd want to know if they got the munchies, too."



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Do you have a burning travel question that only the world's most dangerous writer, Robert Young Pelton, can answer? E-mail your question to adventure@ngs.org, subject line: Ask Pelton. It could be answered in an upcoming column

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November 2004



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