This piece first appeared in Cannabis Now.
Yoga is a natural high; a purveyor of bliss. The word bliss invokes many emotions — calm, peaceful, centered, happy, etc. It is a state many seek, and one that is sought through multiple paths. Yoga, as one of those paths, has proven for many so successful that the word itself can be considered synonymous with bliss. The practicing yogini or yogi can attest to the euphoric state and even peace of mind that yoga can induce and now new research suggests an intriguing link between this high and endocannabinoids — chemicals in the human body that are, in fact, very similar to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
Scientists believe that the natural highs of yoga arise out of the action of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). Neurotransmitters are endogenous internal chemicals in the body used to transmit information between neurons and cells. Studies have shown a link between practicing yoga and large increases in the amount of GABA present in the body. What’s special about GABA is that it’s the body’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter; meaning it regulates neurotransmitters as well as keeps synapses from over firing and overwhelming the nervous system. It has been called the body’s “natural valium” and is known to calm things down and chill things out. Studies of people with depression and/or anxiety have found evidence of low GABA levels. This increase in GABA during yoga accounts, in part, for the intense wave of calm and stillness of mind experienced by those who practice. Things get even more interesting with yoga’s friend GABA when it comes to its relation to cannabinoids. So what exactly is this link between cannabinoids and the natural high yoga practitioners speak of?
Meet anandamide; a word that comes from the Sanskrit word ananda meaning pleasure or bliss. Anandamide, like GABA, is a neurotransmitter; it is also a cannabinoid very similar to THC. When scientists began to study cannabis use and its effects, they eventually realized there must be natural cannabinoids in our bodies. In order for there to be a reaction to cannabinoids, such as THC, at all, there had to be natural receptors in cells that are specifically created to react with cannabinoids, and if there were natural cannabinoid receptors, there had to be naturally occurring cannabinoids.
This is how anandamide was discovered, along with 2-AG (2-Arachidonoylglycerol) and subsequent research has greatly expanded our knowledge of its workings. Studies have shown exercise greatly increases the production of anandamide. There is even speculation that anandamide is the cause of “runner’s high” — not endorphins as previously thought. The more a person exercises, the more the body releases anandamide. Anandamide, in turn, acts as a messenger molecule to different parts of the body. Like THC and many other cannabinoids, anandamide is an analgesic (pain reliever) and has been evidenced to act as an anxiolytic (anxiety reliever). What’s more, the presence of anandamide also means an influx in the quantity of dopamine being produced. This shows that the body is being rewarded for exercising through increased dopamine, decreased pain, and decreased stress levels.
So during the practice of yoga, the practitioner experiences high levels of anandamide, which has all of the lovely THC reminiscent effects noted above, as well as the calming effects of GABA — and here is where it gets really interesting. Normally, the presence of GABA would mean the slowing down of most synaptic activity, but, because of the added presence of anandamide, there is a particular neurotransmitter that is left unaffected: dopamine. So, while GABA is busy calming the rest of the brain into a relaxed and chilled out state, anandamide allows the dopamine to continue firing away excitedly and actively. All of this together creates an intensely euphoric state, worthy of the name bliss.
Unfortunately, anandamide has a shorter lifespan than THC, so the buzz won’t last long after the exercise has finished. However, new research suggests an even greater benefit to maintaining the body’s production of anandamide through exercise, especially yoga. As the years go by, many factors such as age, stress, and drinking, among others, contribute to the loss of brain cells. However, anandamide, along with other cannabinoids, has been linked to stimulating neurogenesis, or the generation of new brain cells. In the same way, exercise has also been linked to neurogenesis, meaning that the action of exercise along with the added boost of anandamide is critically important for maintaining a healthy brain. Anandamide stimulates brain growth in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, brain organization, and spatial navigation. Furthermore, neurogenesis is connected to an uplifted mood, diminished anxiety, diminished depression, and the sharpening of memory.
Yoga is particularly effective as an aid in combating the aging process because, unlike more conventional Western exercising routines, yoga does not put great stress or strain on the body. Where some exercises can leave joints, ligaments, muscles, and bones feeling the wear of time and use, yoga encourages users to go at their own pace and never surpass the point of comfort. This ensures that by working with one’s body, health can be maintained for longer periods of time. Truly, this is evidenced in the many yoginis and yogis who successfully practice high levels of advanced yoga well into the later years of life, and who thus can attest to yoga’s youthful effects.
Although all the incredible benefits and effects of yoga cannot be reduced down to only chemical processes, understanding the chemistry can add a valuable and enlightening perspective. The age-reversing effects of practicing yoga along with the neurogenerating effects of the anandamide released during said practice, makes yoga a tantalizing choice for those who wish to pursue greater health, mobility, and clarity of mind into their late life. Similarly, the euphoria-inducing effects of the endocannabinoids such as anandamide, the surplus of dopamine, and the relaxing presence of GABA, ensure an uplifting high for all who practice, regardless of age, and an opportunity to capture the state of bliss — the natural way.