So one of our readers asked us this question the other day. Is it possible to feel “high” without using drugs?

The feeling of being “high”is caused by the interaction of whichever drug you have taken with neurotransmitter receptors in your brain. If a drug does not interact with these receptors, it does not produce any psychoactive effect. These receptors are only present because they have a matching endogenous compound in the body. As an example, THC (the psychoactive compound in marijuana) interacts with cannabinoid receptors in the brain, specifically receptors that match with the compound anandamide.

It is very possible to feel “high” without using psychoactive drugs. These feelings are caused by a temporary increase or divergence from homeostasis of endogenous neurotransmitters.

Here are some ways an individual may feel “high” from a sober state:

Sleepy young business man

Sleep Deprivation: We’ve all been there; after just one sleepless night, you may feel extra restless, jittery, and perhaps even extra happy. Individuals may even experience hypomania, a state characterized by elation and hyperactivity. Researchers found that just one sleepless night increases dopamine in the striatum and the thalamus.

Runner's High

Runner’s High: Long-distance runners can experience a state of euphoria commonly referred to as the “runner’s high.” Current models predict the “high” is caused by activation of the body’s opioid receptors, the same sites to which drugs like codeine, morphine, and oxycodone bind. Other research suggests the endocannabinoid system may contribute to this state of well being. Perhaps this feeling is a combination of the two systems working synergistically.

Falling in Love

Falling in Love: There’s no feeling quite like being mutually in love with someone. It is no surprise, then, that researchers would try to explain the neurobiological basis of this feeling. In this report, researchers scanned the brains of people in love using fMRI and PET scans to measure levels of various neurotransmitters. They found that the feeling of love is contributed by an increase in hormones vasopressin and oxytocin, which is known for playing central roles in human pair-bonding and (of course) an increase in the levels of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens.


Meditation: Meditation can be described as “a state of profound, deep peace that occurs when the mind is calm and silent.” Such practice is becoming a growing topic of interest in the field of neurological research. One paper found that “With regards to identity state meditative experience was found to produce statistically significant changes in terms of intensity in meaning (P < 0.05), time sense (P < 0.05), joy (P < 0.05), love (P < 0.05) and state of awareness (P < 0.01).” What does this mean? It implies meditation introduces a state of altered consciousness. These experiences may be similar, but distinct, from those caused by psychedelic drugs such as LSD-25 and psilocybin mushrooms.


Deprivation: This includes both sensory deprivation and oxygen deprivation. Sensory deprivation tanks or isolation tanks operate by floating the subject in salt water at body temperature, resulting in a subjective feeling of floating and overall senselessness. Thus, these devices can be used to aid in meditation or as a vehicle for relaxation. This has given way for use as an alternative therapy to treat pain and stress. As far as oxygen deprivation goes, all methods pose some danger to the user and I do not recommend doing it, therefore I will not bother to elaborate.


Flow: Flow, also known as the zone is a mental state in which a person is fully immersed and involved in doing an activity. Individuals can enter this state from performing challenging or attention-grabbing tasks, such as completing a puzzle, solving a difficult math problem, playing video games, etc. The possibilities from which a person can enter this state is endless. In their paper published in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, researchers J. Nakamura and M. Csíkszentmihályi identified six factors as encompassing an experience of flow. Distortion of temporal experience (time dilation), perceiving the experience as rewarding? I would qualify this as being “high.”

In short, the term “high” refers to any altered state of consciousness. In a broader sense such states can also be achieved through exhaustion, pain, heat (sauna, sun, native American sweat lodges), music and dancing (rhythmic beating, drum circles), falling in love, the list goes on. Of course this will vary from person to person. So yes, changes to ones mental state can be made independent of substance use.

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Last Update: April 25, 2016

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