For high-level athletes and those of us who strive to be high-level athletes, the search for performance-enhancing substances is endless and demanding. Supplements must comply with anti-doping laws, be safe, and preferably natural.
Enter CBD or cannabidiol. CBD is currently making waves among athletes who claim benefits as diverse as accelerated recovery from injury, improved sleep, and reduced muscle soreness.
Although many organizations consider the other major cannabinoid in hemp, THC, to be an illegal substance, the World Anti-Doping Agency allows the use of pure CBD isolate. CBD is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid with anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, anti-anxiety, and analgesic properties and could represent a legal game-changing supplement.
CBD-focused products for both recreational and elite athletes, such as cbdMD and fourfivecbd, have already been embraced by athletes across various codes.
But is the power of CBD just hype? Is there substantial evidence that CBD can offer athletes an elusive edge? Or are these claims simply marketing for a trendy cannabinoid?
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What do the studies say about CBD?
According to recent research released in 2020, CBD can support athletes in many ways.
Reduction of inflammation and pain
A review published in Sports Medicine in 2020 analyzed preclinical animal studies and clinical studies of CBD in non-athletes. The authors found that CBD may support physiological, biochemical, and psychological effects potentially beneficial for athletes.
One key finding of the review is that CBD could help alleviate inflammatory pain associated with tissue damage and neuropathic pain caused by nerve damage or irritation. This could signal an important advantage for endurance athletes: repetitive long-distance training can induce inflammation and peripheral nerve irritation.
Protection against gastrointestinal tract damage
The aforementioned sports medicine study also found that CBD may protect against gastrointestinal (GI) tract damage. Athletes engaged in regular intense activities may reduce oxygen and nutrient delivery to their gastrointestinal tract.
GI stress can negatively impact performance and recovery due to nausea, vomiting, and impaired nutrient intake. Preclinical research has shown that CBD can reduce tissue damage and restore gut permeability.
In addition, the above authors have provided evidence that CBD can promote healthy bone deposition and aid in fracture healing. Healthy bones are essential for athletes, and bone health is sometimes compromised by traumatic injuries or lack of energy.
Managing sports performance anxiety
CBD can also help athletes manage sports performance anxiety, according to a Sports Medicine review. Pre-competition anxiety can cause sleep loss, increase energy expenditure and impair nutrient intake.
According to the authors of the review, studies in non-sporting human populations have shown that CBD can alleviate anxiety in stressful situations. CBD could be even more effective when combined with psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapies.
Neuroprotective properties for protection against brain injury
Another 2020 study published in Pharmacological Research also considered the validity and applicability of existing CBD research for athletes. These authors came up with similar conclusions, but with a slightly different emphasis.
The neuroprotective properties of CBD were selected for their potential to counteract the damage that can occur after a sports-related concussion. These concussions are considered a variation of mild traumatic brain injury and can lead to harmful long-term complications such as neuronal damage.
The study authors highlight recent research in an animal model showing that CBD oil could help treat pain, aggression and depression associated with mild traumatic brain injury. CBD oil also helped counteract damage to neurons in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. In addition, the cannabinoid inhibits oxidative stress and neuroinflammation, providing additional neuroprotective benefits.
These are promising findings because there are currently no effective pharmacological therapies available for the management of mild traumatic brain injury. Repeated traumatic brain injury, which can be common in contact sports, can also lead to chronic neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Sleep and wake cycles
A 2020 Pharmacological Research study also highlighted the potential of CBD to alter sleep. Research in animal models has found that CBD can be both a sleep-inducing and wake-promoting substance. This ability to produce opposite effects – known as biphasic effects – depends on the dose used and seems to work most successfully when the natural rhythm of sleep and wakefulness is disrupted.
Lower doses of CBD seem to promote alertness, while higher doses seem to have a calming effect and induce sleep. Both properties can be beneficial: While the pursuit of a solid night’s sleep is invaluable before the big game, staying awake can also be a performance-boost for athletes competing in ultramarathons or endurance races.
But are any of these benefits worth the price of on-field performance? Better recovery and sound sleep may sound appealing, but not if they mean impaired balance or coordination.
But according to a study by Sports Medicine, the answer is no. Researchers have evaluated clinical studies examining the effect of CBD on cognitive and psychomotor function and found that the current data suggest that CBD is unlikely to have a negative impact on healthy individuals.
What do experts and athletes say about CBD?
For Dr. Elaine Burns, medical director of Southwest Medical Marijuana Physicians Group and founder of Dr. Burns’ ReLeaf CBD products , CBD holds promise for athletes. However, Burns cautions that current knowledge is limited because most of the data is based on animal studies, where animals tend to receive high doses of CBD.
“There’s a lot to learn about transferring dosing from animals to humans,” she said. That being said, the potential benefits are plentiful, especially when it comes to treating and reducing inflammation.
“CBD can help athletes with recovery by reducing inflammation and aiding muscle relaxation,” Burns said. “It is an anti-inflammatory agent that works by reducing pro-inflammatory markers in the body. There is also research that shows CBD is effective in fighting neuroinflammation, which makes CBD of interest to athletes who play sports like football or boxing where concussions are common.
For athletes who want to experiment with CBD, Burns recommends opting for sublingual tinctures.
“I think the preferred method should be drops administered sublingually. This way the CBD gets into your system faster and has a higher bioavailability so the dose can be reduced.
For Stu Kam, jiu-jitsu athlete and owner of ATH Organics , CBD gummies are an undeniable part of his supplement regimen.
“As a Brazilian athlete and jiu-jitsu competitor, CBD is a staple in my training regimen to help with recovery and specifically rest,” Kam said.
He continued, “I take 25 mg of CBD gum every night to help me sleep after my workout. Before using CBD, I had a hard time falling asleep after a workout, which eventually led to poor recovery. Since taking CBD, I have noticed much deeper sleep and the ability to train to my full potential the next day.”
The Last Word
As is often the case in cannabis research, more data on the human population is needed for more conclusive results. The authors of the Sports Medicine and Pharmacological Research studies emphasise the preliminary nature of their findings. While the current data are very promising, clinical research in the athlete population will provide definitive insight into the utility of CBD.
Fortunately, it seems that such research initiatives are already underway. In 2019, Aurora Cannabis has teamed up with UFC , to develop clinical research on CBD, athlete health and recovery, and more research is sure to come. Expect more studies to unfold in this space in the near future.