For high-level athletes, and those of us who strive to reach such heights, the search for performance-enhancing substances is eternal and challenging. Supplements have to conform to anti-doping laws, be safe, and preferably natural.
Enter CBD, or cannabidiol. CBD is currently creating ripples among athletes, who claim benefits as varied as accelerated recovery from injury, sounder sleep, and reduced muscle pain.
Although many organizations regard cannabis’ other main cannabinoid, THC, an illicit substance, the World Anti-Doping Agency permits 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.
But is the power of CBD just hype? Is there substantial evidence that CBD can offer athletes that elusive edge? Or are these claims simply PR spin for a trending cannabinoid?
What do studies say about CBD?
According to recent research released in 2020, CBD may support athletes in many ways.
Reduced inflammation and pain
A 2020 review published in Sports Medicine analyzed preclinical animal studies and clinical CBD trials in non-athlete populations. The authors found that CBD may promote physiological, biochemical, and psychological effects potentially beneficial to athletes.
One of the key findings 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 workouts can provoke inflammation and irritation in peripheral nerves.
Protection against gastrointestinal damage
The above Sports Medicine study also found that CBD may protect against gastrointestinal damage. Athletes who regularly engage in strenuous activity can reduce oxygen and nutrient delivery to their gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
GI stress can negatively influence exercise performance and recovery due to nausea, vomiting, and impaired nutritional uptake. Preclinical research has shown that CBD can reduce tissue damage and restore the permeability of the intestine.
The above authors additionally provided evidence that CBD may support healthy bone deposition and help heal fractures. Healthy bones are essential for athletes, and bone health is sometimes compromised by traumatic injuries or inadequate energy availability.
Management of sports performance anxiety
CBD may also help athletes manage sports performance anxiety, according to the Sports Medicine review. Anxiety before a competition can cause sleep loss, increase energy expenditure, and impair nutritional intake.
According to the authors of the review, studies in non-athlete human populations have indicated that CBD may relieve anxiety in stressful situations. CBD could even be more effective when teamed with psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapies.
Neuroprotective qualities to protect against brain injury
Another 2020 study, published in Pharmacological Research, also weighed the validity and applicability of existing CBD research for athletes. These authors emerged with similar conclusions but with a slightly different emphasis.
CBD’s neuroprotective properties were singled out for their potential to counteract harm that can occur following 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 authors of the study emphasize recent research in an animal model demonstrating that CBD oil could help treat pain, aggression, and depression linked to mild traumatic brain injury. CBD oil also helped to counteract neuronal damage in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The cannabinoid additionally inhibits oxidative stress and neuroinflammation, conferring further neuroprotective benefits.
These are promising findings as there are currently no effective pharmacological therapies available to manage mild traumatic brain injury. Repetitive traumatic brain injury, which can be common in contact sports, may also lead to chronic neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Sleep and wake cycles
The 2020 Pharmacological Research study also underlined the sleep-altering potential of CBD. Research in animal models has discovered that CBD may be both a sleep-inducing agent and a wake-promoting agent. This ability to produce opposite effects—known as biphasic effects—depends on the dose being used and seems to work most successfully when the natural sleep-wake rhythm has been disturbed.
Lower doses of CBD seem to promote wakefulness, while higher doses appear to sedate and usher in sleep. Both properties may be beneficial: While the quest for a solid night’s sleep is invaluable before a big game, staying awake could also be performance-enhancing for athletes competing in ultra-marathons or endurance events.
But do any of these advantages come at a cost to performance on the field? Enhanced recovery and sound sleep may sound attractive, but not if they mean compromised balance or coordination.
According to the Sports Medicine study, however, the answer is no. The researchers assessed clinical trials investigating the impact of CBD on cognitive and psychomotor function and found that current data suggests CBD is unlikely to negatively impact either in 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. Burns cautions nonetheless that current knowledge is limited, because most data is based on animal studies where animals tend to receive high doses of CBD.
“There is much to learn about translating dosing from animals to humans,” she said. That being said, the potential benefits are abundant, especially when it comes to treating and reducing inflammation.
“CBD can help athletes with recovery by reducing inflammation and aiding in muscle relaxation,” said Burns. “It’s an anti-inflammatory that works by reducing pro-inflammatory markers in the body. There’s also research showing that CBD is effective in combating neuroinflammation, making CBD interesting for athletes who play sports like football or boxing where concussions are common.”
For athletes curious to experiment with CBD, Burns advises opting for sublingual tinctures.
“I think drops administered sublingually should be the preferred method. This way CBD gets into your system quicker and has higher bioavailability so that dose can be reduced.”
For Stu Kam, jiu-jitsu athlete and owner of ATH Organics, CBD gummies represent a non-negotiable part of his supplemental regime.
“As a Brazilian jiu-jitsu athlete and competitor, CBD has been a staple in my training regimen to help with my recovery and specifically my rest,” said Kam.
He continued: “Every night I take 25mg of CBD gummies to help me sleep after training. Prior to using CBD, I’d have a hard time falling asleep after training, which ultimately led to poor recovery. Since taking CBD, I’ve noticed a much deeper sleep and the ability to train at my full potential the next day.”
The final word
As is often the case with cannabis research, more data on human populations is needed for more conclusive outcomes. The authors of both the Sports Medicine and Pharmacological Research studies emphasize the preliminary nature of their findings. While the current data is very promising, clinical research in athlete populations will provide more definitive insights into CBD’s utility.
Fortunately, it looks like such research initiatives are already getting underway. In 2019, Aurora Cannabis teamed up with the UFC to develop clinical research on CBD, athlete wellness, and recovery, and other research is sure to come. Expect to see more studies unfolding in this space in the near future.