• Bronwyn Tagg

CBD for athletes: the benefits, research and effects of this ‘trend’

Google searches for Cannabidiol's (or CBD) association with sport roughly began in 2018,

although this ‘sports trend’ seemed to peak in 2020 (UK data), and now appears to be a regularly ‘searched for’ topic. In the USA, CBD consumer sales have been increasing since 2014. In 2018, CBD rocketed past ‘meditation’ as a wellness trend! So we thought we’d do the research for you, gather the intel and the gossip, and put it all together to save our sporting audience the time. With 16% of CBD conversations being related to sports, it is well worth us talking about!

Cannabidiol is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid that comes from Cannabis Savita, and has always drawn in scientific interest due to its therapeutic effects, including within the sporting society. Despite research being limited in this area of CBD use, multiple benefits of CBD can be identified for athletes.

But before we get into that…

Here are some of the side effects found in a review study:

- Fatigue

- Diarrhea

- Weight changes

- Appetite changes

What are the first steps to taking CBD?

Before you take CBD, it’s important to be aware of a few things, aside from the possible common side effects.

1. You should see medical advice from your doctor before trying it.

2. CBD may interact with other medications or an existing medical condition – another reason to seek medical advice.

3. Start with a low dose – get comfortable with its effects first.

4. To begin with, don’t use it before a training session or competition.

5. CBD oil, although the most common, isn’t the only way to administer CBD into your body; there are option of capsules, coffees, pre-workout drinks and muscle balms.

The basic science

We know that cannabinoids already exist in your body. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) in your body modulates and regulates the activity of neurons. CBD is not psychoactive, however it does bind to the receptors in your nervous system which can stop the release of certain neurotransmitters – basically it reduces ‘activity’ in your body and can help your body maintain its balance.

The graph below shows a useful infographic regarding the physical and mental use of CBD in different sectors (USA data).

The benefits of taking CBD

Note: there isn’t a whole lot of research out there specifically on the effects of CBD on athletes, therefore some of these benefits require more evidence.

1. Pain relief

Studies have shown that THC (not really CBD) is effective at reducing pain as well as stiff joints (Halawa et al, 2018) There is little research into whether CBD alone benefits an athlete in this way; therefore, we are relying on biological plausibility for this one.

2. Alternative to anti-inflammatory drugs

Ultra Distance athletes have been recommended to avoid anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen sodium, despite their existence for decades. These NSAIDs have been speculated to cause renal damage when taken during long training sessions and events. Even if your workouts are short, long-term use of NSAIDS can increase your risk of a heart attack and stroke. Some athletes have found that CBD relieved their pain and can eliminate their uses of NSAIDs, with minimal side effects.

3. Reduces inflammation + speeds up recovery

Whilst some inflammation is good for athletes because it stimulates positive training adaptations, too much inflammation can hinder recover and your progression. CBD has an anti-inflammatory effect by reducing the production of cell messengers (cytokine). Put simply, the CBD helps reduce your immune system’s response after hard workouts.

4. Alternative to Opioids

The most commonly known opioids are morphine and codeine, which are highly effective for pain management but have dangerous side effects of becoming addicted or dying by overdose. CBD may be equally effective at managing long-term pain without these risks. That being said, CBD is far less useful when it comes to relieving acute and high-intensity pain.

5. Settles your gut

Linked to its benefit of reducing inflammation, CBD can also settle your gut. Gut and intestinal discomfort is the leading reason for endurance athletes dropping out of races. CBD can help with underlying inflammation issues that contribute to gut problems both during and post exercise (Nagarkatti, 2009). That being said, if you have gut problems as an athlete, they are more likely due to heat exhaustion and dehydration so make sure these problems are eliminated first.

6. Improves your quality of sleep

If you’ve read our previous blog about the importance of sleep, you’ll know how lack of sleep can be detrimental to your performance. There isn’t too much evidence for this benefit of CBD, but athletes who have taken it do tend to report greater ease in going to sleep and a more restful nights sleep. This could be due to CBD’s ability to reduce brain activity and create a sense of calmness.

7. Strengthens your immune system

Some have suggested this benefit of CBD, which would be helpful in the way that the body is more resilient against stress and infections, but more research needs to be done in this area of CBD usage.

8. Reduces stress and anxiety

Closely linked to the way that CBD may help athletes to sleep, it may also help reduce stress and anxiety by blocking receptors in your nervous system which ultimately reduces the brain’s ‘activity’ and making you feel calmer.

9. Increases endurance

CBD activates and balances the endocannabinoid system in your body, which means your overall endurance and body conditions increases. This is specifically of advantage to endurance athletes.

For sports that have banned THC, is there such a thing as 100% THC-free CBD?

Cannabidiol (CBD) often contains small amounts of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) of about >0.3%. THC is a cannabinoid or active constituent in marijuana CBD that is most known for the component that gets you high. CBD will not get you high despite these small traces of THC because CBD is a non-psychoactive. Both CBD and THC share the same medicinal benefits. Despite this, THC-free CBD is sometimes preferred by individuals, often to provide relief from anxiety disorders, PTSD, and schizophrenia. In terms of athletes, THC-free CBD can prevent an athlete who is drugs tested from being banned from their sport, as THC is often on the prohibited lists, yet CBD is not.

There are three types of CBD on the market. Full spectrum CBD contains all the cannabinoids

naturally found in the cannabis plant, including THC. Broad spectrum CBD contains multiple cannabinoids naturally found in the cannabis plant, however, does not contain THC. Isolate CBD contains no other cannabinoids. Therefore, if you are looking for THC-free CBD you would want to choose either broad spectrum CBD, or isolate CBD.

CBD can be free of THC although it should be noted here that just because the label says Zero THC CBD, does not mean that there are not tiny traces of it in the oil. A company with a COA for their products is a test performed to show the percentage of THC in CBD. This test is done in a third-party lap to reduce bias, testing for a number of heavy metals, chemicals, cannabinoids, terpenes and other compounds. The COA certificate is the only way that a company can guarantee of CBD with no THC in it as it provides empirical unbiased evidence of the percentage.

So yes, there is such thing as 100% THC-free CBD, however this claim should be based on a COA certificate rather than what the company says. THC-free CBD is in fact more common to purchase than full spectrum CBD.

Should you be taking it?

Well, in 2018 CBD was remove from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances, however a significant number of sports organisations ban the use of THC, so do the relevant research for your sport. In terms of the legal implications of taking CBD, check with your local area as they are constantly evolving. Here is the 2021 WADA Prohibited List.

At the end of the day, CBD has been around for 100s of years, as has the evidence that well-structured training, nutrition and sleep lead to improved performance. Therefore, consider getting these fundamentals right first, before hooking onto the latest trend. That’s not to say CBD won’t work for you, but it should be the step taken after you’ve made regular and consistent training improvements.

By Bronwyn

More resources:

Halawa, Omar I., et al. “Role of Cannabinoids in Pain Management.” Essentials of Pain Medicine, 2018, doi:10.1016/b978-0-323-40196-8.00056-5.

Nagarkatti, Prakash, et al. “Cannabinoids as Novel Anti-Inflammatory Drugs.” Future Medicinal Chemistry, vol. 1, no. 7, 2009, pp. 1333–1349., doi:10.4155/fmc.09.93.

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