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Why Athletes Use CBD for Performance and Recovery

March 03, 2021

Why Athletes Use CBD for Performance and Recovery

Any hardcore sports enthusiasts, from the amateur hobbyist to the student athlete to the professional, will tell you that there is no gain without pain. In order to achieve any level of competence in sports, from mixed martial arts (MMA) to soccer to football to the more esoteric worlds of rock climbing or professional sailing, requires long hours of turning grueling drills into muscle memory. For anyone willing to log those hours, the payoff is huge in terms of self-satisfaction and confidence and competence. And in the world of professional sports, the sacrifice leads to big dollar signs and fame. 

For the spectator, the hidden world of endless training gives us a public display of flawless skill and big plays from the best athletes in the world. Their effortless ballet of movement and skill, however, comes at price. 

No one gets out of high-level sports play and training without some injuries, and at the professional level, the injuries are constant, chronic, and cumulative. As professional sports grew in popularity, though, so too did the tragic stories of superstar athletes wrecked by their devotion to perfection. 

In the last few decades, the toll professional sports take on the bodies of athletes has taken center stage in how we talk about sports and the future of all games. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, entered into the zeitgeist in the late aughts and suddenly a deluge of stories of athletes afflicted with brain damage and chronic pain started percolating through the news. 

In 2015, Hollywood made a movie about Dr. Bennet Omalu, a controversial figure who is credited with discovering, or at least exposing, CTE. 

Then the opioid epidemic happened, and the world heard stories of professional athletes being prescribed handfuls of pills to manage their pain so they could keep performing at an elite level. But, that wasn't the only skeleton let out of the closet…

Another open secret in professional sport, especially in the NFL, NBA and MMA, was that many of these athletes had been using another drug, cannabis or marijuana, to manage their pain and stay off opioids. As many enthusiasts and athletes will tell you, marijuana has many positive benefits and side effects without the risk of addiction and death. The catch, here, was that marijuana and its many derivatives were, and still are, considered a schedule one substance by the US government. 

For professional sports, they are considered a performance enhancing drug and banned at all levels of play.

Then came MMA's rebel bad boy, Nate Diaz, openly smoking what appeared to be a joint during a media scrum after his loss to Conor McGregor in 2016. When asked about it, Diaz didn't seem like it was a big deal and "mentioned that CBD helps him with post-fight inflammation and overall recovery." 

That's right, he was smoking a joint but not the kind that can get you high. He blazed up a joint infused with CBD, not THC – the main ingredient in marijuana that gets you high. He said he'd save that kind of joint for when he got home. 

But why would Diaz use CBD if it doesn't get you high? He was smoking it to aid in his recovery. This has an element of truth to it. According to recent research, "several studies showed that cannabinoids downregulate cytokine and chemokine production and, in some models, upregulate T-regulatory cells (Tregs) as a mechanism to suppress inflammatory responses." While the body of research is expanding our understanding of the two most famous compounds in cannabis, THC and CBD, the positive health effects CBD has on the body and mind are still largely anecdotal. 

But, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there and researchers are now adding data to back up the stories. 

Diaz is not the only professional athlete who's been open about his use of CBD, and with the relaxing of state-wide laws around the United States, many states are allowing (legal) adults legal access to medicinal and recreational marijuana. Given the relaxed laws, many of the pros, both current and retired, are coming forward with their miracle stories of what cannabis, especially as it applies to CBD, has done for their recovery from injuries and kicking opiates. 

Wait a minute! What is this stuff and where did it come from?

According to scientists, Cannabis, more commonly known as marijuana or weed, got its start long ago (28 million years to be exact) on a Tibetan plateau and is "a close relative of the common hop found in beer" (maybe that's IPAs are so popular with hipsters), and has a long groovy history throughout the world. For thousands of generations, it has been used by ancient cultures for various purposes, both as a medicinal herb and in religious rituals. 

There's evidence to suggest that the "wonder plant" was used in ceremonies dating back more than 5,000 years ago, but, as far we can directly trace, its first known usage can be traced back to Asia between the 500-400 B.C.E. 

Based on archeological evidence discovered by a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, followers of Zoroastrianism used a particularly potent (at the time) strain of cannabis in burial ceremonies. And, Greek historian Herodotus spoke of "nomadic Scythians [who] made tents and heated rocks in order to inhale hemp vapors that made them 'shout for joy.'"

Well, that is generally what happens for most people who use cannabis. (I wonder what their favorite foods were when they got the munchies?) 

We don't know exactly when early humans first learned of marijuana's psychoactive properties and when they started using it, but it's ubiquity throughout the ancient world, up through the present day, gives testament to its many uses and versatility. 

Flash forward a millennium and some change to the nascent United States, and you'd find colonists growing it. In some of the early US colonies, farmers were required to grow hemp (the less psychoactive sibling of marijuana) and in the mid 19thcentury, an Irish doctor, Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, discovered (perhaps rediscovered?) it's ability to lessen stomach cramps and nausea. By the latter part of the same century, it was widely used by doctors in America and Europe and sold in pharmacies. 

Up until the early-mid 20thcentury, Earth's most famous and far-out plant was welcomed by all. But, through a combination of puritanism, racism, and greed the US government decided to wage a decades long war against pot – a war that has waned considerably since the mid-late 90s.

Breaking down the specifics without breaking the cypher...

Thanks to the hard work of activists, doctors, and stoners everywhere, policy-makers are finally expanding their minds and opening their hearts to the powerful pot leaf. Researchers and enthusiasts alike over the last several years have found new derivatives and uses for cannabis that not even our ancestors could have envisioned. 

Today, more than 150 million people use cannabis in all its various forms, and there are so many different ways to use and consume pot that it will make your head spin – you may need to sit down and chill out, man. 

To make it easy on you, however, there are only two words you need to focus on: tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol – the most widely known active ingredients in marijuana. 

Okay, that might still be a bit much. 

Let's simplify it even further so that your mind doesn't remain too blown. In today's culture of rapidly relaxing laws and puritan standards, for the vast majority of users, marijuana usage breaks down into either THC (the tetrahydrocannabinol), which gets you high, and CBD (the cannabidiol), which doesn't get you high but does so much more. 

What is the difference between CBD and THC? 

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is found in both the plant typically called marijuana (the female) and (the male) hemp plant. While hemp does contain trace amounts of THC (the euphoria compound), it is mostly known for its versatility and strength in making textiles, rope, and even paper. It also contains higher amounts of CBD and is known to be quite healthy. 

CBD is one of 100+ chemical compounds in cannabis that interact with the body's endocannabinoid system – a complex cell-signaling system that regulates sleep, mood, appetite, memory, reproduction and fertility. Unlike THC, CBD is the non psychoactive compound and cannot get you high. 

Allegedly it has many uses, from muscle recovery to helping people sleep to even mitigating a small class of seizures (specifically "Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome"), and is more effective than the current seizure medication without negative side effects. (The disclaimer here is that CBD has limited efficacy against most classes of seizures, and when used to treat a wider class of epileptic seizures, it was no more effective than a placebo.) 

As of 2018, the FDA has only approved one such marijuana-based CBD drug for the treatment of seizures in people from ages 2 and up. Epidiolex, the only approved CBD solution, is used to treat the rarest and more severe forms of epilepsy, mentioned above.

Though we're not concerned with THC-based products, the FDA has approved three, tightly regulated synthetic substances: Marinol, Syndros, and Cesamet. These drugs are used most commonly in cancer treatment, for people suffering from anorexia due to AIDS. So no you can't just go buy them, even with a medical marijuana card, but chances are you don't need to – there are other options out there. 

That said, the FDA has not approved any other medical or recreational CBD or THC products, which means most of all substances you can find online or in a dispensary are not regulated. So, there is no guarantee what is in these products or what the effects are.

The World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) and the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), however, have removed it from its list of banned substances, provided that the amount of THC in the product is miniscule.

That's where we come back to pro athletes and recovering from sports injuries. 

Athletes are on the CBD bandwagon for good reason

You may still be wondering why professional athletes are turning to an unregulated plant and its derivatives to help with recovery and managing pain. 

Athletes point to the fact that it's a natural substance that poses little to no risk for a broad range of people, regardless of their genetics. Other than some very vivid dreaming reported by those taking CBD in higher doses, there are no known side effects (although research is on-going). Whereas conventional medicines, like opioids, have many well-researched negative side effects – from constipation to being highly addictive.

The biggest downside of opioids is that people can develop an addiction to them quickly, and the addiction is both mental and physical. Opioids induce a state of euphoria and positive feelings – a state of mind many users become addicted to but after prolonged use, need higher doses to achieve the same feeling. The high is short-lived, too. 

Physical addiction to opioids is another high-risk inevitability that causes moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms, depending on the current use and dosages. Some of the side effects of heavy or prolonged use include: nausea, vomiting, having a weakened immune system, to coma. Long-term use can also disrupt the brain's ability to produce natural pain killers. 

Even professional athletes, who tend to make the kind of money to support an opioid addiction and shield themselves from the short and medium-term fallout of addiction, as well as having their supply cut off, are not immune from the negative effects of prolonged use. 

It is no wonder that so many professional and hardcore athletes, who used opiates to manage the pain from repeated or extreme injuries, have turned to cannabis and especially CBD. 

What current and former athletes say about CBD? 

Yes, athletes in the NFL and NBA have been using cannabis products to either enhance their game or manage pain for years. 

Many of the people I have talked to, including veterans and those suffering from chronic pain or migraines, have explained to me that cannabis, especially CBD, have not only helped them kick opiates but also manage the pain better. 

Athletes are no different, and like veterans, suffer for injuries and chronic pain more so than your average person. 

Former NHL player, and ruthless enforcer of the league, Ryan VandenBussche stated in a 2019 Men' article, that, “As athletes, we were given opiates by our team doctors. Looking back after years gone by, I’m surprised I’m still alive.” He continues, "I believe in all of the healing properties of this plant so much that I went out and purchased a 64-acre farm and submitted an application to Health Canada back in 2013.” He credits CBD for his recovery.

Another professional athlete, Davide Ahrens, who played in the NFL from 1981-1990, is one of countless pro footballers who over the years was given opioids to manage pain, and has stated in interviews that they "handed them out like candy." He, too, is a staunch CBD advocate after experiencing what it did for him and said, "I don’t need pain meds like I used too. Every day on TV there are commercials advertising the next best drug, and the second half of the commercial is all about possible side effects. Well, I have never heard of a side effect from CBD.

Another former triathlete, Joanna Zeiger, who competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympic games but had a "career-ending bike crash defending her title during the 2009 Ironman 70.3 World Championships" said she began using cannabis after some urging from her husband. She used it to manage severe pain caused by nerve damage from her crash. 

Now in her 50s, she's turned her athletic-like focus to epidemiology and studies cannabis. 

In 2019, she conducted a study (called the Athlete PEACE Survey) of both younger and older athletes and their use of CBD and THC (a total of 1,274 athletes were surveyed; 1161 completed it). The study sought to measure three highly subjective mental/physical states: well-being, calm, and adverse effects. Not surprisingly, younger athletes were more likely to use both THC and CBD recreationally, while athletes over 40 tended to use CBD for medicinal purposes. 

Overall, Zeiger and her team found that "athletes who use a combination of THC and CBD exhibited the most benefit to well-being and calm with minimal adverse effects."

While the facts of CBD and its stoned cousin, THC, still remain elusive, a body of evidence is growing that points towards very positive benefits from using (at least) CBD.

Overwhelmingly, from everyday people suffering from anxiety or chronic pain, to world class athletes managing the consequences of years of elite pay, people have nothing but good things to say about CBD. 

Do I have to smoke CBD to benefit from it?

Just like it's groovier cousin, there are multiple delivery methods for CBD and smoking is only one of them. 

As we discussed above, CBD is extracted from hemp as an oil, which contains a more concentrated amount of CBD than the female plant. The oil is then isolated from the THC compound. From there, it is processed into infused oils, capsules, foods, candies, creams, gels, and, well, whatever you can think of. The most common delivery methods are: 

  • CBD oil tinctures – Usually combined with a carrier oil like MCT or olive oil and taken sublingually (under the tongue).
  • CBD edibles – This is what it sounds like and can come in many forms from gummies, candies, drinks, etc. 
  • CBD topicals – By far, the most popular delivery method for athletes, who are probably used to rubbing tiger balm or icy hot on sore muscles. Topicals usually come in the form of a cream that athletes rub on affected parts. (Can contain menthol or histamine dihydrochloride to aid in pain relief.)

The future and market of CBD going forward

The growth of the cannabis industry since states began legalizing it for medical use, and eventually for recreational use (The US was not first-in-line in relaxing laws and decriminalizing cannabis, and is actually far behind many other countries), has been astronomical. Like one of the most commonly used recreational drugs, alcohol, the psychoactive variant of cannabis is, of course, widely popular, but so is the strictly therapeutic and medicinal CBD. 

In other words, the market, use, and understanding of CBD is about to reach warp speed. People want an alternative to both opiates and antidepressants and the world wants to what else it can do.

"The global cannabidiol marketsize was valued at USD 2.8 billion in 2020 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21.2% from 2021 to 2028. Due to its healing properties, the demand for cannabidiol (CBD) for health and wellness purposes is high, which is the major factor driving the market growth." 

As a consumer, though, it's important remember that while all 50 US states have fully legalized hemp-based CBD extracts, not all states have fully legalized cannabis-based CBD. Furthermore, most states have, in fact, legalized medical use CBD but may not have legalized recreational use CBD. And, just because one state has relaxed laws that doesn't mean the state next door does. To date, only 12 states have fully legalized medical and recreational use of CBD: Washington, District of Columbia, Oregon, Alaska, California, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Vermont, Maine, and Massachusetts.

If the 90s and aughts could be defined by the plethora of antidepressants and powerful but dangerous opiates circulating amongst the public, perhaps going forward, with the legalization of the Earth's oldest known and most famous weed, it will be recovery. 

More and more people, from top athletes to teachers to business people to construction workers, are looking for ways to manage pain, stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, and a host of other issues without medicating themselves to numbness. CBD appears to be one of the wide avenues by which many people are traveling towards wellness. 

CBD quick facts 

→ CBD for Athletes:

  • Given the tight regulations around performance enhancing (or altering) substances in sports, and the risk of opioids, CBD makes sense for professional athletes. Not just because of its ability to reduce pain, inflammation, and anxiety, but because of the fact that it is extremely safe to use. Furthermore, it has largely been legalized in the United States, and the two major anti-doping associations have taken it off their list of banned substances. 

→ CBD in Sports: 

  • The wide range of uses has seen CBD become more prevalent in the sporting world, with many current and former athletes coming out of the closet in support of the substance. 
  • The NFL, for example, has a long history of players using and getting addicted to opiates to mitigate pain and headaches from repeated injuries and concussions. In the NBA, it's an open secret that players have been using cannabis for decades to manage the wear and tear from years of constant, high impact training. 
  • In the case of the NFL, the league relaxed restrictions on CBD but the NBA was slower in coming around. When the league resumed in July of 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, CBS Sports reported that "the NBA and the players' union have agreed to test for performance-enhancing drugs at Disney, but not recreational ones," which shows that, at least in the world of pro sports, the puritan laws and regulations around cannabis are being relaxed. 

→ Benefits of CBD for Athletes

  • There are studies and (always) anecdotal reports that CBD helps in recovery, as well as managing pain, reducing inflammation, and boosting the immune system According to Men's Health "it is anti-inflammatory, antioxidative, antiemetic, antipsychotic, and neuroprotective.” 

→ Lowers Stress Levels

  • Many athletes report that cannabidiol also reduces stress and anxiety. 
  • A study published in 2019, by the Permanente Journal, found that "evidence points toward a calming effect for CBD in the central nervous system." The study found that out of a sample size of 72 adults who described having anxiety issues, after a month of taking CBD 52 (79.2%) said they experienced less anxiety, and 48 (66.7%) felt their sleep had improved. 

→ Promotes Muscle Growth and Speeds Up Recovery

  • Have you ever "felt it" after a particularly grueling workout? That pain and soreness can last for days and weeks, depending on your genetics and age. That's because intense workouts, or competition, stresses our muscles and leads to little tears in the muscle fiber. Evidence indicates that it also helps in protein synthesis and promotes muscle growth.