Cannabidiol or CBD is a non-psychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant. Many athletes use CBD to give them an edge. But until recently, it was unclear whether athletes should or could use CBD.
But in 2017, the World Health Organization came to the decision that “CBD does not appear to have abuse potential or cause harm.” And in 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) stopped prohibiting CBD. In 2020, the NFL reached a new collective bargaining agreement that players will no longer be suspended for testing positive for marijuana. And even in the conservative world of professional golf, players are becoming increasingly vocal about how they are using CBD to recover after competing.
It seems many athletes feel CBD can give them an edge. If you are an athlete or an active adult, you might wonder if there is a CBD sports cream that you can use topically to reduce soreness after training, or if there is a CBD sports drink that can give you an athletic edge.
But does CBD actually help athletes recover or improve athletic performance? To answer this question, researchers at the University of Sidney, School of Psychology published a narrative review in July of 2020, assessing all of the presently available evidence on how CBD could potentially impact an athlete's performance.
Due to federal prohibition on cannabis, there is not much scientifically rigorous research on cannabis or CBD, and no studies directly examining how CBD impacts an athlete's performance. This gap in the research is concerning, given that many elite and community-based adult athletes use CBD to improve their general well-being.
Due to the limited research on this important topic, the authors of the review drew on “preclinical studies involving laboratory animals and a limited number of clinical trials involving non-athlete populations.” Their review focused on twelve areas of research where CBD could have an impact on an athlete's performance or recovery: exercise-induced muscle damage, concussions, pain, exercise-induced gastrointestinal damage, bone health, cardiovascular and metabolic function, thermoregulation, dietary intake and feeding, illness and infection, sports-related anxiety, sleep, and cognitive or psychomotor function.
While exercise (particularly high-impact exercise) is known to improve bone health, athletes are particularly vulnerable to traumatic injuries or “low energy availability” that may reduce bone health.
The authors of the review found one noteworthy study demonstrating that CBD improved the healing of femoral fractures in rats. Frequently dosing CBD over a short period of time (chronic dosing) led to “decreased callus size 4-weeks post-fracture and enhanced the biomechanical properties of the bone at 8-weeks.” Research has not yet clarified how CBD improves bone health.
Studies looking at CBD and cardiovascular function have produced inconsistent results. Some studies have shown that CBD has no effect on resting heart rate, while others have shown that CBD may reduce resting systolic blood pressure. Most studies that measured human cardiovascular response in “stress-inducing” situations found that CBD had no effect on heart rate or blood pressure.
Fascinatingly, there is some initial data that CBD may affect mitochondrial function. In vivo CBD treatment has been found to increase mitochondrial biogenesis and increase the activity of mitochondrial complexes in a variety of tissues (brain, liver, etc.) and animal models of disease. The researchers indicate that CBD seems to exert some effect on CV function, however “the implications…in regards to exercise performance are unclear.” That said, CBD’s effect on mitochondrial function “could have implications for energy metabolism during exercise.”
Any compound that affects core body temperature or how the body loses heat has the potential to have a significant impact on an athlete's performance. While THC has been shown to induce hyperthermia at low doses and hypothermia at high doses, the available evidence indicates, “CBD is unlikely to have a major influence on…thermoregulatory processes.”
While THC is well known to cause the “munchies,” CBD has been shown to have the opposite effect. Low doses of CBD have been shown to have no influence on food intake, but high doses of CBD or chronic CBD treatment seem to suppress appetite in both humans and rodents.
The researchers note that they found many websites touting the ability of CBD to cure viral infections, but “research supporting such ‘protective effects’ of CBD is extremely limited.” The authors called for more research to understand if and how CBD impacts the “development and progression of illness and infection in both athlete and non-athlete populations.”
While cognitive behavioral therapy is the preferred treatment for sports related anxiety or mild day-to-day anxiety, “a combination of pharmaceutical and psychological interventions may be indicated in some cases.” The evidence suggests that moderate doses of CBD may reduce anxiety in stressful situations. A 2019 study on CBD and anxiety indicated that there might be an inverted U-shaped relationship between CBD dose and mild day-t0-day anxiety. For example, 300mg had a “stronger anxiolytic effect than 150mg or 600mg.”
Several studies have explored the effect of CBD on human sleep. The first placebo-controlled, double-blinded crossover trial found that the sleep improving effects of CBD were dose dependent. The researchers found that 160mg of CBD—but not 40mg or 80mg of CBD—increased self-reported sleep duration. However, the participants did not report any change in sleep quality or time to sleep onset. A placebo-controlled, double-blinded crossover trial is a longitudinal study in which subjects receive either real treatment or a placebo for a period of time, after which the groups are switched to the opposite treatment. Another recent placebo-controlled, double-blinded crossover trial found no effect of 300mg of CBD on “sleep architecture measured via polysomnography in healthy adults.” The authors state “CBD seems unlikely to directly influence sleep in healthy humans.”
The authors found various studies that suggest that CBD has minimal influence on cognitive or psychomotor function. For example, vaporized CBD produced no change in balance or coordination, and a more recent investigation found that both orally ingested CBD and vaporized CBD had no effect on cognitive function.
The authors concluded their review with the central observation that “studies directly investigating CBD and sports performance are lacking, and until these are conducted, we can only speculate in regards to its effect.” Want to find out how CBD affects you? Use Jointly, a new cannabis wellness app, to learn if CBD is the right choice for your wellness goals. Jointly allows health-conscious cannabis users to track and record their cannabis and CBD consumption, including the dose, route of administration, time of use, composition of the product, and the reasons for using cannabis in that session, plus various other factors that can influence your experience.
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