CBD In Sports: Performance, Recovery, and Controversy
CBD oil’s pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties make it an appealing—and controversial—supplement for professional athletes.
We are all familiar with the infamous ‘runner’s high,’ that magical feeling of hard-earned bliss and contentment that washes over you after an intense bout of exercise.
Interestingly, the cause for this euphoria is not due entirely to endorphins, as once thought, but is in part due to anandamide – a fatty acid neurotransmitter that is almost identical to THC. Anandamide is detectable at elevated levels after a workout.
Anandamide is the ‘bliss chemical’ produced naturally in our bodies and is responsible for feelings of euphoria, pain-relief, well-being, and relaxation. CBD directly increases the amount of anandamide available to our bodies, resulting in increased benefits, and decreased side-effects, from enjoying your favorite workout routine.
Additional benefits of CBD for athletes include:
- Pain and Inflammation: CBD inhibits pain and inflammation through various means, including affecting the TRPV1 receptor, glycine receptors, and adenosine receptors. [S]
- Nausea: CBD is an effective antiemetic, which can help with nausea and feeling of sickness during intense physical training. [S]
- Appetite Stimulation: CBD indirectly stimulates appetite, assisting those such as MMA fighters and power-lifters to consume the added calories needed for building muscle.
- Muscle Spasms: Strained muscles, dehydration, trauma, and damage to the nerves or spinal cord often cause uncomfortable muscle spasms which are treatable with CBD. [S]
- Concussion Protection: CBD has the ability to disrupt the flow of chemicals during a concussion that leads to brain cell death, acting as a neuroprotectant. [S]
This is just a small look into how CBD oil helps not only high-performance athletes but also anyone interested in enhancing the results they experience from exercise. And perhaps one of the greatest potential benefits for exercise enthusiasts is CBD oil’s ability to reducing post-exercise pain and discomfort.
This isn’t necessarily news; even gold-medalist Olympians like Ross Rebagliati have been using CBD for quite some time. Fortunately for Olympians at least, CBD is no longer a banned substance. Other professional sports associations are not as forward-thinking as the International Olympic Committee, meaning far too many professional athletes – and weekend warriors – are forced to deal with lifelong pain from injuries sustained playing the sport they love.
Learning to Live With Pain
Anyone who plays (or has played) a sport understands the aches and pains that are the inevitable result. Full contact sports often include over-stressing joints, doing abrupt defensive moves, and sustaining repeated blows to the body and head.
Basketball, baseball, and soccer players spend tons of time running across the field or court, causing immense strain on their joints and tendons – ultimately resulting in inflammation and often debilitating pain and soreness.
Yet professional athletes of all stripes, from tennis players to figure skaters, are accustomed to the concept of ‘playing through the pain’. Even so, injuries mean time away from the sport, which means the fear of losing their ‘competitive edge,’ and maybe even prize money or sponsorship, were they to take the time needed to recuperate.
For the rest of us who are no strangers to a pickup game of basketball or catching a great wave, but whose livelihoods don’t depend on our athletics, sports injuries are perhaps even more debilitating. After all, the average Joe or Jane doesn’t have a full complement of physical therapists and world-class orthopedic surgeons to tend to our rehabilitation.
Opioids and anti-inflammatory drugs like NSAIDs are the most common approach to dealing with daily occurrences of pain in pros and amateurs alike. But what few realize is that even these everyday drugs come with a laundry list of side effects, including death.
In fact, if NSAID deaths were calculated separately in National Vital Statistics reports, they would be the 15th leading cause of death in the US.
This bewildering statistic does not take into account the far-reaching effects of chronic pain/prescription drug use on a person’s mental well-being, and subsequently every aspect of their life (family, friends, sleep, etc.).
CBD offers a non-toxic, non-addictive, virtually side effect-free alternative when dealing with chronic and acute pain. Despite worldwide cannabis legalization efforts, and the legality of hemp-based CBD in many countries, most professional sports authorities do not take approve of its use. As such, CBD’s therapeutic and medicinal applications remain a topic of heated controversy as research continues to show what many athletes have known anecdotally for decades: that cannabis and CBD could be an ideal way to relieve pain without devastating side-effects.
Let’s take a look at how various professional sports organizations feel about CBD.
The NFL and CBD
Although the National Football League still tests players for both THC and CBD, many expect this policy to change during the renegotiation of league contractual terms in 2020. Many current and former players struggle with chronic pain, opioid dependency, and the life-long consequences that come with both.
This potential change comes in the wake of 1,800 NFL players suing the NFL for violating federal drug laws to keep them playing in the midst of debilitating pain, irresponsibly distributing controlled substances. No surprise, then, that in a survey of retired NFL players, 71% admitted they had misused painkillers while playing, and in retirement use opioids at a rate three times higher than the general public.
Yet, Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner as of this writing, is not in support of the recreational use of cannabis, but claims he is willing to listen to the league’s medical advisors in regards to the role of cannabis in safely treating pain for players:
“To date, [the league’s medical advisors] haven’t said this is a change we think you should make that’s in the best interests of the health and safety of our players. If they do, we’re certainly going to consider that.”- Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner
Undeterred by the NFL’s official stance, former NFL players like Eugene Monroe, Jake Plummer, Jim McMahon, Ebenezer Ekuban – and even Joe Montana – are speaking out in favor of removing marijuana from the NFL banned substances list:
“Legalization is picking up steam on a global level and I feel like now is the time to spread information about the curing capabilities of this plant.”
– Joe Montana, Hall of Fame quarterback
“It’s time for the NFL to change its archaic standards to better protect its players. For too long, I’ve watched my teammates and good friends battle with opioid addiction and leave the game with a long road still ahead; it’s time to make a change.”
– Eugene Monroe, former offensive tackle
“There’s years I don’t remember, just because I was in such a fog. That’s when I really started using cannabis to combat my pain. I’ve been an advocate for it for a lot of years, and I’m not ashamed of it.”
– Jim McMahon, former quarterback
“I think in due time, the NFL is going to realize that CBD is not a performance-enhancing drug. If anything, it helps with anxiety, helps with concentration, it helps with pain.”
– Ebenezer Ekuban, former defensive end
The NBA and CBD
The National Basketball Association has a rather strict stance on cannabis and CBD, giving players four random drug screens a year, with each ‘failure to pass’ resulting in increasingly severe consequences.
Surprisingly David Stern, the former NBA commissioner from 1984-2014 (who notoriously tightened regulations on cannabis use) recently stated that medical marijuana “should probably be removed from the banned substances list.”
“… If you told the fans that if the players rubbed it (marijuana creams) on their knees that they wouldn’t take a night off, that would really send it over the top.”
– David Stern
Unfortunately, that change in heart hasn’t lead to lifting restrictions on cannabis for current players. Former power forward Al Harrington owns medical marijuana businesses in three states, and has spoken to NBPA president Chris Paul about the possibility of removing cannabis as as banned substance.
There is currently no planned renegotiation of the NBA collective bargaining agreement until the 2023-2024 season. But that doesn’t stop current stars from continuing to speak out in favor of allowing cannabis use among players for myriad reasons. Karl-Anthony Towns, center for the Minnesota Timberwolves, agrees with former commissioner Stern:
“There's a difference between recreational and medicinal. A Vicodin or Percocet is very, very addicting… just because we're NBA athletes, we're not super humans. Some of us have conditions that could use [medicinal marijuana] to our benefit for everyday living…”
– Karl-Anthony Townes
The Controversial History of Cannabis in Sports
Before the establishment of the World Anti-Doping Code by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 2004, prohibition was left up to the governing international sports federations to ban, or not ban, cannabis from their sport. Cannabis was perhaps the most heated topic of debate at the 2003 World Conference on Doping in Sport, and the result was a ban in virtually every single sport.
The list of prohibited substances is based on these three criteria — a substance must meet two of the three to be banned:
- Potential to enhance performance
- Risk to the athlete’s health
- Violation of the spirit of sport
One may assume that the prohibition of cannabis in sports happened due to the first two pieces of criteria, however, this may not be the case.
In fact, cannabis is often discussed as a substance that has a detrimental effect on athletic performance due to an altered perception of time, distorted spatial perception and impaired coordination.
But the reality is, cannabinoids could potentially allow an athlete to feel less stressed and perform better under pressure. Cannabis may decrease depression symptoms, anxiety, and fear, while also increasing risk-taking behaviors without altering decision-making abilities.
In 2002, after observing that over one-fourth of all positive tests conducted by the French International Olympic Committee (IOC) were positive for cannabinoids, one researcher decided to conduct a survey. What he found was a positive correlation between the level of competitiveness in sports and the usage of cannabis.
Cannabinoids have also been found to play a considerable role in the extinction of fearful memories by interfering with learned aversive behaviors. This effect could be a massive advantage for an individual who has experienced a traumatic event or injury in their sports career.
This study openly acknowledges the cannabis may provide an athlete with an unfair advantage and sports authorities should regulate its use, however, it is hard to ignore the potential health benefits that can also be experienced.
The Future of CBD in Sports
At the start of 2018, the WADA officially removed CBD from its list of banned substances. Due to this major step forward in policy, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) will also stop testing for CBD.
This is great news for many athletes, particularly UFC fighters, who will now be able to legally implement CBD into their performance and recovery regimens. The National Hockey League and Major League Baseball Player’s Association are also among those with much more lenient attitudes on medicinal cannabis.
Considering the influence WADA have on sports organizations worldwide, it will be interesting to see the way this decision to remove CBD from the banned substances list will change the perception of CBD in the coming years. This decision, coupled with the voices of athletes who are now comfortable to speak out about their own positive experiences with cannabinoids, will likely do a lot to remove the stigma associated with cannabis use.
It’s unrealistic to imagine a world where athletes from every sport have access to tailor-made cannabinoid regimens, with specific cannabinoid profiles geared to relieve whatever ails them. Research on the benefits of lesser-known cannabinoids like CBG and CBN is still in its infancy, but early results are promising.
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