For professional athletes and those of us who strive to achieve our personal best, the search for performance-enhancing substances is eternal and challenging. Dietary supplements must comply with anti-doping laws, be safe and as natural as possible.
What do the studies say about CBD?
According to recent research released in 2020, CBD can support athletes in many ways.
Reduction of inflammation and pain.
A 2020 study published in Sports Medicine analyzed preclinical animal studies and clinical trials of CBD in a population of non-athletes. The authors found that CBD can promote physiological, biochemical, and psychological effects potentially beneficial to athletes.
One of the key findings of this study is that CBD could help alleviate inflammatory pain associated with tissue damage and neuropathic pain caused by nerve damage or irritation. This could be an important benefit for endurance athletes, as repeated long-distance training can trigger inflammation and irritation in peripheral nerves.
Protection against damage to the gastrointestinal tract
The aforementioned sports medicine study also found that CBD may protect against damage to the gastrointestinal tract. Athletes who regularly engage in strenuous activity may limit the supply of oxygen and nutrients to their gastrointestinal (GI) tract. GI stress can negatively affect exercise performance and recovery due to nausea, vomiting and impaired nutritional intake. Preclinical research has shown that CBD can reduce tissue damage and restore gut permeability.
In addition, the Sports Medicine authors provided evidence that CBD may promote healthy calcium deposition and aid fracture healing. Healthy bones are essential for athletes, and bone health is sometimes compromised by traumatic injuries or lack of energy availability.
Managing sports performance anxiety
CBD can also help athletes manage sports performance anxiety, according to a Sports Medicine review. Pre-competition anxiety can cause sleep loss, increase energy expenditure and disrupt nutritional intake. According to the review's authors, studies on human populations of non-athletes have suggested that CBD may alleviate anxiety in stressful situations. CBD may be even more effective when combined with psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Neuroprotective properties to protect against brain injury
Another study from 2020, published in Pharmacological Research, also considered the validity and applicability of existing CBD research for athletes. These authors came up with similar conclusions, but with a slightly different emphasis.
The neuroprotective properties of CBD were chosen for their potential to counteract the damage that can occur following a sports-related concussion. These concussions are considered a variant of mild traumatic brain injury and can lead to harmful long-term complications such as neuronal damage.
The study authors highlight recent research in an animal model that shows CBD oil could help treat pain, aggression and depression associated with mild traumatic brain injury. CBD oil also helped counter neuronal damage in the brain's prefrontal cortex. In addition, the cannabinoid inhibits oxidative stress and neuroinflammation, which provides additional 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, can also lead to chronic neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
A 2020 pharmacological research study also highlighted CBD's potential to alter sleep. Research in animal models has found that CBD can be both a sleep-inducing and wakefulness-promoting agent. This ability to produce opposite effects-known as biphasic effects-depends on the dose used and appears to work most successfully when the natural rhythm of sleep and wakefulness has been disrupted.
Smaller amounts of CBD seem to promote wakefulness, while higher doses calm and help to promote better sleep. Both properties can be beneficial: While the effort to get a restful night's sleep is invaluable before a big race, staying awake could also improve the performance of athletes competing in ultramarathons or endurance races.
But do any of these benefits translate into improved performance on the field? Improved recovery and healthy sleep may sound attractive, but not if they imply impaired balance or coordination.
According to a Sports Medicine study, however, the answer is no. Researchers evaluated clinical studies examining the impact of CBD on cognitive and psychomotor function and found that the current data suggests that CBD is unlikely to have a negative impact on even healthy individuals.
What do experts and athletes say about CBD?
"For athletes who want to experiment with CBD, I recommend choosing CBD tinctures. I think the preferred method should be drops under the tongue. CBD gets into your system faster and has a higher bioavailability, so the dose can be reduced," says Libor Šlechta, one of the owners of Czech hemp company Carun Pharmacy.
For Filip Švrček, a Czech ultra marathoner, CBD is an integral part of his supplementation regime. As in the training phase, CBD can be quite helpful here, either helping to speed up recovery or counteracting some of the negative effects," says Filip
As is often the case with cannabis research, more data on the human population is needed for more conclusive results. The authors of both the sports medicine and pharmacology studies stress the preliminary nature of their findings. While the current data are very promising, clinical research in the sport population will provide a more definitive view of the utility of CBD.