CBD has gone from being a fringe interest to being one of the mainstays of wellness – and it’s now booming in the fitness world. But what benefits does it boast for athletes like us, and how much evidence is there to suggest that it really works?
You can’t move these days for CBD. Why drink camomile when you could have a CBD tea? Forget olive oil, try CBD oil on your salad. And move over ordinary bath foam – CBD bath bombs are all the rage. But quirky alternatives aside, what does CBD actually do for us and should we be using it as a recovery aid after a heavy workout?
CBD or cannabidiol is the second active ingredient in cannabis after THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) – the stuff that gets you high. CBD doesn’t have any psychoactive effect but it is reputed to help the body and mind relax. We know that in strong doses, it can be used to reduce the incidence of seizures in childhood epilepsy by almost 50%, thanks to its anti-seizure properties and studies have shown it to help lower pain and inflammation in people living with arthritis. From a commercial wellness perspective, CBD has been lauded for improving sleep, zapping stress and even enhancing our fitness regimes. Most of us probably don’t need to take it at all, but CBD seems to be growing in popularity so we did some investigating to what evidence there was to support the hype.
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The 411 on CBD
We have cannabinoid receptors dotted around our bodies as part of our endocannabinoid system (ECS). That’s the system responsible for regulating appetite, pain-sensation, mood and memory; CBD fans often claim that because our bodies have these receptors, its primed to benefit from the plant’s medicinal qualities. According to CBD brand Papilio, the ECS only came to light in the early 1990s when scientists started to explore the effects of cannabis on the human body.
A 2020 review published in Sports Medicine Open looked at the role that CBD can play in fitness. It found that “CBD has been reported to exert a number of physiological, biochemical, and psychological effects, that have the potential to benefit athletes.” It pointed to evidence of CBD’s “anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, analgesic, and anxiolytic actions”, as well as the possibility of it helping to heal inflammation-damaged guts and traumatic skeletal injuries.
However, the review also pointed out that research is so thin on the ground that it’s impossible to generalise about the benefits to a wider population. “The central observation is that studies directly investigating CBD and sports performance are lacking, and until these are conducted, we can only speculate in regard to its effects. Nonetheless, this review suggests that rigorous, controlled investigations clarifying the utility of CBD in the sporting context are clearly warranted.”
When it comes to CBD’s effects on very specific communities, however, the data is more convincing. A 2018 review of 132 studies found that CBD can reduce inflammation in the body and help improve pain and mobility in patients with multiple sclerosis. “It is anti-inflammatory, antioxidative, antiemetic, antipsychotic, and neuroprotective,” the study concluded. That, alongside the work looking at childhood epilepsy, suggests that research is being done to help groups who really need relief from symptoms.
For now, we’ll have to wait and see whether scientists are going to do more extensive testing readily-available strains of CBD on ordinary members of the public and athletes. While Papilio says that in order for any product to claim efficacy “there has to be a much wider body of results supported by the parametrical industry,” it’s clear that early research does suggest that CBD has a positive effect on the ECS. It also shows that the chemical is best-taken vis absorption (through the skin) or ingestion (under the tongue).
Grayson Hart is the co-founder of Pure Sport CBD and he says that one of the most popular reasons that active people buy his products is for the supposed recovery benefits. “CBD interacts with your body’s endocannabinoid system to help maintain homeostasis – a term that describes a perfect balance in an organism’s bodily functions,” he explains. “The endocannabinoid system plays a vital role in decreasing glutamate build-up during strenuous activities. CBD makes this possible by connecting to the CB1 and CB2 receptors and preventing the release of specific neurotransmitters. When CBD successfully binds with the receptors, it can influence your nervous system, enabling you to handle pain and inflammation better. If you’re an athlete who trains regularly, CBD may help with short-term pain problems or long-term injuries with throbbing pain.”
Perhaps the most convincing benefit of CBD for strength gains is its apparent ability to help us get a deeper sleep. Lola Biggs, dietitian at Together Health, explains that “its reputation as enhancing the quality of our sleep could in theory aid muscle repair and help us to wake feeling fully rested and ready to push ourselves physically once again!”
Grayson agrees: “Not only does CBD benefit inflammation and pain, but the most consistent feedback of the positive benefits when using Pure Sport CBD is improved sleep quality. Good quality sleep is essential for allowing our bodies to recover quicker and take on a new day feeling ready to go! While sleeping, the brain releases hormones to target damaged muscles. Encouraging the body to relax and sleep better should help tired or injured muscles to heal.”
Psychosomatic or real life?
As we said up top, there’s a real lack of scientific evidence out there at the moment to back up many CBD claims for people living without certain chronic conditions. Those of us who take the stuff may well swear by it (I, for example, am convinced that my Vaay muscle rub improves my tendonitis far more than any other kind of balm) but to say anything really concrete, we need to see more research. Can it really be that we just feel what we expect to feel? Perhaps, but Grayson says that any naysaying is “a positive thing for the industry to (push) further with the research.”
As for Grayson’s brand, it’s been endorsed by a number of huge names in the sporting world, from Olympic weightlifter Jenny Tong and rugby player Jerome Kaino, to ultra runner Will Goodge who claims that CBD helped him to run 875 miles in 16 days and move away from the negative effects of codeine. “A lot of the feedback we get from athletes is on the pain relief and anti-inflammatory benefits, and the ability to replace prescription pain killers with CBD!” Grayson explains. “Plus our CBD is one of the only brands in the world to be Olympic Standard Certified with 0% THC, making it completely safe for drug-tested athletes to use.”
How to choose a CBD that’s right for you
It’s worth saying that if you feel you sleep well, don’t live with a lot of stress or experience any real aches or pains after training, then CBD might be totally unnecessary for you. It’s also important to re-stress the fact we don’t know tonnes about CBD yet and that the supplement market is still a largely unregulated one. We can’t 100% say whether this stuff works, whether it’ll be of any benefit to you or if it’s right for you to take it. As with most supplements, it’s totally down to the individual.
If you are interested in trying CBD, however, here are a few tips for getting the best quality and safest product:
Do your research
“It is really important to do some research on CBD products and the industry. Unfortunately, not all CBD is high quality and many brands with nice packaging and labels don’t provide the level of CBD that will benefit the customer,” Grayson explains. “Look out for the strength of CBD on the label and whether there a lab report available on the website to prove this. For many people, having no detectable levels of THC is essential and this is something that you should look out for on the lab reports.”
Oh, and make sure that those tests are done by a third-party accredited lab. “Look for impartial lab testing to ensure quality and transparency of the extracts, and make sure you are using a product containing good quality and safely sourced hemp oil,” Biggs suggests.
Go for broad-spectrum
Broad-spectrum varieties are thought to be the most effective. Biggs also recommends going for CBD that has been organically grown, is free from pesticides and chemicals, is vegan-friendly and non-GMO as “this means a cleaner, more natural formula.”
Choose oils over other products
The benefit of an oil is that it’s generally more concentrated and faster-acting– so can take effect in as little as 30 minutes. “It’s absorbed into the bloodstream through small capillary beds below the tongue and the CBD works alongside naturally occurring cannabinoid receptors in the body to reach every part of the body,” Biggs says. However, there are balms, lotions and bath products out there that can be safely used alongside oils.
Chat to your GP
It’s always worth chatting with your doctor before trying anything new and working through any concerns that you might have. If you do struggle with sleep, anxiety and aches, your GP may be able to help find a more scientific solution and will rule out anything more medical (eg aches might indicate that you’re actually vitamin D deficient).
Feeling a bit achy and on edge? Why not take a couple of minutes to come into child’s pose – a stretch that’s guaranteed to help your body to relax, your breath to slow down and your mind to calm down.
Check out more stretches and low-impact moves in our How To library.
Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on a Tokyo bike.