In the last several years, we’ve seen an explosion in CBD-infused products on the market. You’ve likely been inundated with marketing claims and personal accounts touting the health benefits of CBD. But can CBD improve athletic performance? What is its real effect on stress, inflammation, immunity, and mood? How and why CBD works still remains in question.
What is CBD?
CBD, short for cannabidiol, is one of many cannabinoid molecules produced uniquely by the cannabis family. Unlike the psychoactive cannabinoid THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), CBD is non-psychoactive. That means it doesn’t have a potent effect on cognitive brain activity or cause the “high” commonly associated with marijuana use.
Every strain of the cannabis family (including THC-free hemp) produces a cascade of cannabinoids; CBD and THC being the most studied and well-known.
While research is growing in this area, it is still sparse. What we’re left with is limited (though compelling) science, and heaps of anecdotal evidence.
How CBD Works in Your Body
Our brains have receptors (CB1 and CB2) designed to accept cannabinoids and that act as the gateways to the body’s endocannabinoid system.
Note: it’s important you understand the underlying science here so that you can properly interpret both marketing claims AND your n=1 response.
What is The Endocannabinoid System?
Science stumbled upon the Endocannabinoid System in the 1960s and 1970s while studying the effects of cannabis on the human body.
Researchers isolated numerous phytochemicals from the cannabis plant — phytocannabinoids (“phyto” means “plant”). Studying their effects revealed an intricate web of receptors, enzymes, and biochemical pathways involved in producing and using the body’s own form of cannabinoids: endocannabinoids (“endo“ means “originating within the body”).
As it turns out, we share these neurochemicals with most members of the animal kingdom. In fact, it’s now clear that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) evolved almost 600 million years ago.
We modern humans and 600 million-year-old sea squirts both have an endocannabinoid system.
Due to its early evolution, the ECS became intimately tied to a host of different physiological and neurological functions. The primary purpose of the ECS seems to be maintaining homeostasis, which it does by keeping neurotransmitter levels in check.
Exogenous intake of CBD can supplement the activity of your body’s existing endocannabinoid system. Using it might help modulate the control and regulation of homeostasis across all major body systems and ensuring that all systems work in concert with one another.
And while neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine act as chemical messengers of the nervous system, endocannabinoids (eCBs) act as messengers of the ECS.
In order to get a better handle on how CBD will work for you, it’s important to have at least a rudimentary feel for how this system functions.
The Two Endocannabinoids (eCBs)
There are two naturally-produced eCBs coursing your body: anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol. And just as the phytocannabinoids in cannabis, these neurotransmitters are built on a backbone of lipids (fats).
Note: this lipid-based structure means that both THC and CBD are fat-soluble, and this is why cannabis and hemp extracts must be delivered in an oil-based carrier to be effective.
Although we don’t yet fully understand the interplay between eCBs and neurotransmitters, it seems there are some interesting overlaps in their function.
For instance, the eCB Anandamide is involved with appetite, memory, and pregnancy. It has even been identified as the more probable source of the “runner’s high” (as opposed to endorphins) experienced during or after intense exercise.
2-ArachidonoylGlycerol (2-AG) has been linked to our emotional states, protection from seizures, and maintaining cardiovascular health. That contented feeling you experience after orgasm might have as much to do with 2-AG as it does oxytocin.
Your Cannabinoid (CB) receptors
It’s a helpful analogy to think of eCBs as messengers, and cannabinoid receptors as gate guards. Receptors populate cell surfaces, waiting for specific neurotransmitters to bind to them. The cell type then determines the downstream effect, rapidly impacting, for instance, immunity, sensation, mood, and even consciousness.
We have a wide variety of receptor/cell combinations throughout our bodies which, in turn, create a variety of downstream responses. The two principle receptors of the ECS are CB1 and CB2.
These receptors promote healthy brain function and are one of the most common receptors found in the nervous system. CB1 receptors are responsible for modulating a host of functions from memory to pain perception. These receptors also regulate the psychoactive properties of cannabis when bound to THC.
On the other hand, CB2 receptors are most often found on the cells of the immune system. They function to moderate inflammation and our immune response to pathogens. Relief from arthritis, asthma, allergies, autoimmune disorders or digestive issues like inflammatory bowel disease may be found via modulation of this pathway.
And here’s where it gets tricky…
While most cannabinoids can bind to both CB1 and CB2, the phytocannabinoid CBD doesn’t directly trigger either receptor. Instead, it modifies the receptors’ ability to bind to cannabinoids. CBD also influences other types of receptors, while enhancing your natural levels of endocannabinoids by altering the effect of certain enzymes in modulating the ECS.
What enzymes are those?
If the CB1 and CB2 can be thought of as gate guards, and eCBs as the messengers, then you might think of this suite of molecular enzymes as the system’s HR department.
These enzymes control when and where eCBs are produced, and how quickly they’re absorbed or broken down. They ensure the messenger is active exactly when, and only when, it’s needed.
Since endocannabinoids (like phytocannabinoids) are lipid-based neurotransmitters, your body requires a number of different enzymes working in unison to transform fatty substances into the eCBs anandamide and 2-AG. When your body gets the signal to produce these eCBs, these enzymes clock in and go to work.
Note: ensuring adequate consumption of healthy fats is vitally important to this process. as omega-3s and other essential fatty acids are specific building blocks for eCBs.
The messenger’s escorts
Your body is mostly composed of water, and yet cannabinoids are fat-soluble. In order for cannabinoids to reach their intended targets, they need to be escorted by endocannabinoid transport proteins. In much the same way as soap encapsulates and transports body oils into water, these transport enzymes help eCBs flow smoothly through the body’s waterways.
Calling off the dogs
Once anandamide and 2-AG have successfully relayed their message, the body needs to prevent them from continuing to stimulate the ECS. The FAAH enzyme (which degrades anandamide) and the MAGL enzyme (which breaks down 2-AG) are two that we have the most research on.
Because CBD inhibits these enzymes it tends to increase the body’s circulating levels of feel-good anandamide and 2-AG.
Note: A genetic variation in 20% of adults impairs their FAAH enzyme. That is, these people have naturally increased levels of anandamide and are generally less anxious than their non-variant peers in a given situation.
Do exogenous CDB concoctions work?
I hate to be coy but it depends. Part of this ambiguity is because the ECS (and the central nervous system as a whole) has so many moving pieces. Each of those pieces is also influenced by genetic predisposition and ongoing epigenetic input.
Said another way: you are a truly unique individual, and exogenous CBD may or may not work for you in your particular circumstance.
The strongest scientific evidence is for CBD’s efficacy lay in treating childhood epilepsy syndromes, such as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. These typically don’t respond to traditional antiseizure medications. Numerous studies have demonstrated CBD’s ability to reduce the number of seizures, and in some cases, stop them altogether.
CBD is commonly used to address anxiety. And for insomnia patients, studies suggest that CBD may help with both falling and staying asleep.
As well, CBD may offer an option for treating different types of chronic pain. A study from the European Journal of Pain showed that topically applied CBD could help lower pain and inflammation due to arthritis. Another study demonstrated the mechanism by which CBD inhibits inflammatory and neuropathic pain, two of the most difficult types of chronic pain to treat.
Does CBD Improve Athletic Performance?
I’ve found no supporting evidence, either in the literature or anecdotally, that suggests CBD can directly boost sporting performance.
However, to the extent that CBDs may help alleviate conditions that can hamstring your training (quality, frequency or duration), it could be beneficial.
CBD can support pain relief
Studies have shown cannabis is effective for reducing pain, including musculoskeletal pain from exercise, as well as stiff joints.
While there is little research specifically on CBD alone, this is an area where anecdotal evidence and biological plausibility are the best we have until research catches up. Despite the lack of hard evidence, CBD does appear – at least, anecdotally – to relieve pain effectively for many.
Could CBD become a replacement for NSAIDs?
Athletes have been consuming over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for decades, but they may not be as safe as we once thought, as long-term or frequent use of these substances have been linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke. Some athletes have found that CBD can replace NSAIDs with minimal side effects.
CBD May Help Reduced Chronic Inflammation
Acute inflammation can stimulate positive training adaptations. But too much inflammation hinders recovery and degrades performance. Cannabinoids binding to CB2 receptors may have an anti-inflammatory effect by reducing cytokine production. They may help mitigate the chronic inflammation response due to a taxing training regimen.
CBD Can Help Reduce Gut inflammation
GI distress is one of the leading reasons endurance athletes DNF. And while CBD won’t alleviate issues stemming from dehydration and overheating, it can potentially mitigate the underlying inflammation issues that contribute to gut problems during or after exercise.
Of course the same could be said for eliminating foods that cause the GI distress, leaky gut and inflammation to begin with.
CBD Can Help Improve Sleep Quality
One of the most effective ways to become a better athlete is to get more high-quality sleep. Anecdotally, athletes who consume CBD report both greater ease in falling and remaining asleep. One potential reason for this could be CBD’s ability to inhibit the reuptake of adenosine.
Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) breaks down as your brain burns carbohydrate for energy, and adenosine gradually accumulates in the brain. More adenosine binding to neurons inhibits the release of neurotransmitters. This slows down brain activity, helps you feel calmer and promotes restful slumber.
CBD may inhibit adenosine reuptake by binding to the same receptors adenosine would otherwise bind to, prompting you to feel sleepy sooner. CBD’s anti-anxiety effect can help for the same reason.
The bottom line
The best we can say at this point is that exogenous CBD offers a decent potential upside while carrying little risk. Anecdotally speaking, I’ve had athletes swear by it. Others (myself included), don’t notice much of an effect. Even at sustained and substantial doses.
That said, I do encourage smart n=1 experimentation. Because some people do (at least anecdotally) report stellar results. And if CBD allows you to drop chronic use of NSAIDs, all the better.
If you do decide to try CBD, be sure to set up the experiment adequately:
- Buy from a reputable source
As CBD products flood the market, so does the likelihood that you end up with a poor-quality product. “Label painted” products have just enough active ingredient to “make the label”, but not enough to be therapeutic. Third-party testing to ensure quality and potency is a good idea.
- Give it some time
Results aren’t immediate. You’ll probably need a 30-day trial. This will help you ramp the dose and allow for a “loading” period. Take the added step of charting to quantify your results.
- If one delivery method fails you can always try another
Anecdotally, those who swear by CBD’s efficacy take it sublingually. But you may find topical applications work better for localized use.
Is CBD legal?
You can get CBD in most parts of the United States. All 50 states have legalized CBD with varying restrictions. The federal government still considers CBD in the same class as marijuana. But it doesn’t enforce against it. If a CBD preparation or extract is derived from hemp, and it contains less than 0.3 percent THC, then it is not considered a controlled substance.
What about WADA?
While CBD use is unrestricted, all other cannabinoids are still prohibited in competition. It’s important to remember that CBD products may still contain prohibited cannabinoid components, such as THC.
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