Why Are Sports Stars Turning to CBD & Marijuana?

Products like marijuana and cannabidiol (CBD) have a wide range of potential applications that are relevant to the physically and mentally demanding lifestyle of a professional athlete. In recent years, more and more athletes have come out in support of the use of cannabis and cannabinoids as a form of therapy, citing their ability to help with pain and stress management.

Athletes rely heavily on their bodies, and have a range of vital considerations to make when planning a recovery regimen, so they don’t take trying new forms of treatment lightly. Let’s explore some of the reasons many professional athletes — in their own words — are choosing cannabis and its naturally-occurring compounds to supplement their treatment and maintenance plans.

Understanding the Appeal of CBD & Marijuana to Athletes

Professional athletes are able to regularly compete at the international level due to the amount of stress they’re able to tolerate mentally and physically, whether it be in training camp or the heat of competition. The ability to work through immense pain and push past mental barriers are just the tip of the iceberg for elite competitors. Naturally, this constant physiological wear and tear is accompanied by an ongoing search for therapeutics to mitigate it — and natural alternatives to synthetic drugs is a major selling point for any health-conscious individual.

Professional Athletes on CBD 

CBD is the primary cannabinoid found in industrial hemp. It is growing in popularity among professional athletes because of its low risk of side-effects and versatility when combined with food grade terpenes. Emerging studies on CBD’s therapeutic potential has caused the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to remove the cannabinoid from its prohibited substances list in late 2017. However, use of marijuana is still prohibited according to their guidelines.

The primary reason for the technical distinction between CBD and marijuana is that the former has no psychoactive components that could potentially delay reaction times or impair judgment. According to a 2020 study, “CBD has been reported to have the potential to benefit athletes [and] there is preliminary supportive evidence for anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, analgesic, and anxiolytic actions of CBD, and it may protect against GI damage associated with inflammation and promote the healing of traumatic skeletal injuries.”

Lolo Jones. (CREDIT: Steven Pisano)

In her partnership announcement for a CBD company, Lolo Jones, an Olympian track-and-field and bobsled athlete said, ‘‘I have always worked hard to take care of my body and be in the best shape possible and have integrated CBD products into my daily routine. [I have] noticed the change in my recovery speed, and am proud to partner with [cbdMD] to educate others about my experience.”

The primary reason for the technical distinction between CBD and marijuana is that the former has no psychoactive components that could potentially delay reaction times or impair judgment.

Other athletes like Riley Cote, a retired NHL winger, openly relies on CBD for more than just physical recovery. According to Cote, “I quickly realized it wasn’t just helping with my brain health, but also added another dimension to my sleep, and its subtle calming nature helped with anxiety,”

Even athletes in non-contact sports suffer from aches and pains with the potential to hinder their performance. In an interview earlier this year, the professional golfer Rickie Fowler stated that “There’s a lot of great benefits to not having to resort to pills or painkillers. [CBD] is something that is natural and a lot easier on the body as far as not having to break down anything.”

Professional Athletes on Marijuana

Both CBD and marijuana interact with cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body. While cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body, cannabinoid type-1 (CB1) receptors are located primarily in the brain, and are responsible for the psychoactive effects of marijuana. CB2 receptors are found mostly in the immune system and affect inflammation and pain response.

THC has an affinity to binding with the CB1 receptor, which is why medical marijuana is frequently prescribed to help with not only chronic pain, but chronic anxiety and insomnia as well. 

There is evidence to suggest that marijuana may have beneficial effects specifically on athletes. A recent study published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine showed that marijuana use was associated with fewer reports of chronic pain and injury

The CA1 region of the hippocampus from an Nr4a1-eGFP (green) transgenic mouse stained for the CB1 cannabinoid receptor (red) and DAPI to show nuclei (blue). Epifluorescence. (CREDIT: NIH)

The athletes who advocate for the acceptance of marijuana use as a recovery aid mostly do so in hopes of lessening the number of those affected by opioid addiction and other drug dependencies. In a 2016 interview, professional cyclist Eugene Monroe stated, “We now know that these drugs [opiates] are not as safe as doctors thought, causing higher rates of addiction, causing death all around our country. We have marijuana, which is far healthier, far less addictive and, quite frankly, can be better in managing pain.”

On his website, Monroe openly asks commissions to “remove marijuana from the banned substance list; fund medical marijuana research, especially as it relates to CTE; and stop overprescribing addictive and harmful opioids.”

Nate Jackson, a retired NFL tight end, shared his experiences with opioids and marijuana in multiple interviews. According to Jackson, “By the time I tore my groin off the bone, in 2007, I was medicating only with marijuana. The team doctors cheered the speed at which I was healing, but I couldn’t disclose to them [what] I was experiencing: no pain, no inflammation, restful sleep, vigorous appetite, and a clear head.” 

Marijuana is already legal in most states for recreational consumption. As the body of scientific literature around the medicinal and therapeutic value of medical marijuana grows, it’s likely it will gain the same widespread approval enjoyed by CBD from sport regulatory entities in the future — if even for use in athletes off the field.

IMAGE CREDIT: Gentrit Sylejmani.

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