ONCE RESERVED FOR dispensaries, cannabis products are becoming increasingly mainstream. Popping up on supermarket and health store shelves as well as holistic wellness websites, CBD oils, tinctures and salves promise major health benefits. The latest wellness fad: improved exercise results.
To understand how CBD is believed to impact workouts, it’s important to recognize what CBD is. Short for cannabidiol, CBD is one of more than 100 compounds called cannabinoids contained in cannabis. Similar in structure to endocannabinoids, which the body naturally produces (and may be responsible for runner’s high), cannabinoids are most well-known for their feel-good effects, explains registered dietitian Donna Shields, co-founder of the Holistic Cannabis Academy, an online education program for health professionals interested in the medical use of cannabis.
However, unlike tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, not all of cannabis’s cannabinoids cause a psychoactive effect or “high,” Shields says. CBD counteracts these effects and may trigger multiple health benefits. The most intriguing advantage for exercisers is reduced inflammation, she says.
The Link Between Exercise, Inflammation and CBD
Any workout, especially a rigorous one, causes microscopic damage to the body’s muscles and tissues, explains Dr. Alan Beyer, sports medicine doctor and executive medical director of the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in California. It’s this inflammation that triggers the body’s repair processes, allowing tissues to grow back stronger and fitter. However, too much inflammation left unchecked can contribute to excessive muscle damage and poor workout results. Inflammation is also a hallmark of exercise injuries including strains and sprains, he says.
For this reason, exercisers commonly integrate anti-inflammatorymeasures – such as eating antioxidant-containing foods and taking ice baths – into their workout routines to aid the workout process. They also try to curb achy muscles and joints through the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, like ibuprofen, Beyer says.
While studies currently debate exactly when exercisers should try to curb inflammation and when they should just let the body recover on its own, they also suggest that CBD is a powerful anti-inflammatory compound. For example, a 2018 review published in Frontiers in Neurology concluded that CBD is an effective way of improving pain and mobility in patients with multiple sclerosis since it reduces inflammation.
“CBD for exercise-induced inflammation is absolutely the next big area we need to explore,” says Thorsten Rudroff, an exercise scientist and director of the Integrative Neurophysiology Laboratory at Colorado State University, and the Frontiers in Neurology study co-author. “However, most of what we know about CBD and exercise is based on anecdotal reports,” he says. “There’s basically no research on the topic. We need to investigate CBD’s effects on inflammatory biomarkers [compounds like C-reactive protein in the body that occur with inflammation] in athletes and exercise recovery.”
He explains that he has seen a dramatic increase in the number of older adults and collegiate and professional athletes consuming CBD edibles and oils. By taking them immediately after exercise, they aim to recover quickly and effectively. Some believe that CBD reduces the body’s tendency to break down tissues and promotes muscle growth.
Meanwhile, Beyer posits that CBD is most promising as a way to help patients recover from exercise-related injuries. He often recommends that his patients apply CBD salves to the injured area.
“CBD penetrates transdermally to reduce inflammation in the injured tissues,” Beyer explains, noting that overuse of NSAIDs, especially in conjunction with exercise, can damage the kidneys. For example, in a 2017 Emergency Medical Journal studying ultramarathoners, those who took ibuprofen every four hours during a 50-mile race were about 18 percent more likely to finish the race with acute kidney damage.
“I always want my patients to start with interventions that have the fewest side effects,” Beyer says.