Whether weed is beneficial or not for athletes are concepts that have been opinions rather than facts for far too long. General opinion of the 420 herb has swung dramatically in favour of and science has not been late to follow with their investigations. So, it is time to start settling this discussion once and for all. But before that can be done there are still some hurdles left to be jumped.
When you think of the term, “Cannabinoids” or “marijuana” the first thing that comes to mind is a mental image of the well-recognized, quintessential and beautiful green serrated leaf that has become an icon in popular culture of the 21st century. It is the infamous logo that 420 lovers can recognize in an instant and it represents a counter culture that is having a massive impact on the global misconception of weed.
You might identify cannabis with the creative arts, or as a recreational drug that helps people relax and have a good time. Athletics and performance enhancement are not the disciplines that you would intuitively think have any relationship to the use of cannabis and its many different forms. Contrary to popular belief, as this article illustrates, cannabinoids are consumed by many professional athletes in various sports around the world.
Despite its widespread historical use and popularity, there is limited credible scientific information available on cannabinoids association with performance enhancement in the world of athletics and sports largely due to the fact that some cannabinoids are banned substances in professional sports according to the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA).
What Are Cannabinoids?
Before we dwell deeper, let’s start by explaining what cannabinoids are and how they affect the human body and mind. Cannabinoids are a class of chemical compounds that act on cannabinoid receptors in our body. They are broadly categorized as three kinds, with all of the three types having multiple subtypes and so forth.
Endocannabinoids – these are the cannabinoids present is our body.
Phytocannabinoids – these are cannabinoids that are found in plants.
Synthetic cannabinoids – these are cannabinoids produced artificially.
Cannabinoids have the ability to bind to cannabinoid receptors present within our body. Without these receptors, our bodies would not be able to respond to and produce the different effects that are normally associated with ‘being stoned’. There are two types of receptors for cannabinoids present in our bodies, CB1 and CB2. The CB1 is present mostly in the brain and the CB2 is present mostly in the immune system which to some degree protects us from infections, cancers, and diseases.
What Gets Me High?
The effects of inhaling or consuming marijuana occur as a result of cannabinoids present in the marijuana plant. The two most well-known cannabinoids include the notorious Tetrahydrocannabinol THC and the relatively underappreciated Cannabidiol also known as CBD.
CBD is one out of the roughly 100 known chemical compounds present in the cannabis plant and might be helpful in alleviating pain and reducing anxiety and depression. It might also help in controlling feelings of nausea and vomiting which are common side effects of cancer-related treatments.
THC is the main chemical present in the marijuana plant that is psychoactive and is responsible for the euphoria and “high” that is desired by many people that use cannabis for social and recreational purposes.
Is Marijuana A Performance Enhancing Drug?
One of the many interesting questions being studied in the context of cannabinoids is their effects on enhancing performance in athletes participating in a variety of different sports. Famous Olympians and professional athletes like Ross Rebagliati, Michael Phelps, LeGarrette Blount, and Nate Diaz all confessed to consuming one or another form of the Marijuana plant, for a variety of different reasons.
So how do cannabinoids enhance performance? Is it a myth or a fact that they do it at all?
When thinking about cannabinoids in the context of performance enhancement, a good place to start is by understanding the production and effects of endocannabinoids. As previously mentioned endocannabinoids are the cannabinoids that our bodies naturally produce. These endocannabinoids bind to CB1 receptors in the brain and CB2 receptors in the body and can regulate a variety of responses including sleep, appetite, pain, and immune system response.
”CBD has shown to cause dilation of the airways”
The effect of endocannabinoids on the respiratory system is a hot topic in sports medicine; the respiratory system includes the lungs and its airways and allows us to breathe and remain oxygenated. From a sports medicine perspective, improved breathing and oxygenation can be a major advantage in the stamina and overall conditioning of humans. In sports competition, improved breathing can mean improved performance and ultimately winning.
The cannabis plant refers to both hemp and marijuana. The main difference between these two plants is that marijuana has high levels of THC and low levels of CBD while hemp has relatively high levels of CBD and low levels of THC. CBD oil extracted from hemp works with the endocannabinoids system in your body to achieve a state of homeostasis. This has proven to be especially beneficial for patients with exercise-induced asthma. Exercise, for these patients, leads to chemicals being released in the body, which causes narrowing of airways. In this condition, patients are unable to have normal breathing patterns. Cannabinoids such as CBD have shown to cause dilation of the airways that help overcome the symptom and discomfort experienced by those suffering from exercise-induced asthma.
“CBD may help relieve pain and decrease inflammation”
Like previously mentioned, even cells present in our immune systems have CB2 receptors. What this means for athletic performance, in order to heal, our bodies can react to injury with an inflammatory response. This inflammation can lead to redness, swelling, pain, discomfort and decreased functioning in the affected region. When Cannabinoids, especially CBD, bind to CB2 receptors of the body the overall effect is a change in the function of the immune response. The overall result can be a decrease in inflammation that normally follows intense exercise or workouts, this is where consuming the non-psychoactive CBD can be extremely helpful in healing and shortening recovery time. The best part is that CBD seems to be able to achieve this without compromising its ability to fight infections with no proven side-effects.
Even more so, as will be covered. From a performance-enhancing perspective, CBD may be an important cannabinoid that may offer pain relief and help relieve anxiety resulting in improved focus, therefore an increase in performance as well.
Effects of Cannabinoids On Mind & Body
When we repeatedly perform an activity that we enjoy, a complex series of chemical and neurological reactions occur in our brain. Serotonin, Oxytocin, and endocannabinoids help reinforce the notion that the activity is pleasurable. Dopamine, being another kind of neurotransmitter, tells the brain to repeat the action that we derive pleasure from. Dopamine is part of the brains addiction and rewards pathway and is especially important for athletes as it helps reinforce skills and build muscle memory.
”studies have found indications of cannabis increasing dopamine levels in the brain”
When an athlete stops exercising or training they experience dopamine withdrawals. The loss of release of endocannabinoids results in the loss of the sensation of pleasure. By working out again, dopamine is once again released in the brain allowing for the pleasurable feeling to return. If you have ever felt a “runners high”, then you have experienced this feeling and effect!
Various studies have found indications of cannabis increasing dopamine levels in the brain. The increase in dopamine levels can play a major role in performance enhancement as it can help an athlete focus better and train harder, by allowing them to achieve a pleasurable mental state during physically grueling sessions.
As briefly touched upon, cannabinoids may also play a major role in the function of mental states and mood. For an athlete being in the right frame of mind and not anxious before a game is vital to bringing out their best performance. This might be considered as performance enhancing, because under the influence of cannabinoids, one may experience a fall in attention levels and a temporary slowing down of higher-order cognitive abilities. This may help in reducing anxiety levels which in turn leads to better focus and happier moods.
It is then not a mystery anymore why top performing athletic legends like Ross Rebagliati smoked marijuana daily in order to relieve anxiety, increase his focus and stay positive in combination with training.
From The Athletes Themselves
One example of the popularity of cannabinoids in the context of performance enhancement is in the world of competitive combat sports. Fighters and fans of the mixed martial arts community speak widely about the benefits of cannabis and the different effects it has on mental focus and recovery. The most outright spokesmen in the MMA world are U.S brothers Nick and Nate Diaz that are candid and open about their consumption of cannabinoids for recreational and performance enhancement purposes.
At the end of one of the most impressive and popular fights in MMA history, Nate Diaz was seen using the non-psychoactive CBD infused vaporizer pen publicly in the post-fight press conference. This was after his record-breaking fight with his notorious Irish competitor Conor McGregor. The incident led to repercussions for Nate but highlighted the widespread use and popularity in the MMA community of different Cannabinoids for recovery purposes.
”WADA prohibits the use of cannabinoids only in competition”
Another very popular proponent of cannabinoids for both recreational and medical purposes is Joe Rogan. He is widely known in the media industry as a comedian and has the most widely heard podcast in the world. Rogan, also being a martial arts practitioner, is also a major advocate of the benefits of cannabinoids in the enhancement of athletic performance. He has frequently invited credible scientists to debate on the benefits and risks associated with cannabis use on his show.
These two well-known personalities are vocal about their views on marijuana but they are not alone. Olympians like Ross Rebagliati, the first ever snowboarding gold medalist and the 23-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Michael Phelps, were reprimanded professionally and athletically when it was revealed they had used marijuana. These top athletes openly confessed that using weed helped them improve mental focus, alleviate competition anxiety, and decrease recovery times. For Ross in particular smoking weed was a daily affair and he wouldn’t have it any other way!
Influence of The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)
There is limited information regarding the frequency of cannabinoids use for performance enhancement in athletes because cannabis has been on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) List of Prohibited Substances and Methods since 2004. It is interesting to note that WADA prohibits the use of cannabinoids only in competition.
”WADA has now also excluded CBD from the list”
Since 2018, WADA now tests athletes for a threshold level for the cannabis metabolite THC. What is remarkable is that the levels that would result in a positive test result were raised from 15 ng/mL to 150 ng/mL. To put this into terms that some people might relate to, the level of 20 ng/mL is what most workplace and school urine test use as a level for a positive test result. It is also not uncommon for people to be under the 150 ng/mL within 24 hours of smoking a joint. WADA has now also excluded CBD from the list and acknowledges that it does not have psychoactive properties.
One can argue that all of this means that WADA is acknowledging that the use of cannabis and different cannabinoids is common in the athletic community but not openly spoken about for fear of public image.
Can CBD Help Raise Your Game?
Unfortunately, there is limited scientific evidence that suggests that cannabinoids play a positive role in increasing physical and mental performance. This is only due to the lack of credible studies and the hesitation of athletes and research study subjects to disclose their use of cannabis and its derivatives for fear of professional and legal consequences to their careers.
As far as anecdotal evidence goes the use of CBD can certainly help your mind and body in several ways. CBD may help relieve pain and decrease inflammation in areas of the body after heavy training and workouts. It also helps in reducing competition anxiety and improving focus.
The Downside of “Pot Smoking”
One fact that can be agreed upon by the scientific community is that smoking cannabis does damage the airways and increases the risk of lung cancer. It is smoke after all that consists of burnt plant material.
”smoking one marijuana joint was similar to smoking 20 tobacco cigarettes”
From a performance-enhancing perspective, smoking marijuana isn’t the brightest of ideas. However, new ways of consuming cannabinoids that do not include the inhaling of smoke can offer the desired positive attributes without the negative side-effect. Using different methods to consume cannabinoids such as vaporizers or the consumption of THC infused edibles may negate some of the problems associated with inhaling smoke.
In one research study in the European Respiratory Journal, it was found that smoking one marijuana joint was similar to smoking 20 tobacco cigarettes in terms of increasing the risk of lung cancer. That is why from a performance-enhancing perspective smoking marijuana isn’t the brightest of ideas, but consuming it through other means can certainly prove to be beneficial in many ways.
A competing perspective on the pros and cons of inhaling vapor instead of smoke was featured earlier in the article Facts that blow vapor over smoke (länk till denna artikeln). Based on what was put forward there, in relation to the topic of performance enhancement The argument could be raised that the use might justify the means depending on what effects are desired. In other words, the user has to the benefits against the risks and the negative side-effects.
The Future Of CBD In Sports
Many would argue that the global war on drugs has been a failure. It has led to unregulated production and use of cannabis and its many products available on the black market. The criminalization of the production, distribution, and use of cannabis in most nations of the world (with a few recent exceptions) has meant that it has been very difficult to conduct research on the physiological and psychological effects of Cannabis use in humans and its role in health and performance enhancement.
“Further research is desperately needed to uncover hidden truths of how cannabinoids can naturally improve performance in athletes”
However, with movements like the “Green wave” of legalization spreading across the globe. The increasingly widespread use and popularity of cannabis for both medical and non-medical reasons, makes us be more optimistic about the future. As awareness spreads, an increase in the scientific and anecdotal evidence on the risks, benefits, and uses of cannabis and its various derivatives will hopefully also increase. As they will be verified and legally tested.
The good news is that with increasing acceptance and openness to cannabis and cannabinoids in society, there is hope of decreasing reluctance by governments around the world to treat the use of cannabis as a scheduled and illegal substance. The relaxation of laws and attitudes around the use of CBD both in society and sports, in general, will encourage funding and research by the scientific community to study cannabinoids in an objective, scientific and fact-based manner. This will surely open a whole set of exciting new possibilities for the future of cannabinoids in sports and fitness.
It seems to be inevitable that researchers in sports medicine will make discoveries that prove what many world-class athletes and avid sports enthusiasts already believe to be true! The anecdotal evidence provided in this article clearly suggests that cannabinoids help in enhancing and improving athletic performance and are beneficial to athletes looking to reach their peak potential.
Further research is desperately needed to uncover hidden truths of how cannabinoids can naturally improve performance in athletes. Maybe then we can finally put to rest the arguments between those that say that cannabinoids are only for recreational use with no benefits and those that suggest that there are many possible health benefits to the uses of cannabinoids.
It’s safe to say that the only barriers to answering these important questions are social, cultural and political. In order to further research on the benefits of consuming cannabinoids for athletes, governments and sports organizations alike must reconsider their socioeconomic views on its consumptions, manufacturing, sale, testing, use, and distribution.