The matter of whether cannabidiol (CBD) improves physical performance in athletes is somewhat controversial, and resources throughout the internet provide contradictory answers to this question.
In this review, our goal will be to go through the available data and provide you with a comprehensive overview of the current scientific opinion.
CBD and Sports: An Indirect Relationship
In 2018, CBD was excluded from the List of Prohibited Substances and Methods of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), as it doesn’t have any direct ergogenic (boosting physical performance) properties or psychoactive (mind-altering) effects.
Although CBD doesn’t enhance physical performance directly, it may help with several factors that drastically affect resulting sports performance.
1. CBD may reduce the breakdown of muscle
All processes in the body can be divided into anabolic (building) and catabolic (breaking down) ones. Cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, is catabolic by nature—it breaks down some of the tissues in the body, including muscle, to mobilize extra resources and energy for immediate action. This action explains why high cortisol levels are accompanied by muscle weakness during such conditions as Cushing’s syndrome.
According to a systematic review from 2015, CBD may reduce the secretion of cortisol, at least at doses ranging from 300 to 600 mg 120 minutes after ingestion. Lower cortisol levels essentially mean decreased rates of muscle breakdown, an effect that any athlete will surely appreciate.
2. CBD could alleviate delayed-onset muscle soreness
Post-workout muscle soreness and fatigue are caused primarily by an increase in local lactic acid levels and micro-tears in the muscles. Both factors contribute to local inflammation, pain, and swelling.
An animal study from 2016 reported that transdermal CBD gels may reduce local inflammation and swelling at doses ranging from 0.6 to 6.2 mg per day. This effect could be beneficial to reduce muscle soreness after workouts.
3. CBD may soothe sports-related anxiety
The athlete’s life is filled with all sorts of stressful events—rigorous training sessions, high-stake competitions, peer pressure, and relentless expectations. Of course, this often results in a particular form of anxiety that trainers and scientists call sports-related anxiety.
Although there are no studies on whether CBD can help with sports-related anxiety specifically, scientists generally agree that cannabidiol may help with anxiety in general, as reported in a 2015 study. This effect is achieved mostly through balancing the body’s endocannabinoid system and adjusting the activity of serotonin and glutamate receptors.
4. CBD may improve quality of sleep
Every athlete knows that getting a good night of rest is essential for optimal performance, and science confirms that. Studies reported that poor sleep may reduce endurance and muscle strength, while healthy sleep could even speed up post-exercise recovery.
Multiple reviews, including a recent one from 2017, reported that CBD has therapeutic potential for treating sleep disorders. A study from 2019 reported that up to 66.7% of CBD users experience a subjective improvement in their sleep quality. Most likely, one of the main ways in which CBD does this is by increasing adenosine levels in the brain. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in the regulation of sleep.
5. CBD could help with weight management
An animal study back from 2012 reported that CBD may decrease food intake, contrary to the traditional appetite-boosting properties of other cannabinoids like cannabigerol and cannabinol. This effect may be a double-edged sword, though, as some athletes strive to increase their weight instead.
To summarize, CBD doesn’t improve any aspect of physical activity directly—otherwise, it would be banned by the world’s most authoritative anti-doping agencies.
However, it does seem to beneficially affect several factors that have an indirect impact on physical performance. More studies are needed to confirm specific mechanisms of action and reveal the resulting effects, but the future of CBD in sports looks quite promising at the moment.