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CBD in sports: Evangelism trumps evidence (so far)

Athletes are beginning to show interest in CBD for pain and inflammation, but so far much of the evidence is anecdotal with an evangelist spin. That doesn’t mean brands are willing to wait for the science. Proponents call CBD a safe alternative to NSAIDS and point to sleep and stress as additional benefits that go beyond the focus of sports nutrition but could have definitive effects on performance.

 

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Evangelism trumps evidence when it comes to CBD’s efficacy on sports performance. But don’t fret just yet—most of the humans on the planet buy in to one faith or another

And faith in a nutraceutical can often be the foundation of efficacy.

There’s more than one way to categorize sports nutrition when it comes to the cannabinoid that’s lighting up sales from coast to coast. After all, it’s not just about how fast you can run. It’s also about recovery, and that means inflammation and pain management, not to mention restful sleep. And in these areas, anecdotes abound.

But do anecdotes equal evidence?

“Anecdotes are a starting point and often, but not always, precede evidence,” says Anthony Almada, who co-founded the Council for Science and Innovation of Cannabis and Cannabinoids. “The question is, where is the line between real, reproducible evidence and evangelism?”

The only way to know for sure is to conduct a study in athletes and assess, say, recovery. To date, that has not been done. But as the saying goes, the absence of evidence does not equal the evidence of absence.

“When you have so many people commenting about it, there’s got to be something going on,” says Almada. “So, let’s find out what’s mediating that and build a brand around that.”  Almada says he’s going to launch his own CBD brand later in 2018, with a portion of revenues specifically allocated to conducting long-term clinical trials focusing on sleep, mood, pain and inflammation, as well as traumatic brain injury in concussive sports.

Obviously, that will take a fair bit of revenues, but for now, at least, there’s a big enough market and consumer interest to drive the scientists who inform the athletes. In some cases, it goes the other direction and the athletes inform the companies.

Former NFL quarterback Jake Plummer has been a huge advocate of CBD on his journey to deal with nagging injuries after he retired from pro football. “With the right amounts of CBD, which contains trace amounts of THC, I feel virtually pain free,” Plummer wrote in Sports Illustrated. “The inflammation in my joints that stiffened up in the cold winter months was gone. The random headaches that would throb behind my eyes to the beat of my heart? Gone. I still eat gluten and sugar, I still enjoy a cold brew or two. The only thing different? CBD.”

Plummer is now an official spokesman for CW Hemp, makers of the pioneering CBD brand Charlotte’s Web.

Other athletes are getting into the CBD game with the aim of developing formulations to help fellow active individuals.

“As athletes,” says Don McLaughlin, founder and CEO of PurePower Botanicals, a startup supplement company featuring formulas for sports performance that combine herbs and minerals along with hemp, “we know all too well the importance of optimizing and sustaining energy, managing stress, getting consistent deep sleep to support recovery, and effectively managing inflammation.”

PurePower is starting off with three formulated products: PowerUp, PowerDown and Reboot.

“Our initial product lineup is meant to help address the core fundamentals we all struggle with at times,” says McLaughlin. “Our PowerUp energy formula is targeted at enhancing long-term energy and focus, while our Reboot product targets recovery and rejuvenation, particularly in joints. Our PowerDown formula supports achieving a deep and restful sleep.”

One interesting angle that has made CBD a potential new entrant to the sports game is that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the preeminent governing body of drug testing and policy in global sports, removed CBD from the WADA list of banned substances. THC—the cannabinoid that gets you high—as well as other cannabinoids, synthetic or plant-derived, remain on the WADA Prohibited List for “in competition” use, which means the period from about 12 hours before a competition begins through the awards ceremony and the time of collecting associated biological samples such as urine and blood. That means THC has no value as a performance enhancer, but it does leave open the potential for CBD as a bioactive substance that can aid in other, more nuanced areas of sports performance and recovery.

“The low-hanging fruit,” says Stuart Tomc, vice president of human nutrition at hemp oil brand CV Sciences, “is really in pain, inflammation, anxiety and neuroprotection. Those are areas where there is great interest.”

Here’s an anecdote from Richard Rose, who runs the Medicinal Hemp Association page on Facebook. Rose once worked for Cheribundi, the tart cherry juice company. “[Cheribundi’s] mostly-sole claim to fame was reducing inflammation,” says Rose. “Half their business was with sports teams, especially COX (cyclooxygenase)-mediated inflammation from strenuous exertion. Having used CBD for four years now, I have to say it is the most powerful anti-inflammatory I’ve used. Better than even Celebrex.”

In a 2015 survey of 704 patients conducted by Care By Design, the top five health conditions used by those consuming CBD were mood or psychiatric disorders (21 percent), inflammatory conditions (19 percent), pain (14 percent), cancer-related symptoms (12 percent) and central nervous system injuries and conditions (12 percent).

One of the primary aspects of recovery is dealing with post-exercise pain. And studies have indeed been conducted that show efficacy for CBD as a COX-2 inhibitor (Takeda, 2008). COX-2 is expressed by cells that are involved in inflammation and has emerged as the isoform primarily involved in acute and chronic inflammation. While classic non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin inhibit both cox-1 and COX-2 activities, CBD was shown to inhibit just COX-2—which means anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects without the untoward side effects.

In a study using an oral spray comprised of both CBD and THC, patients showed a 39 percent reduction in pain, with at least half of all patients experiencing at least a clinically relevant 30 percent improvement with pain. The pain-reduction effects continued to increase with time up until the end of the nine-month study. Sleep quality also improved.

More research needs to be done, but that day is drawing near. The FDA just approved a CBD isolate as a pharmaceutical drug, to British drug company GW Pharmaceuticals.

Between the terpenes and various and sundry other cannabinoids found within the cannabis plant, there likely remains a wealth of botanical intelligence yet to come.

Opposition to research is falling quickly—the NFL Players Association is considering bargaining to include CBD and potentially THC as approved substances for players to use. Published research will no doubt begin to emerge around the world that validates the experience of so many repeat buyers of industrial hemp-derived oil containing cannabidiol. That could possibly tilt the balance away from raw evangelism and faith and toward an evidence-based healthcare. 

 

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