May 07 2019

CBD For Performance: What We Know So Far

By Mark Sisson
27 Comments

I left the pro athlete world a long time ago. I no longer compete. I don’t train with the intensity and volume it’d take to win races. But I do pay attention to what’s going on in that world, and I still have a lot of friends who never left it. Developments there often foreshadow developments in the rest of the health world. And after things like keto, MCT oil/ketones, and collagen, the performance hack that’s blowing up among elite athletes is CBD oil. Almost everyone I talk to who puts in serious training and competing time (in a variety of sports and pursuits) is dabbling with CBD.

What are they using it for?

There are two main claims when it comes to CBD and fitness.

  • That it improves sleep.
  • That it reduces pain, improves workout recovery, and helps you get back to training and competition.

Do their claims have any scientific support?

CBD and Sleep

A big review of CBD and sleep found that CBD increased sleep time and reduced the number of times people woke up during the night, improved sleep quality, reduced REM-related behavioral disorder (where you act out your dreams in your sleep), and improved sleep in anxiety patients.

Sleep is one of the biggest weak spots for many athletes. They sacrifice sleep for gym time. They train late at night under bright lights and come home energized and unable to get to bed. They focus on the workouts rather than the recovery. But here’s the thing: the more you train, the more sleep you need. The more performance you need to wring out of your body, the higher your sleep requirements are going to stack. There’s no getting around it. Sleep is one of the most important things to get right if you want to improve performance and make your hard work count for something.

But let’s get more granular. You want details?

Sleep deprivation ruins your posture and makes you more liable to make technique mistakes, get injured, and compromise movement quality and power. If you can’t coordinate your limbs, you won’t succeed in the gym or on the field (and you’ll probably make a critical mistake that gets you hurt).

Sleep deprivation kills your judgment. If you’re not thinking clearly, you’ll make silly mistakes and dangerous choices. Go for the last rep on the deadlift when your back’s about to give out, that sort of thing.

Sleep deprivation squanders your adaptation to training. Enjoy the insulin sensitivity and improved energy utilization training provides? Sleep loss blunts both. Like gaining muscle in response to lifting heavy things? Sleep loss inhibits muscle protein synthesis.

Sleep deprivation makes eating well harder. If you’re training for fat loss and body composition, you know that eating is well over half the battle. A single night of bad sleep makes you more vulnerable to the rewarding effects of junk food. It becomes harder to resist and more addictive.

Sleep deprivation causes muscle loss. A lack of sleep increases urinary nitrogen, a sign that the body is breaking down lean muscle mass.

So, is there a connection between sleep, CBD, and performance?

That hasn’t been directly tested. We know two things:

  1. CBD can help people who are having trouble sleeping get more sleep.
  2. Sleep is ergogenic. If you aren’t sleeping, you aren’t maximizing your performance in the gym and adaptation to your training.

That’s not to say you can’t get good sleep without CBD. It’s not a requirement for good sleep. But if CBD is helping athletes get better sleep than they would otherwise, it’s also giving them a performance and training boost.

CBD and Pain, Adaptation, and Recovery

One of the biggest quandaries an athlete faces is how to balance pain management, training adaptation, and workout recovery.

You can use ice baths to get back in the game quicker, but you might reduce training adaptations.

You can take two days off after a really tough workout and maximize the training effect, but you won’t be able to compete in the interim.

You can pound NSAIDs to reduce pain, but it might slow down your recovery and impair your adaptation to the exercise.

Everything has a tradeoff. And if you lean too far in one direction, you’ll pay the price. Back when I was competing, I leaned hard toward “getting back out there.” I ate ice cream and grains by the gallon to replenish the energy I expended, popped Tylenol like candy to dull the pain long enough to let me get through the next workout. It all worked out in the end (I wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t messed up so badly), but boy if I didn’t cut it close.

Where Does CBD Fit In?

CBD is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It can block neurotoxicity from oxidative stress. It lowers inflammatory cytokines and raises anti-inflammatory cytokines. It may reduce a person’s reliance on opioids for pain control. It can even synergize with NSAIDs, reducing the amount you need to get the same effect. And it can do all this without causing liver damage. Sounds uniformly beneficial, right?

Be careful. Anti-inflammation can be a double-edged sword. After all, inflammation isn’t wholly pathogenic:

The inflammatory response is the healing response.

Training adaptations occur in response to the inflammatory effect of exercise.

The inflammatory reactive oxygen species that we’re all so worried about also serve as cellular messengers that provoke the creation of new mitochondria and the production of endogenous antioxidants like glutathione.

This is hormesis—the application of good stressors to make us healthier, stronger, and more resilient.

NSAIDs have many of the same effects, like blocking inflammatory cytokines, and have been used by athletes for decades to reduce pain, improve acute performance, and hasten the return to competition. They’ve also been shown to reduce muscle adaptations to resistance training and impair healing even as they reduce pain.

One of CBD’s anti-inflammatory effects is to blunt the release of interleukin 6 (IL-6), an inflammatory cytokine. This isn’t always helpful, as studies show. A hard training session spikes IL-6, and, at least in animal studies using IL-6 knockouts (mice who produce no IL-6 at all), lack of an IL-6 response tends to reduce muscle and adipose tissue adaptations to exercise. NSAIDs are another anti-inflammatory drug that block IL-6 and have been shown to impair muscle adaptations to resistance training in the young and improve them in the elderly. In other words, NSAIDs impair the hormetic stress effect of exercise in the young (who tend to have a lower stress burden and higher stress resilience) and enable it in the elderly (who tend to have lower stress resilience).

What Does This Mean For You?

Well, it depends on who you are and your situation.

High stress lifestyle? CBD can probably help you blunt some of your underlying stress to give the training a bigger effect. Low stress lifestyle? CBD might blunt it too much and render your training less adaptive.

As for CBD’s effect on pain means, there are a lot of unanswered questions that I trust will be answered in due time.

CBD may help mask the pain from injuries by exerting anti-inflammatory effects while slowing down healing. However, if your baseline inflammatory status is high, reducing inflammation may be just what you need to improve healing.

CBD may help reduce pain by speeding up the healing process. There’s even some evidence in rodents that CBD can speed up the healing process of a fractured bone. Does that happen in humans? Does that happen in other types of injuries? Maybe.

That said, if taking CBD before a workout is the only thing that lets you actually get through the workout without pain, it’s going to be better than not taking it. I know of a few people who swear by CBD for joint relief; they couldn’t do what they love without it.

We have a lot more to learn about CBD and training. The benefits for athletes who need help with sleep are clear and well-established. The benefits for athletes who need help with pain and recovery are murkier—we simply don’t know the details yet. It’s likely that CBD will help athletes recover in some situations and not in others. But for the most part, it’s relatively low-risk. Give it a shot and see what you notice. The beauty of it all is that even if CBD impairs your training adaptation, it’s not set in stone. The safety profile is good. The research is only growing. You can always drop it and keep training and regain your gains.

That’s it for today, folks. Have you used CBD to enhance your training? Did it work? Did it hurt? Tell us all about it down below!

References:

Kozela E, Juknat A, Kaushansky N, Rimmerman N, Ben-nun A, Vogel Z. Cannabinoids decrease the th17 inflammatory autoimmune phenotype. J Neuroimmune Pharmacol. 2013;8(5):1265-76.

Lundberg TR, Howatson G. Analgesic and anti-inflammatory drugs in sports: Implications for exercise performance and training adaptations. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2018;28(11):2252-2262.

Kogan NM, Melamed E, Wasserman E, et al. Cannabidiol, a Major Non-Psychotropic Cannabis Constituent Enhances Fracture Healing and Stimulates Lysyl Hydroxylase Activity in Osteoblasts. J Bone Miner Res. 2015;30(10):1905-13.

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27 thoughts on “CBD For Performance: What We Know So Far”

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  1. Good MDA folks … does anyone have any experience using CBD oil in lieu of an SSRI to help with anxiety and panic? I’m using CBT techniques to deal with anxiety and panic episodes, and cutting back on my doseage of my SSRI with the intent to eliminate over the next couple of months. I was considering giving CBT oil a try (organic, full spectrum), starting out with just a drop or two and building up to a therapeutic doseage. Also, does CBT oil cause fatigue for anyone? It’s the last thing I want to happen as it’s a big reason I want to eliminate taking the SSRI. 🙂

    1. I use it for my arthritis, and have had zero issues with it causing fatigue. I work in the trades, so it would be a hard no if it did. As for anxiety, a friend of mine swears by it. He says a few drops is all he needs.

    2. CBD effects depend quite a bit on the dosage, and more is not always better. It has biphasic properties, which means that at different sized doses, the effects can actually be the opposite of what they would be at another dose. In general, small doses have been shown to cause an uplifting, slightly alerting effect, while higher doses can cause some drowsiness. We recommend starting low and only adjusting up if you are not getting the desired effects.

      Alcohol is another substance that acts like this. If you drink, you may notice that one drink wakes you up a little bit, while several drinks are a powerful depressant.

    3. The first time I used CBD was to treat my daughter’s anxiety and mood swings. She had pretty significant mental health issues. Within two or three days of starting CBD we saw a HUGE difference – she basically went from unstable to stable. It was amazing. We tried several brands and saw a lot of variability. It’s quite expensive, so I started making it myself. Now my husband and I take it too. It’s made a world of difference for my family.

    4. I have had anxiety for the last five years, possibly GAD.
      For me, CBD and ashwagandha have lessened my anxiety by at least 50%. I take CBD twice daily, a dosage of ~10mg. And a tsp of ashwagandha powder dissolved in hot water each morning. Both taste absolutely AWFUL but it’s worth it. 🙂

      I also do an average of 40 mins of meditation every day which has helped immensely. Watching the breath mainly but I do try variations(vipassana/open monitoring).

  2. Unfortunately, even the high quality one I got from a good local pharmacy gives me anxiety. It has no effect on pain either. It works better if I put it on my wrists to absorb through the skin. If I use the drops under my tongue, or swallow it (eventually), I get anxious. Weird.

    1. My parents say it doesn’t work for their arthritis either (leaves me feeling like I’m 20 again). I’m wondering if sometimes the damage is too far gone for it to help. The other possibility that different strains can affect people differently (that goes for the anxiety, too). Might not hurt to try a couple different brands. Lastly, if THC is legal where you are, I find that it helps the effectiveness of the CBD (there’s a reason they’re found together in the plant). Just a drop of two is required, not enough to get high, though that doesn’t hurt if you enjoy the high.

  3. I have no experience using CBD for anxiety or panic episodes so can’t speak to that, but have used the cream form for sore knees. Mild case of osteoarthritis here from years of heavy walking on concrete. The tenderness and soreness are almost gone if I use it nightly around the patella area. Very noticeable difference. Nice fix for something that might require nsaids ( which I don’t want to use) otherwise.

    Thanks as usual for the info, Mark.

    1. Sharla, what brand did you use? I’m looking for something for my sore knees. thanks

      1. Hi Jeff, just saw your post. I actually have a jar of cream that was made by a friend of mine. She doesn’t sell it but makes it with these ingredients: Coconut oil, MCT oil, aloe vera gel, beeswax, shea butter, tea tree oil and low THC cannabis. Hope that helps. You should be able to make some or find plant/dispensarys that are willing to make it for you if you are in an area where it is sold. Good luck to you.

  4. I would like to try CBD but I’m having concerns with finding a trusted source. I’m no pro athlete but regular training, sometimes intense, is part of my lifestyle. I’ve read some really negative stuff on the quality of CBD available. There are some great marketers out there selling junk. When I read other blogs about effects of CBD, I always wonder how much of the discussion is really about quality of CBD vs the true effectiveness of it. I have to assume the research studies use ‘genuine CBD oil’ but I’d like to know where they get it – and how to find a trusted source. A local head shop had it next to the bongs and Hukkah pipes. Not sure of that one.

    1. My understanding is that CBD from hemp is inferior to that which come from an indica or sativa. Availability is going to depend on what state or country you’re in. I’m in Canada, so I can buy weed at the shop down the street if I wanted to, and oils will be legal this fall (you currently need a medical license for oils). In the US, laws vary by state, with some states only allowing the hemp variety, while others allow everything.

      1. That’s junk science. A molecule is a molecule is a molecule. CBD is CBD is CBD, so long as it’s the same molecule.

    2. Consumer lab did a review of several products. The top two products were from Bluebird Botanicals and CBD plus. Rated highly for containing what was on the label and for being lowest cost per 10 mg CBD.

    3. LOL yeah I would be a bit skeptical also. Garden of Life has now come out with a line of CBD oil products organically sourced from farms in Oregon with what appears to be an excellent quality control process, they have an extensive write-up about it. It has been formulated by Dr. Bland who supposedly is The Man when it comes to CBD research, in conjunction with Dr. Perlmutter. I would trust them and also Europharma above all others.

  5. I can’t attest to athletic performance, but damn does it work wonders for my arthritis. Adding just a touch of THC (doesn’t need to be enough to get high) increases it’s effectiveness. I prefer to keep it under control through diet, but sometimes you cave in and have that slice of bread, or whatever. Weather changes can trigger it too, no matter how good you’re eating. Especially here in Alberta, when a Chinook can cause extreme temperature & air pressure changes in a very short period of time.

    1. Sleep is one of the most common reasons people swear by CBD – I would guess the top three are pain, sleep, and anxiety. It’s not a sedative like some other herbs, so you don’t take it and get sleepy. Rather, it acts in the background to ease the issues that may be interfering with sleep, such as pain, overthinking, and restlessness. A small minority of people find CBD interferes with sleep if taken right at bedtime (it can be alerting), but those folks can take it earlier in the day and still have it be very helpful for sleep.

  6. Perhaps start off with an explanation of what CBD is for those of us not in the loop? (^_^_

    1. Hal,

      CBD is short for Cannabidiol, and it is one of the most common cannabinoids found in cannabis. Unlike THC, it does not cause you to feel a euphoric high, but as the article suggests it has been shown to have many benefits. It can be derived from hemp or marijuana, although the hemp version is the easiest to get in the US due to the low THC level of hemp derived products.

      If you had to worry about drug testing for any reason, you would want to find a zero THC brand, as most brands of even hemp derived CBD have trace amounts of THC. Although the THC in those brands is not enough to cause a noticeable effect, it may build up in the body over time to cause a positive drug test.

      1. Yes, thank you Conor! ….I realized what it was after I posted the question, lol. Jumped the gun a bit.

  7. I’ve used CBD in 40mg, 50mg and 60mg daily doses for at least a month each with disappointing improvements to sleep and joint pain. Especially for the cost of these supplements. I’d like to know how much CBD has one has to take to sleep better and decrease joint pain. I’m 67, do boot camp type workouts at least 5 days per week, and am always looking for the next best thing to help me keep going. Thanks for your messages

    1. Dosing varies considerably depending on the person and on the condition being treated. Some people do great microdosing on just a few milligrams per day; others do better over 100 milligrams. Have you tried different brands? There is huge variation brand to brand. Are you taking an isolate or a full spectrum product? If drug testing for your job isn’t a concern, the general consensus is that a full spectrum product is much more effective because of the range of cannabinoids and terpenes present in the whole plant.