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The mental and physical relief cannabis can provide offers many benefits to athletes who want versatile solutions.

Cannabis, once thought of as a drug for couch surfing loafers, is now being reveled to be more than the stereotypical Cheeto munchers best friend.

Misconceptions are giving way to the new science and widespread acceptance of cannabis as a positive influence on our body, health and wellbeing.

But, let’s face it, it’s still a bit confusing.

One the one hand, current science is supporting cannabis – and the cannabinoids found in cannabis – as powerful agents able to co-partner with our internal endocannabinoid system to help us: maintain health and wellbeing, treat previously untreatable medical conditions, and act as harm reduction agents for traumas and injuries.

On the other hand, we’re still in the dark ages in terms of the federal laws and changing old misperceptions and stereotypes. – especially in professional athletics.

The current legal stance on cannabis in the U.S. and professional sports

Statewide, thirty- three states, four out of five permanently inhabited U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana programs. PLUS, ten states have legalized recreational cannabis.

In terms of cannabis use and professional athletics, the laws and guidelines are taking a bit more time to come around.  The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) considers cannabis a “performance enhancing drug”, even though there is little evidence to support this statement.

But in 2013, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) raised the THC limit threshold an athlete could test positive for. At the time, the head of the International Olympic Committee, Arne Ljungqvist, who is also on WADA’s board, said the change was “a reasonable attempt at dealing with a complicated matter,” adding: “There is a big debate on it.”

In the end, he said WADA came to the conclusion that “marijuana can be a performance enhancing stimulant and it is therefore forbidden in relation to a competition.” He also added that because marijuana “is a socially more or less an accepted drug being used in social context” the threshold for a positive test during competition was increased.

WADA and the USADA do allow athletes to apply for therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) which would allow athletes to use medications on the agency’s prohibited list. This application would include a doctor’s recommendation and documentation that an athlete needs to use a particular medication as part of their treatment regimen.

So legally, it’s still kind of a fuster-cluck. Luckily…

Cannabis use is no longer a secret: Professional athletes use it and are willing to advocate for it

More and more athletes are starting to talk about their cannabis use. NFL and NBA players have publicly estimated 80% of players use cannabis to manage pain, anxiety, and other issues.

NFL running back Mike Jones is one example; he not only turned to medical marijuana for his pain management, but more importantly, because of his “dangerous dependency’ on opioids.

He isn’t alone.  According to a recent study of NFL players and opioid dependency:

  • Over half (52%) used opioids during their NFL career
  • 71% reported misuse
  • 15% of NFL misusers currently misused vs. 5% among players who used just as prescribed during their NFL career
  • The prevalence of current opioid use was 7%-3 times the rate of the general population

And, this May, Athletes for CARE, a non-profit that advocated for research into cannabis for brain injury and other health issues, requested WADA remove THC from its banned list, following this up a with a petition on Change.org.

These professional athletes, willing to risk their careers to advance the acceptance of cannabis in sports are paving the way for future elite athletes.

And, health enthusiasts also cite cannabis as a key component of their workout routines

In April, The University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Psychology & Neuroscience partnered with The Institute of Cognitive Science, Boulder to explore the connection between cannabis and exercise. “the study sought to take initial steps in understanding possible mechanisms through which cannabis could influence exercise behavior, by examining attitudes toward how cannabis co-use influences the exercise experience.”

Here’s what they found:

  • The majority of participants who endorsed using cannabis concurrently with exercise reported that doing so at least somewhat enhances recovery from and enjoyment of exercise.
  • Approximately half reported that it at least somewhat increases motivation.
  • A minority reported that it enhances performance. 

According to the study, the anecdotal data suggests that many cannabis users in states with legal cannabis, use cannabis in conjunction with exercise. Most who do, believe it increases enjoyment of, recovery from, and to some extent the motivation to engage in exercise. “As these factors positively correlate with exercise behavior using cannabis with exercise may play a beneficial role in the health of cannabis users.”

So, what’s this mean for cannabis and professional athletics?

It seems to be a matter of finding that tipping point, where cannabis research and studies support the anecdotal, personal accounts of professional athletes, and tip the scales to cannabis in sports as acceptable and legal.

For now, …

Here’s a few highlights if you’re an athlete considering using cannabis

Cannabis is a healthy alternative to NSAIDs and Opioids

Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription anti-inflammatory medications are easily available, readily prescribed, and very commonly used.  The most common anti-inflammatory medications are called NSAIDs: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. 

For years NSAIDs (i.e. Ibuprofen, Aspirin, Aleve) were thought to have little to no side-affects. Lately, they’re among the most controversial. Why? Turns out they increase your risk for heart attack and stroke.

Opioids (i.e. oxycontin, morphine, codeine) were used for decades – and still are today – by competitive athletes for pain management. They are powerful drugs used for decreasing pain, but they carry a significant risk of addiction and death by overdose. Because of their overuse and over-prescription, the United States is in the midst of an opioid crisis. According to the National Institute of Drug Use (NIH) statistics, in 2017 there were over 47,000 opioid overdose deaths in the United States, with a 12.9-fold increase from 2007 to 2017.

Cannabis, on the other hand, does not carry the risk of overdose or fatality. According to the DEA,  “No deaths from overdose of [cannabis] have been reported.”  As describes by the  NIH’s National Cancer Institute, this is because, “cannabinoid receptors, unlike opioid receptors, are NOT located in the brainstem areas controlling respiration – lethal doses from cannabinoids do not occur”.

Cannabis is a pain reliever: during and after workouts

Cannabis is an effective analgesic, helping reduce pain both during and after exercise. The cannabinoid reduces pain via two major pain-signally pathways:  the descending pain inhibitory pathway, which is the brain’s way of telling the rest of the body to stop sending pain signals, and the  ascending pain inhibitory pathway, which prevents pain signals from being sent in the first place.

Athletes have discovered the profound benefits cannabis offers: A natural pain-relieving alternative that reduces exercise-induced inflammation and pain.

Cannabis promotes bone growth and healing of stress fractures

Scientists studying the effect of the cannabinoids on bone healing and development agree they can accelerate the process of the body healing broken bones and making them stronger. A recent study discovered that “physiologic involvement of CB2 is associated with maintaining bone remodeling at balance, thus protecting the skeleton against age-related bone loss.”

Whole plant cannabis has a powerful “Entourage Effect”

The entourage effect describes how the hundreds of therapeutic compounds known as cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids, synergistically work together to produce specific overall health and wellbeing effects. Recent studies, like this one, shows how the entourage effect in whole plant cannabis,  works for the treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections (including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

Cannabis can support neuropathic health and help heal traumatic brain trauma injuries

Currently, a tremendous amount of groundbreaking research is being done on cannabinoids as neuroprotective agents in diseases like Alzheimer’s to brain injuries resulting in TBI’s (traumatic brain injuries).

The CDC defines a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as, “caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that disrupts the normal function of the brain.”

TBI’s affect 1.7 million Americans annually and all of us are at risk for a TBI, especially children, older adults, and athletes in high impact sports.

Neurologist Eugene L. Scharf’s latest research discovered that, “cannabinoids of all classes have the ability to protect neurons from a variety of insults that are believed to underlie delayed neuronal death after traumatic brain injury (TBI), including excitotoxicity, calcium influx, free radical formation and neuroinflammation.

When deciding if this is for you, science points to great low-dose uses for it.

In the end, only you can judge if the results work best for you.