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Can CBD be used to support the recovery process between workouts?
What about to speed healing after an injury?
Here’s what the research says about it.
Why are high-level athletes in the NFL, NHL, NBA, and UFC using cannabidiol (CBD) supplements?
Athletes use CBD to help them recover faster between workouts and after an event. Faster recovery means they’re back into the gym sooner to continue training.
In this article, we explore what makes CBD popular for post-workout recovery, as well as recuperation after an injury. We’ll cover what the research says about the anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and muscle relaxant effects of the compound in more detail.
Here’s everything you need to know about using CBD to support muscle recovery.
One of the characteristic symptoms of DOMS is muscle tension.
When it comes to injuries, tension in the muscles surrounding the affected area can make the pain much worse — which is why muscle relaxants are so popular for alleviating pain during recovery from exercise or injuries.
Some forms of prescription muscle relaxants used for treatment-resistant muscle tension are benzodiazepine drugs like Valium. These medications work through the GABA receptors — which are a key regulator of muscle relaxation [5,18].
Benzodiazepines are powerful drugs and come with a significant risk of side-effects like sedation, depression, confusion, dizziness, and trembling — all of which are not conducive to optimal athletic function.
CBD and other cannabinoids have similar effects on GABA as benzodiazepines — only without the risk of severe side-effects [6,7].
Some research even suggests the use of cannabis as a supportive agent for benzodiazepine addiction due to the overlap of effects between the two . This is dangerous and requires monitoring by a doctor, of course. You should never attempt this on your own.
Therefore, CBD may be a useful muscle relaxant for easing muscle tension and pain following an injury or rigorous workout.
CBD is suggested to be a powerful pain-killer — as evidenced by both anecdotal and scientific research. This effect may allow CBD to offer symptomatic support for muscle injuries or post-exercise recovery. With less pain, you’ll find it easier to get yourself back into action faster, and feel more comfortable between exercise.
Perhaps the most important role CBD plays in the process of muscle recovery is in reducing inflammation. The most common method of reducing inflammation after an injury or post-workout is to apply ice to the area.
There’s some debate around whether or not putting icing is helpful for muscle recovery or not, and research is inconclusive — some studies suggest icing the muscles improves recovery times , while other studies have found that icing offers no benefit for shortening recovery time .
The controversy revolves around what role inflammation plays during the recovery process.
The inflammation process is designed to help damaged muscle fibers recover — it brings in blood flow to the area and delivers essential nutrients and oxygen along with it.
Additionally, the increased blood flow helps to clear out cellular debris, damaged proteins, and byproducts of muscle contraction like lactic acid from the area.
Inflammation also stimulates stem cells (called satellite cells) in the muscle to turn into new muscle fibers.
Inflammatory markers like IL-10, TGF-β, TNF-α, and NF-κB are all thought to stimulate the satellite cells of the muscles after an injury  — leading to faster recovery and a return of strength to the muscles.
On the other hand, post-workout muscle damage, or injuries to the muscles often involve specific regions of muscle — yet the inflammatory process affects larger groups of muscles and joints that haven’t been affected. The inflammatory response can cause collateral damage to these regions of muscle and joints — leading to a slower recovery process.
This is the main reason athletes use anti-inflammatories or ice after a workout or injury. Reducing inflammation limits the damage caused to nearby muscle and joint tissue.
Athletes often use ice immediately following a workout, and NSAID medications like Aspirin or Ibuprofen to limit inflammation for the remainder of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS symptoms for the next few days.
CBD offers something even better — and may be able to reduce most of the unhelpful inflammation without compromising its benefits towards the recovery process.
This could explain how CBD may alleviate inflammation in the muscle tissue without compromising recovery times. The important role of IL-10 in the activation of new muscle cell differentiation could have a big impact on our ability to recover from muscle damage.
A few of the most important aspects of muscle recovery happen while we sleep. This is when most of our recovery processes become active .
Some of the important processes that take place while we sleep include:
Sleep deprivation can pose negative effects on recovery in a few key areas :
A combination of CBD and THC in a pharmaceutical preparation of 1 part CBD to 1 part THC known as Sativex® has been tested repeatedly on its effect on sleep. Research has consistently shown Sativex® offers improvements on the quality of sleep, as well as the duration .
Other studies have found similar results using only CBD on rats . Researchers in this study found that CBD was able to increase the total sleep time, as well as improve the ability of rats to fall asleep.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the active ingredients in the cannabis plant. It’s a close relative to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — which is what makes marijuana psychoactive.
CBD and THC are both cannabinoids — organic compounds found alongside over a hundred other cannabinoids in the cannabis plant.
Don’t worry, CBD is completely non-psychoactive — meaning it won’t make you high.
Most companies selling CBD will source it from a specific form of selectively-bred cannabis called hemp — which is the same species as marijuana (Cannabis sativa) but won’t produce more than trace amounts (>0.3%) of the psychoactive ingredient, THC.
CBD supplements made from hemp are completely non-psychoactive due to the lack of THC. As a result, government regulators around the world don’t consider CBD a drug in the same way as marijuana. Most countries regulate CBD as a nutritional supplement instead — however, laws governing cannabis products change frequently, so be sure to check your local laws before placing an order.
CBD has a lot of suggested benefits — many of which have been backed up by scientific and anecdotal evidence. Supplements and pharmaceutical preparations containing CBD are being used by cancer patients to reduce side-effects of chemotherapy (such as nausea), by children with rare forms of epilepsy (such as Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndrome), and by millions of people around the world for symptoms like anxiety, pain, inflammation, and insomnia.
How can CBD have so many suggested benefits?
CBD achieves all of this because of its ability to interact with a regulatory system — rather than one specific organ. This allows CBD to affect many different organs around the body directly and indirectly — including the muscular system.
CBD works through a subsystem in the body found in all mammals called the endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) involves a collection of special G-protein-coupled receptors (called endocannabinoid receptors), and hormones designed to interact with these receptors (called endocannabinoids).
The ECS is used to help regulate homeostasis throughout the body — which basically means internal balance.
Everything from temperature regulation to hormone levels needs to remain within a specific range. Homeostasis is the process of keeping these metrics within the ideal ranges. If we fall too far outside these ranges, we become sick and die.
CBD is a modulator of the endocannabinoid receptors. It attaches to them in a unique way and modifies their structure slightly to allow our naturally-produced endocannabinoids to bind to them more effectively. It also inhibits an enzyme designed to break down our endocannabinoids (called FAAH). This essentially primes the ECS — giving it a boost to do its job more effectively.
CBD doesn’t stimulate the endocannabinoid system directly, rather it helps upregulate the system we already have in place.
Conversely, the psychoactive cannabinoid, THC, activates the endocannabinoid receptors directly (rather than modifying them). Some of the receptors THC activates result in a release of serotonin in the brain — which produces the characteristic high from marijuana plants.
CBD also activates other receptors in the body, including:
There are three kinds of muscle in the human body — but the most relevant for the purpose of this discussion is the skeletal muscle.
The other two are smooth muscle (found in the internal organs and lining of the arteries), and cardiac muscle (a specific type of muscle only found in the heart).
The cells that make up skeletal muscle are uniquely suited to their job. They have more mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell) than most other cells in the body. This is meant to help them meet the high energy demands of the muscles.
Muscle cells are also long and cylindrical, helping them form long fibers.
Each muscle cell contains functional units called sarcomeres — which are the part of the muscle that contracts and expands to allow for movement. Proteins called actin and myosin contained in the cells are responsible for expanding and contracting the muscle tissue to achieve movement using calcium and adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
When a nerve stimulates muscle cells with acetylcholine, (i.e. when you tell your arm to move) calcium is pumped into the cell, which allows actin and myosin to interact, causing the cell to contract (shorten). This step requires a lot of energy — in the form of ATP, produced in the mitochondria of the cell.
When the nerve stops activating the muscle cells, calcium is pumped back out of the muscle cell and phosphate (a form of transferable energy) dislodged, causing the muscle to expand again (lengthen).
By now, you’re probably familiar with the aches and pains that come along with exercising. These sensations are present no matter how often you work out — so what causes them?
Every time you exert your muscles, you cause microscopic damage to millions of tiny proteins that make up your muscle cells. This damage leads to inflammation of the muscle — which causes the characteristic aches, pains, and stiffness experienced after a workout.
The pain after a workout usually begins the following day.
This is referred to in the medical community as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
DOMS is a healthy part of the adaptation process. It only happens when we push our muscles harder than they have before, or in a different way than we’re used to. Over time, repeating these activities will produce less DOMS as the muscles recover and become stronger and more resistant to the same level of exertion.
DOMS will go away on its own — usually after about 3–5 days. Many athletes can’t wait this long to get back into the gym or on the pitch, so they’ll take measures to reduce the downtime.
Here are some of the most common treatments for DOMS:
You may be skimming through this article and wondering — “is CBD legal in sports? Won’t cannabis make athletes fail a drug test if they use it?”
While cannabis is technically illegal, CBD is a clear exception.
In 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD from its banned substances list. This essentially means the organization recognizes that CBD is not comparable to performance-enhancing drugs like amphetamines, hormones, or illegal drugs. This is how professional athletes like Nate Diaz from the UFC are able to use CBD without being banned from events.
With that said, make sure to check your local laws and regulations. Just because WADA allows CBD doesn’t mean your individual country or regulatory agency allows it too.
Drug tests used in professional sports can’t identify chemicals in the blood or urine unless you specifically go looking for them. They don’t provide a full list of compounds contained in the fluid.
Most drug tests for marijuana use synthetic antibodies to look for THC — or the metabolites our body creates after breaking down THC. Therefore, you’ll only fail a drug test for these substances if you’ve used a supplement that included THC. For this reason, if you’re competing in professional sporting events and are interested in using CBD, you should opt for a product made from third-party tested CBD isolate, rather than full-spectrum hemp — which may contain trace amounts of THC.
Here are some of the most common ways people are adding CBD to their supplement regimen:
The recovery process is complex, and shortening the amount of time needed between recoveries relies on many different factors. Taking several different measures at the same time will go a long way in shortening the recovery time beyond what CBD has to offer on its own.
Some simple advice for getting more out of CBD for muscle recovery:
The recovery process releases a lot of metabolic waste into the bloodstream that needs to be filtered out by the kidneys. Aim for at least 3 L of water per day.
This helps to remove harmful lactic acid after a workout and improve blood flow to the affected muscles.
It’s ideal to seek professional help to monitor your recovery and provide specific advice.
Sometimes the pain experienced after a workout is more than DOMS. If you feel a sharp or excruciating pain, or the pain is accompanied by a fever, visit a doctor immediately.
This is going to provide the best chance for CBD to exert its effects on the muscles.
As mentioned, sleep is a critical component of the recovery process. Take the time to rest so you can get back into the gym faster.
There’s a lot of poor-quality CBD products floating around, many of which lack the potency advertised on the bottle, and may even have contaminants like heavy metals which could negatively affect your recovery.
Some of the best supplements for promoting recovery are branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s), magnesium, B vitamins, and vitamin C.
In order to recover the body needs access to the raw materials. These raw materials come from our food. We need proteins (and their amino acid components) to build the structures of muscle tissue, along with trace nutrients and vitamins.
CBD is a popular supplement for a lot of reasons. The active ingredient (CBD) interacts with the endocannabinoid system to regulate homeostasis throughout the body — including the muscles.
After a tough workout, the tiny microfilaments in the muscle fibers become damaged — leading to inflammation, pain, and a loss of strength in the muscle. Over the next 3-5 days, the body needs to repair this damage and strengthen the fibers. During this time, it can be difficult to keep exercising that muscle group, which can ultimately slow down your gains.
Injuries are even worse, sometimes keeping you out of the gym for months on end.
CBD offers several unique benefits to aid the recovery process:
These effects help explain why so many athletes report improvement in recovery times after using CBD.
In order to get the most out of CBD, we recommend you take a multifaceted approach, incorporating other measures into the recovery as well — such as massage, healthy dietary habits, taking other supplements, drinking water, and ensuring you get plenty of rest.
The field of CBD and muscle recovery is still young, and there are dozens of interesting research studies on this subject either in progress or planned for the near future. Be sure to stay tuned by signing up for our newsletter below to receive news and updates on cutting-edge research as it’s published.