Evidence based

CBD & Muscle Recovery: Current Research & Understanding

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.

Article By
Justin Cooke , posted 2 weeks ago

  • Table of Contents

Why are high-level athletes in the NFL, NHL, NBA, and UFC using cannabidiol (CBD) supplements?

Athletes are using CBD to help them recover faster between workouts and after an event. Faster recovery means they can get back into the gym sooner to continue their training.

In this article, we’ll explore what makes CBD so 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.

We’ll also cover how CBD may help your recovery by supporting sleep, lowering stress, and optimizing protein synthesis and stem cell differentiation.

Here’s everything you need to know about using CBD to support muscle recovery.

Summary: Evidence-Based Benefits of CBD for Muscle Recovery

  1. Relaxes muscle tissue [6,7,8]
  2. May relieve acute pain in the muscles [4,9–11]
  3. Reduces inflammation [4]
  4. Improves sleep quality [13,14]
  5. May enhance satellite cell differentiation in the muscles [4]
  6. May support protein synthesis by reducing cortisol levels [4,12]

So What Exactly is CBD?

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 that are found along with over a hundred other cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. 

But 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 to help with symptoms like anxiety, pain, inflammation, and sleep disorders.

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.

How Does CBD Work?

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:

  • 5HT1A receptors (serotonin receptors) [15]
  • Vanilloid pain receptors [16]
  • PPARγ nuclear receptors [17]

How Can CBD Help With Muscle Recovery?

1. Reducing Inflammation

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 [1], while other studies have found that icing offers no benefit for shortening recovery time [2].

The controversy revolves around what role inflammation plays during the recovery process.

How Inflammation Helps The Muscles Recover

Indeed, the process of inflammation is designed to help damaged muscle fibers recover — it brings in blood flow to the area, delivering 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 [3] — leading to faster recovery and a return of strength to the muscles.

How Inflammation Slows Recovery

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.

CBD has been shown to inhibit a wide range of inflammatory molecules but has little effect on reducing TGF-β and IL-10. In some studies, CBD even caused an increase in IL-10 [4].

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.

2. Lowering Muscle Tension

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 [8]. 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.

3. Alleviating Pain

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.

CBD is thought to stop pain through three main mechanisms:

  1. Inhibit pain transmission in the spinal cord and brain [9,10]
  2. Reduce inflammatory messenger activity [4]
  3. Lower sensitivity to pain through vanilloid receptors [11]

4. Improving Sleep Quality & Duration

A few of the most important aspects of muscle recovery happen while we sleep. This is when most of our recovery processes become active [12].

Some of the important processes that take place while we sleep include:

  • Restoring damaged proteins like troponin, actin, and myosin
  • Removing cellular debris from damaged areas
  • Converting lactic acid to glucose in the liver
  • Stimulating the differentiation of stem cells into new muscle fibers

Sleep deprivation can pose negative effects on recovery in a few key areas [12]:

  1. May lead to a reduction in insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) — which we already pointed out as being one of the main triggers for differentiation of the muscle stem cells (satellite cells).
  2. May increase cortisol levels — which has a negative impact on protein synthesis.
  3. May cause a reduction in testosterone — which is heavily involved in the process of muscle recovery for both men and women.

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 [13].

Other studies have found similar results using only CBD on rats [14]. 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.

The Muscular System 101: Understanding Muscle Anatomy & Regeneration

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).

What Makes Your Muscles Sore After a Workout?

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.

How is DOMS Usually Treated?

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:

  1. Rest — This is the simplest treatment, but takes the longest amount of time.
  2. Massage therapy — Physically massaging the muscles helps to stimulate the area, remove lactic acid buildup that may be causing more inflammation to the area, and force fresh blood into the affected area.
  3. Painkillers — Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like Ibuprofen and Aspirin are often used to reduce inflammation and stop the pain. Unfortunately, these medications also come with negative side-effects.
  4. Ice packs — Cooling the area slows blood flow and reduces inflammation. This only works if applied directly after an injury or following a workout.

Can Athletes Use CBD? Is it Legal in Competitive Sports?

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.

Always consume at your own discretion and risk.

How Can CBD Be Added To A Recovery Regimen?

There are so many different CBD supplements available these days, it’s incredibly easy for people to start using this supplement in whatever capacity makes the most sense for them.

Here are some of the most common ways people are adding CBD to their supplement regimen:

  1. Add CBD oils to your protein or nutritional shakes
  2. Take CBD capsules or gummies
  3. Use CBD oils sublingually after a workout and on recovery days
  4. Use a vaporizer pen
  5. Apply CBD topicals directly over the affected muscles

The hardest part of using CBD isn’t the type of CBD supplement to use, because this really just depends on your individual preferences and lifestyle. The hardest part is actually figuring out the right dose to take.

Why is dosing CBD so difficult? Because everybody responds differently.

We’ve offered tips on calculating out the right dose of CBD in some of our other educational resources, which can be used to help you find a starting point — but there will always be a layer of trial and error involved when it comes to CBD. You’ll need to take some time to understand how the supplement works for you and your body by gradually increasing the dose over time.

This works by starting at the low range of the recommended dose, and adding 5-10 mg per day until you find a dose that works for you.

The only exception to this process is topical CBD. Since topical CBD isn’t absorbed into the bloodstream, you can use a lot more at a time. If using a CBD topical for the first time, make sure to apply a small amount to the skin first to check for possible allergies to the added ingredients.

If you don’t experience any itching or redness after the first 2–3 applications, you can go ahead and apply to the whole muscle group. In many cases, an allergic reaction will only appear when you use something the second time. Many children allergic to peanuts or other foods only experience anaphylactic shock on the second, or even third time they ate these foods.

There’s a perfectly good explanation for why this happens (involving antibody production), but this will have to wait for another discussion.

How To Get The Most From CBD For Muscle Recovery

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 recovery:

  1. Drink plenty of water — the recovery process releases a lot of metabolic waste into the bloodstream that needs to be filtered out by the kidneys.
  2. Stretch thoroughly after a workout — this helps to remove harmful lactic acid after a workout and improve blood flow to the affected muscles.
  3. Follow the advice of an experienced physiotherapist — it’s ideal to seek professional help to monitor your recovery and provide specific advice.
  4. Listen to your body — 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.
  5. Use CBD both internally, and topically — this is going to provide the best chance for CBD to exert its effects on the muscles.
  6. Get plenty of rest — 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.
  7. Always opt for high-quality CBD products only — 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.
  8. Take other supplements — some of the best supplements for promoting recovery are branched chain amino acids (BCAA’s), magnesium, B vitamins, and vitamin C.
  9. Eat a wholesome diet rich in proteins and phytonutrients — 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.

Summing it All Up: CBD & Muscle Recovery

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 some unique benefits to the recovery process by reducing inflammation in the area that may cause unnecessary damage to surrounding muscles, improving our quality of sleep to support the repair process, and alleviating symptoms like pain or muscle tension. All these qualities may 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.

References

  1. Ramos, G. V., Pinheiro, C. M., Messa, S. P., Delfino, G. B., de Cássia Marqueti, R., de Fátima Salvini, T., & Durigan, J. L. Q. (2016). Cryotherapy reduces inflammatory response without altering muscle regeneration process and extracellular matrix remodeling of rat muscle. Scientific reports, 6, 18525.
  2. Crystal, N. J., Townson, D. H., Cook, S. B., & LaRoche, D. P. (2013). Effect of cryotherapy on muscle recovery and inflammation following a bout of damaging exercise. European journal of applied physiology, 113(10), 2577-2586.
  3. Arnold, L. et al. Inflammatory monocytes recruited after skeletal muscle injury switch into antiinflammatory macrophages to support myogenesis. J. Exp. Med. 204, 1057–1069 (2007).
  4. Nagarkatti, P., Pandey, R., Rieder, S. A., Hegde, V. L., & Nagarkatti, M. (2009). Cannabinoids as novel anti-inflammatory drugs. Future medicinal chemistry, 1(7), 1333-1349.
  5. Watanabe, M., Maemura, K., Kanbara, K., Tamayama, T., & Hayasaki, H. (2002). GABA and GABA receptors in the central nervous system and other organs. In International review of cytology (Vol. 213, pp. 1-47). Academic Press.
  6. Jewett, B. E., & Sharma, S. (2018). Physiology, GABA. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing.
  7. Lile, J. A., Kelly, T. H., & Hays, L. R. (2014). Separate and combined effects of the GABAA positive allosteric modulator diazepam and Δ9-THC in humans discriminating Δ9-THC. Drug and alcohol dependence, 143, 141-148.
  8. Purcell, C., Davis, A., Moolman, N., & Taylor, S. M. (2019). Reduction of Benzodiazepine Use in Patients Prescribed Medical Cannabis. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research.
  9. Hohmann, A. G., Briley, E. M., & Herkenham, M. (1999). Pre-and postsynaptic distribution of cannabinoid and mu opioid receptors in rat spinal cord. Brain research, 822(1-2), 17-25.
  10. Manzanares, J., Julian, M. D., & Carrascosa, A. (2006). Role of the cannabinoid system in pain control and therapeutic implications for the management of acute and chronic pain episodes. Current neuropharmacology, 4(3), 239-257.
  11. Costa, B., Giagnoni, G., Franke, C., Trovato, A. E., & Colleoni, M. (2004). Vanilloid TRPV1 receptor mediates the antihyperalgesic effect of the nonpsychoactive cannabinoid, cannabidiol, in a rat model of acute inflammation. British journal of pharmacology, 143(2), 247-250.
  12. Dattilo, M., Antunes, H. K. M., Medeiros, A., Neto, M. M., Souza, H. S. D., Tufik, S., & De Mello, M. T. (2011). Sleep and muscle recovery: endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis. Medical hypotheses, 77(2), 220-222.
  13. Russo, E. B., Guy, G. W., & Robson, P. J. (2007). Cannabis, pain, and sleep: lessons from therapeutic clinical trials of Sativex®, a cannabis‐based medicine. Chemistry & biodiversity, 4(8), 1729-1743.
  14. Chagas, M. H. N., Crippa, J. A. S., Zuardi, A. W., Hallak, J. E., Machado-de-Sousa, J. P., Hirotsu, C., … & Andersen, M. L. (2013). Effects of acute systemic administration of cannabidiol on sleep-wake cycle in rats. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 27(3), 312-316.
  15. Nelson, K., Walsh, D., Deeter, P., & Sheehan, F. (1994). A phase II study of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol for appetite stimulation in cancer-associated anorexia. Journal of palliative care.
  16. gno, T., Hanuš, L., De Petrocellis, L., Tchilibon, S., Ponde, D. E., Brandi, I., … & Di Marzo, V. (2001). Molecular targets for cannabidiol and its synthetic analogues: effect on vanilloid VR1 receptors and on the cellular uptake and enzymatic hydrolysis of anandamide. British journal of pharmacology, 134(4), 845-852.
  17. Pertwee, R. G., Howlett, A. C., Abood, M. E., Alexander, S. P. H., Di Marzo, V., Elphick, M. R., … & Mechoulam, R. (2010). International Union of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology. LXXIX. Cannabinoid receptors and their ligands: beyond CB1 and CB2. Pharmacological reviews, 62(4), 588-631.
  18. Sethi, B. B., Trivedi, J. K., Kumar, P., Gulati, A., Agarwal, A. K., & Sethi, N. (1986). Antianxiety effect of cannabis: involvement of central benzodiazepine receptors. Biological psychiatry, 21(1), 3-10.

  • Table of Contents

Why are high-level athletes in the NFL, NHL, NBA, and UFC using cannabidiol (CBD) supplements?

Athletes are using CBD to help them recover faster between workouts and after an event. Faster recovery means they can get back into the gym sooner to continue their training.

In this article, we’ll explore what makes CBD so 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.

We’ll also cover how CBD may help your recovery by supporting sleep, lowering stress, and optimizing protein synthesis and stem cell differentiation.

Here’s everything you need to know about using CBD to support muscle recovery.

Summary: Evidence-Based Benefits of CBD for Muscle Recovery

  1. Relaxes muscle tissue [6,7,8]
  2. May relieve acute pain in the muscles [4,9–11]
  3. Reduces inflammation [4]
  4. Improves sleep quality [13,14]
  5. May enhance satellite cell differentiation in the muscles [4]
  6. May support protein synthesis by reducing cortisol levels [4,12]

So What Exactly is CBD?

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 that are found along with over a hundred other cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. 

But 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 to help with symptoms like anxiety, pain, inflammation, and sleep disorders.

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.

How Does CBD Work?

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:

  • 5HT1A receptors (serotonin receptors) [15]
  • Vanilloid pain receptors [16]
  • PPARγ nuclear receptors [17]

How Can CBD Help With Muscle Recovery?

1. Reducing Inflammation

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 [1], while other studies have found that icing offers no benefit for shortening recovery time [2].

The controversy revolves around what role inflammation plays during the recovery process.

How Inflammation Helps The Muscles Recover

Indeed, the process of inflammation is designed to help damaged muscle fibers recover — it brings in blood flow to the area, delivering 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 [3] — leading to faster recovery and a return of strength to the muscles.

How Inflammation Slows Recovery

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.

CBD has been shown to inhibit a wide range of inflammatory molecules but has little effect on reducing TGF-β and IL-10. In some studies, CBD even caused an increase in IL-10 [4].

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.

2. Lowering Muscle Tension

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 [8]. 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.

3. Alleviating Pain

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.

CBD is thought to stop pain through three main mechanisms:

  1. Inhibit pain transmission in the spinal cord and brain [9,10]
  2. Reduce inflammatory messenger activity [4]
  3. Lower sensitivity to pain through vanilloid receptors [11]

4. Improving Sleep Quality & Duration

A few of the most important aspects of muscle recovery happen while we sleep. This is when most of our recovery processes become active [12].

Some of the important processes that take place while we sleep include:

  • Restoring damaged proteins like troponin, actin, and myosin
  • Removing cellular debris from damaged areas
  • Converting lactic acid to glucose in the liver
  • Stimulating the differentiation of stem cells into new muscle fibers

Sleep deprivation can pose negative effects on recovery in a few key areas [12]:

  1. May lead to a reduction in insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) — which we already pointed out as being one of the main triggers for differentiation of the muscle stem cells (satellite cells).
  2. May increase cortisol levels — which has a negative impact on protein synthesis.
  3. May cause a reduction in testosterone — which is heavily involved in the process of muscle recovery for both men and women.

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 [13].

Other studies have found similar results using only CBD on rats [14]. 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.

The Muscular System 101: Understanding Muscle Anatomy & Regeneration

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).

What Makes Your Muscles Sore After a Workout?

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.

How is DOMS Usually Treated?

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:

  1. Rest — This is the simplest treatment, but takes the longest amount of time.
  2. Massage therapy — Physically massaging the muscles helps to stimulate the area, remove lactic acid buildup that may be causing more inflammation to the area, and force fresh blood into the affected area.
  3. Painkillers — Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like Ibuprofen and Aspirin are often used to reduce inflammation and stop the pain. Unfortunately, these medications also come with negative side-effects.
  4. Ice packs — Cooling the area slows blood flow and reduces inflammation. This only works if applied directly after an injury or following a workout.

Can Athletes Use CBD? Is it Legal in Competitive Sports?

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.

Always consume at your own discretion and risk.

How Can CBD Be Added To A Recovery Regimen?

There are so many different CBD supplements available these days, it’s incredibly easy for people to start using this supplement in whatever capacity makes the most sense for them.

Here are some of the most common ways people are adding CBD to their supplement regimen:

  1. Add CBD oils to your protein or nutritional shakes
  2. Take CBD capsules or gummies
  3. Use CBD oils sublingually after a workout and on recovery days
  4. Use a vaporizer pen
  5. Apply CBD topicals directly over the affected muscles

The hardest part of using CBD isn’t the type of CBD supplement to use, because this really just depends on your individual preferences and lifestyle. The hardest part is actually figuring out the right dose to take.

Why is dosing CBD so difficult? Because everybody responds differently.

We’ve offered tips on calculating out the right dose of CBD in some of our other educational resources, which can be used to help you find a starting point — but there will always be a layer of trial and error involved when it comes to CBD. You’ll need to take some time to understand how the supplement works for you and your body by gradually increasing the dose over time.

This works by starting at the low range of the recommended dose, and adding 5-10 mg per day until you find a dose that works for you.

The only exception to this process is topical CBD. Since topical CBD isn’t absorbed into the bloodstream, you can use a lot more at a time. If using a CBD topical for the first time, make sure to apply a small amount to the skin first to check for possible allergies to the added ingredients.

If you don’t experience any itching or redness after the first 2–3 applications, you can go ahead and apply to the whole muscle group. In many cases, an allergic reaction will only appear when you use something the second time. Many children allergic to peanuts or other foods only experience anaphylactic shock on the second, or even third time they ate these foods.

There’s a perfectly good explanation for why this happens (involving antibody production), but this will have to wait for another discussion.

How To Get The Most From CBD For Muscle Recovery

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 recovery:

  1. Drink plenty of water — the recovery process releases a lot of metabolic waste into the bloodstream that needs to be filtered out by the kidneys.
  2. Stretch thoroughly after a workout — this helps to remove harmful lactic acid after a workout and improve blood flow to the affected muscles.
  3. Follow the advice of an experienced physiotherapist — it’s ideal to seek professional help to monitor your recovery and provide specific advice.
  4. Listen to your body — 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.
  5. Use CBD both internally, and topically — this is going to provide the best chance for CBD to exert its effects on the muscles.
  6. Get plenty of rest — 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.
  7. Always opt for high-quality CBD products only — 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.
  8. Take other supplements — some of the best supplements for promoting recovery are branched chain amino acids (BCAA’s), magnesium, B vitamins, and vitamin C.
  9. Eat a wholesome diet rich in proteins and phytonutrients — 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.

Summing it All Up: CBD & Muscle Recovery

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 some unique benefits to the recovery process by reducing inflammation in the area that may cause unnecessary damage to surrounding muscles, improving our quality of sleep to support the repair process, and alleviating symptoms like pain or muscle tension. All these qualities may 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.

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