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Why Are MMA Fighters Using CBD?

Nate Diaz was spotted hitting a CBD vape pen during a press conference after UFC 202. Why are so many MMA fighters now advocating for the use of CBD?

Article By
Justin Cooke , last updated on October 19, 2021

UFC fighter Nate Diaz was seen hitting a CBD-infused vape pen at a press conference after losing (by split decision) to Connor McGregor at UFC 202.

The video shows his face bloodied and bashed from the fight, taking the occasional hit from the pen as he answered journalists’ questions about the contents of the device he was holding.

At the time, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) considered CBD a banned substance. His fans worried the fighter would be fined and suspended after the open use of a cannabis product. Yet, there were no consequences for his actions.

Some argue the reason Diaz was exempt was the fact that the fight was already over and the fight-related testing had already ended.

Whatever saved Nate Diaz from suspension, the stunt brought CBD use in professional sports into the spotlight. WADA has since removed CBD from its banned substances list — triggering a widespread interest in CBD among professional athletes and MMA fans alike.

But why is CBD so popular among professional athletes? Why are well-known fighters such as Nate Diaz, Bas Rutten, Yair Rodriguez, and Joe Schilling using CBD?

In this article, we’ll review the benefits of CBD for muscle recovery, chronic pain, anxiety, sleep, and other areas — and discuss some of the big moves CBD manufacturers are making in this exciting development in the field of MMA.

CBD Is Gaining Popularity in MMA

Cannabis has long been banned in professional sports. In 2015, Nate Diaz’s older brother, Nick Diaz was suspended from the UFC for five years and fined $165,000 for using marijuana, despite having a medical license from the state of California.

The sports regulators took marijuana use as seriously as steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). In the case of Nick Diaz, the penalty was arguably even worse than that for PEDs — most cases of steroid use only result in a 1-year suspension. But times are changing.

Although THC (the main intoxicating compound in cannabis) remains banned under WADA, USADA, and other anti-doping organizations, regulators have since lifted the ban on CBD.

Thanks to this and the overall rise in CBD’s popularity, many MMA fighters are now using CBD as a natural, safe, and legal way to improve their recovery.

In particular, CBD has given MMA fighters an excellent alternative to opioids for pain management. Unlike CBD, opioids are notoriously addictive and come with a host of negative side-effects.

In addition, they lack the many additional health benefits of CBD, such as the ability to speed up recovery by reducing inflammation and potentially even help with brain damage.

MMA Legend Bas Rutten and CBD

The Netherlands’ Bas Rutten — One of MMA’s leading pioneers — is one of the best examples of the damaging effects of opioid use. After suffering an injury in 2006, he was given opioids to manage the pain.

In no time at all, Rutten was using heavy doses that not only got him addicted but also led to liver damage. Rutten’s since recovered with the help of CBD and is now a leading advocate for its use among MMA fighters

What is CBD? Why Are MMA Athletes Using it?

CBD stands for cannabidiol — it’s just one of over 100 cannabinoids present in the Cannabis sativa plant. These natural compounds are responsible for the many health benefits of cannabis. Most people are familiar with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the cannabinoid responsible for the intoxicating marijuana high.

Unlike THC, CBD is completely non-psychoactive. At the same time, it has many beneficial effects on inflammation, pain, anxiety, sleep, and other common health concerns.

This combination makes CBD a perfect supplement for MMA fighters. As it happens, MMA is one of the most grueling sports imaginable, and fighters regularly suffer from pain, concussions and other head trauma, soreness, damaged ligaments, and a heavy dose of inflammation.

More importantly, one of the best-kept secrets of MMA is that most of this damage occurs not during a fight, but in regular training.

These effects not only break down the body and prevent fighters from recovering completely but also make it hard to sleep. As a result, fighters have difficulty performing at 100% in the gym and carrying on with their life outside of it.

CBD addresses all of these issues, improving recovery between workouts and aiding sleep.

Let’s get into more detail about the specific benefits of CBD and how they can help MMA fighters.

The Benefits of CBD for Athletes

1. CBD & Muscle Recovery

No matter how often you exercise, you still need to allow your muscles to recover between workouts to avoid injury.

When it comes to professional MMA athletes, the more time they can spend training the more ready they’ll be for the upcoming fight.

In fact, this is the leading reason so many fighters end up using banned PEDs they allow them to train longer and recover faster.

As such, supporting muscle recovery is one of the most common reasons athletes look to CBD.

So, how does it help?

Every time we exercise we cause microscopic tears in the fibers that make up our muscle tissue. The body’s response to this damage is to trigger inflammatory responses in the area — leading to soreness for a few days after the workout.

In the short term, this inflammation is a good thing. It helps bring blood to the area, along with the nutrients and oxygen needed to repair the damage. However, in many cases the inflammatory process lasts too long, slowing recovery and keeping athletes out of the gym.

In the worst cases, inflammation can lead to chronic health conditions. For example, UFC ex-champion Tyrone Woodley made headlines when he said he was afflicted with chronic hand arthritis at the age of 37.

This is where CBD comes in.

CBD has powerful anti-inflammatory effects — which works to speed up the recovery process, so inflammation doesn’t linger for any longer than it needs to. So you can get back in the gym as soon as possible.

On top of the anti-inflammatory effects, CBD is a potent antispasmodic — meaning it calms down hyperactivity in the muscle fibers that cause shakiness and muscle twitches post-workout.

2. CBD & Sleep

Every professional fighter understands the importance of getting a good night’s rest. In fact, good sleep is arguably the most important thing for recovery and overall performance for any person — MMA athlete or not.

Getting enough high-quality sleep is a common problem for fighters. They are kept awake not just by pain and soreness, but also the stress and pressure placed on them by the nature of their sport, which includes things like weight cutting.

Studies have also shown that sleep disorders are common in people who’ve experienced head injuries in the past — which is a regular occurrence in any professional fighter’s life.

The good thing is that CBD is an excellent natural sleep aid. CBD can promote sleep indirectly by reducing anxious thoughts — one of the leading causes of being unable to fall and stay asleep.

Most notably, CBD has been shown to support a neurotransmitter in the brain known as GABA, which slows down the activity of neurons and promotes relaxation as a result.

This is one of the primary mechanisms through which CBD reduces anxiety and helps us feel relaxed and calm.

3. CBD & Pain

Injuries happen, and although there are a lot of things athletes do to prevent them from occurring, they can never be avoided completely.

The conventional treatment for pain has been opioid pain-killers, which can not only cause addiction but also bring a long list of undesirable side effects.

CBD, on the other hand, has very few side effects — and is not addictive. The most common side effects experienced by CBD is sleepiness and dry mouth — both of which are relatively minor and go away as soon as the effects of CBD wear off.

This isn’t the case with opioid painkillers. Once addicted, it can take weeks to reverse the effects. And some people report digestive disturbances that remain several months after stopping treatment — which is less than ideal for someone performing in front of millions of fans around the world.

CBD is a powerful pain-killer, exerting its effects in two main ways:

  • Blocks pain signals from reaching the brain — CBD activates a series of receptors in the brain and spinal cord (including, to some extent, the opioid receptors) that work to dull the pain signal before it reaches the brain.
  • Reducing inflammation — as mentioned previously, CBD is a powerful anti-inflammatory. One of the key facets of the inflammatory response is pain. By reducing inflammation at the site of injury, we can effectively reduce the number of pain signals being sent to the brain. This is how drugs like Aspirin work to reduce pain.

4. CBD & Brain Damage

Damage to the brain is a serious, yet common problem for professional fighters.

After all, taking repeated blows to the head — many of which result in losing consciousness — can result in both short and long-term neurological damage.

Just look at the damage Nate Diaz took in his second fight with Conor McGregor. The cuts and scrapes are superficial, but it’s more than likely his brain took a serious beating in the fight as well.

The medical term for this is traumatic brain injury (TBI) — a condition CBD has shown potential to improve and protect against. In fact, the US Department of Health and Human Services even owns a patent on CBD as a neuroprotective agent.

So how does it work?

There’s a lot happening here, which we get into in much greater depth in our article on CBD for traumatic brain injury.

The bottom line is that CBD offers benefits to TBI through its anti-inflammatory effects (once again), prevents glutamate-induced cell death, and resists many of the side-effects that come along with injuries to the brain such as depression and anxiety.

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

All mammals have what is called an endocannabinoid system. This system, which uses cannabinoids produced inside and outside the human body, works to maintain a healthy state of balance called homeostasis.

As part of this balance, the endocannabinoid system helps the body recover from all sorts of injuries and damage.

MMA fighters deal with regular abuse to their bodies — both in the gym and during their fights.

CBD and other cannabinoids support the endocannabinoid system, helping return the body to a normal state of balance after MMA training and fighting.

CBD has other benefits outside of this system as well — which we’ll get to in more detail below. 

How Are MMA Fighters Using CBD?

Now that we’ve covered WHY professional athletes are using CBD supplements, let’s cover HOW they’re using them.

CBD products are available in every format you can possibly imagine. Bath bombs, topical creams, lip balms, oils, capsules, tablets, suppositories (yes, really), and vape oils. You can even buy CBD-infused teas and coffees.

Despite the range of product types available, not all are going to be the best choice for every application. The biggest limiting factor here is the dose and the route of administration.

There’s a big difference between using CBD as a general health supplement and using it therapeutically.

Bath bombs containing 100 mg or so of CBD will certainly offer some relaxing benefits, but will not help a serious muscle or ligament injury because they can’t penetrate deep enough into the body. For this, you’ll need a form of CBD with better absorption, such as CBD oil or vape e-liquid.

It also helps to consider the issue you’re treating, and use the form of CBD that makes the most sense. For example, topicals might work well for localized knee pain, but if you want to treat whole-body inflammation from training, you need a form that gets into the bloodstream and reaches the entire body.

See where this is going?

Internal vs Topical CBD

CBD can be used topically on the surface of the skin or internally via oral ingestion or inhalation through the lungs.

There are positives and negatives to each to be aware of.

A. Topical CBD

The advantage of using topicals is that it delivers the CBD directly to the affected area if the source of the problem is on the skin or the muscles and ligaments directly below it.

As it happens, the skin and underlying tissues are full of cannabinoid receptors that are activated by CBD and other ingredients in hemp extracts.

However, topical CBD has a major disadvantage — little to no CBD will be able to reach the bloodstream and distribute throughout the body.

For this reason, you won’t find much benefit from using topical CBD for sleep, stress, anxiety, depression, or whole-body inflammation and pain. You’re much better off using CBD internally for these applications.

B. Internal CBD

Internal CBD application refers to anything you swallow or inhale. Here, CBD can take one of three major routes. The most popular is sublingual, which is where CBD is absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the capillaries under the tongue.

Another common route is the lungs, where CBD also enjoys a high and rapid level of absorption. Finally, if you ingest CBD, it will go through the digestive tract and the liver, after which it will enter the blood and be distributed around the body.

The problem with this form of administration is that it’s hard to target a specific area in the same way a topical can. However, it’s excellent for dealing with body-wide or internal concerns, such as inflammation, brain trauma and headaches, nausea, anxiety, and pain.

Using Additional Ingredients to Boost the Effects of CBD

Another thing to consider when using CBD is the other ingredients included in the formula.

CBD isn’t the only supplement that can speed healing, reduce inflammation, promote sleep, or help with brain damage. In fact, it works even better when mixed with other supplements that help with a specific issue.

For example, including melatonin in a CBD capsule intended to support sleep is going to go much further than CBD alone. Similarly, a CBD formula with anti-inflammatory compounds such as curcumin or boswellia will be more effective at alleviating pain than isolated CBD.

Here’s a simple chart to make all of this crystal clear:

Reason for Using CBD What Type of CBD Should I Use Suggested Dosage Range* Other Ingredients to Improve the Effects of CBD
Muscle Recovery Combination of topical and internal CBD (like vape e-liquid, oils, and creams) Medium to high strength Boswellia, protein, white willow bark, turmeric, menthol
Sleep Support Internal CBD Medium to high strength Melatonin, kava, valerian, passionflower, tryptophan, GABA, lemon balm
Pain Combination of Internal CBD & Topical CBD at the Site of Injury Medium to high strength Turmeric, ginger, cayenne, white willow bark, boswellia, menthol
Brain Damage Internal CBD High strength Passionflower, tyrosine, alpha-GPC, pterostilbene, resveratrol, phosphatidylcholine

* Refer to our CBD dosage guide to determine what these strengths equate to in milligrams of CBD based on weight.

Final Thoughts: Using CBD For Recovery in MMA

In recent years, CBD has found itself a home in the world of MMA. As more fighters become advocates for the hemp-derived compound, we can expect to see this supplement becoming a staple in the professional fighting world.

Fighters like Nate Diaz and Bas Rutten are advocating for the use of CBD because it helps with some of the biggest problems fighters experience on a regular basis — namely inflammation, pain, injuries, and overall stress and anxiety.

CBD helps fighters recover after a strenuous workout and fight, protects against brain trauma and damage, makes it easier to get good sleep, and helps reduce pain.

With more fighters hopping onboard the CBD train, using it in oil tinctures, vapes, capsules, topicals, and so many CBD brands stepping up to sponsor fighters and MMA organizations like Bellator and the UFC, we expect to see CBD an even more commonplace part of the MMA world.

Further Reading

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