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Cannabis and sports: are they compatible?

Many people use cannabis for recreational purposes. This plant creates a strong sense of pleasure or relaxation and also allows users to experience sensations more clearly.

For medicinal purposes, cannabis is also often used as a pain reliever and can be used to treat epilepsy, inflammation, anxiety, and psychotic episodes. But what about other contexts such as sports? Is cannabis an ally or enemy of exercise?

Given the context of the illegality of cannabis-sourced substances, there is little literature on this topic. Read this article to discover the results of this rare research.

Cannabis among athletes is more common than we think

Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimming champion, was caught smoking hashish from a hookah. Cliff Robinson, known for his long career in the NBA, also used cannabis to relieve pain and anxiety. These are not isolated cases. Cannabis use among athletes appears to be a very common habit.

The literature reveals that 23.4% of the athletes surveyed reported having used cannabis in the past year. This number is similar to the 24.7% of athletes reported to have used cannabis according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in its survey of drug use by students and athletes. Even if this result seems high, we must take into account the fact that cannabis consumption among athletes is still lower than the rate of individuals studied of the same age among the general American population, which was 31.9%.(1).

Another study complements this information, indicating that out of a group of 1,161 athletes in the survey, 26% had used cannabis in the previous two weeks. This survey also proves that athletes who consume a combination of THC and CBD report experiencing a majority of benefits for well-being and calm with minimal adverse effects. In addition, the study also shows that older athletes use cannabis more responsibly, mainly to treat medical problems such as anxiety or pain.(2).

Finally, as evidence, a 2018 review suggests that cannabis use is more prevalent among some athletes participating in high-risk sports.(3).

Is consuming cannabis a stimulant?

Cannabis is a compound produced by the hemp (marijuana) plant or chemically synthesized. There are more than 100 cannabinoids found in the plant, including THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the main psychoactive component that leads to changes in behavior and psychological state. Since 2000, several synthetic cannabinoids have been produced illegally and sold as drugs that mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Currently, all natural and synthetic cannabinoids are prohibited, with the exception of cannabidiol (CBD). In fact, in 2020,World Anti-Doping Agency (AMA) excluded it from the list of prohibited substances. It is a fact that this component of cannabis is gaining popularity due to its anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects.

However, athletes should keep in mind that some CBD oils and tinctures extracted from hemp plants may also contain THC and other cannabinoids that can give a positive result on a drug test.

Interestingly, an important finding in drug testing is that exercise leads to a very slight increase (<1 ng/mL) in THC concentration, which is an important finding in drug testing.(4).

CBD oil has many benefits for athletes.
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Does cannabis improve athletic performance?

MC Kennedy's 2017 review found that only 15 published studies had investigated the effects of THC with exercise. Of these studies, none showed improvement in aerobic performance.

Likewise, THC does not seem to improve potency, but rather causes the opposite effect. In fact, in terms of adverse effects, two studies showed that not only was force reduced, but also that angina pectoris (angina pectoris) was precipitated at a lower effort threshold.(5).

In fact, some authors conclude by saying that cannabis consumption has an ergogenic effect on physical performance, and that this should be avoided before exercise in order to maximize athletic performance.(6).

On the other hand, it is self-evident that the health and psychological aspect plays a very important role in an athlete, which may have an impact on athletic performance. In fact, cannabidiol (CBD) has been reported to exert a number of physiological and psychological effects that are potentially beneficial to athletes.

Anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, analgesic, and anxiolytic benefits have been reported that may protect against inflammation-related gastrointestinal disorders and promote healing from traumatic and skeletal injuries.

Thus, studies demonstrate the positive effect of CBD on pre-competition anxiety, as perception of effort and sleep in athletes are negatively affected by sports performance anxiety (SPA). Furthermore, some studies suggest that 300 mg of CBD has similar efficacy to 5 mg of epsiperone, a 5-HT1A agonist drug that has anxiolytic and antidepressant effects.(7).

However, studies on this topic are often very limited and reviews suggest that we need more rigorous and controlled research in the sporting context.

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Cannabis and sports: are they compatible?

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