Why CBD oil could be pro athletes' new secret weapon — and yours too
Sports players are using CBD products to legally enhance performance, while disciples say it should be used by everyone in their daily health regime
There's been an explosion of CBD-laced products on the market since the then minister of health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, signed legislation in May 2019 that permitted the sale and distribution of low-dose cannabidiol (CBD) products. The makers claim all manner of benefits — and now professional athletes are using approved products containing CBD to legally enhance their performance on the field.
Hemp is non-intoxicating cannabis that's been harvested for over 10,000 years to produce things like food, rope, clothing, paper and housing material. CBD, when extracted properly from hemp plants, doesn't have any psychoactive properties in the way that dagga does, and is one of the few products recognised by the World Health Organisation as being "generally well tolerated with a good safety profile". It also doesn't produce an excessive release of dopamine, which could lead to addiction.
The human body has, as part of its natural composition, an endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a complex network of cell receptors and neurotransmitters that are responsible for maintaining homeostasis in the body. These receptors are spread throughout the body, and concentrated in the central and peripheral nervous systems and the immune system.
The ECS improves communication between all those systems and is believed to also affect and control a wide range of biological functions, including sleep, mood, temperature control, immune response, the perception of pain and pleasure, fertility, memory, and appetite. Whenever the brain senses that something is wrong within the body, the ECS releases natural cannabinoids (endocannabinoids) to restore the balance.
Taking CBD products stimulates the ECS to produce its own cannabinoids and, by inhibiting a specific enzyme, helps them stay in your body for longer — rather than interacting with the cannabinoid receptors themselves.
Saracens and England rugby union player George Kruis and his club teammate Dom Day came across CBD after they both underwent surgery for injuries in 2018.
Kruis has won two European titles and three Premiership trophies in his 10-year career. Day played professionally for 14 years, with over 250 top flight games in England, Australia and Japan, representing England at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
"Dom had just had a knee surgery and I was undergoing another ankle operation. That sparked the interest in looking into alternative supplements to the ones we already took — and it coincided with CBD being made [a] legal [supplement] by the World Anti-Doping Federation (WADA)," says Kruis, who came off the bench for England in the World Cup Final against the Springboks in Yokohama in 2019.
He says neither he nor Day switched completely from regular supplements to CBD to aid their recovery, but instead incorporated CBD oil as an additional natural alternative.
"As athletes, we're always looking for those marginal gains across our programme on and off the field. CBD was something that stuck out as a supplement that became part of our daily programme. We take it along with other supplements as a balanced approach to help support and maintain our active lifestyle," he says.
The duo — with Day since retired from professional sport — started CBD product business fourfivecbd in the UK, and have developed a range of CBD-infused products as general lifestyle supplements, now available in SA.
The products are Banned Substance Control Group (BSCG) batch tested to make them WADA compliant.
"The BSCG tests for our products are done to ensure that they're free from contamination and banned substances, to ensure we've done all we can to provide a clean and safe product," says Kruis.
Their feeling is that safe CBD products should be used as part of a daily supplement regime for anyone — not just the range of sports people from the "weekend warrior" to athletes at the pinnacle of the game.
"CBD is here for the long term and in five to 10 years it will be seen as a staple supplement, along with fish oils and multivitamins," says Kruis.
CBD is here for the long term and in five to 10 years it will be seen as a staple supplement, along with fish oils and multivitaminsGeorge Kruis, Saracens and England rugby union player
Though there are no psychoactive effects — and the worst noted side-effects of using huge amounts of CDB include nausea, diarrhoea, drowsiness and anxiety — the recommendation is that it should only safely be taken by people aged over 18.
CBD is known to interact with prescribed medications that come with a "grapefruit warning", which include medications for cholesterol, blood pressure, heart rhythm, antibiotics, antidepressants, some blood thinners and pain medications.
One 2019 study also raised concerns about the potential for CBD to cause liver damage by increasing liver enzyme levels.
Dr Elisabeth Philipps, a registered nutritional therapist with a BSc in nutritional medicine and PhD in neuropharmacology from Oxford University, says that CBD clinical research is still in its infancy, and there aren't any clinical studies showing direct improvement in sports recovery or performance, yet.
"That said, CBD has been demonstrated to reduce pro-inflammatory markers in the blood that cause pain and swelling in joints and tissues, as well as reducing tissue damage associated with inflammation."
This, she says, could be linked to improving sports performance.
Philipps also says that CBD has also been linked to improvements in sleep, which have benefits for athletes.