Athletes & Cannabis: Expectations, Opportunities, and Outcomes

"If you have a body, you are an athlete."

- Bill Bowerman, co-founder of Nike

With each passing day, more athletes are choosing medical cannabis treatments to supplement their workouts and recover from intense activity.

In fact, the frequency with which athletes are revealing their use of cannabis in a non-monitored medicinal manner is increasing--most notably in the realm of professional contact sports--as secrecy has long been required to navigate the pressures of misconception and condemnation that is only now starting to clear away.

Doctor Jane Ricky Williams

Brands and athletes from all arenas are now offering support for medical cannabis use in various ways. In some instances, deals are being struck to further the understanding and implementation of these treatments; NFL and Olympic idol Ron Brown, for example, recently joined the boardof non-addictive pain management company Vivera Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, though at a larger scale of immediate exposure, MMA brand Bellator has engaged in a deal with cbdMD wherein the CBD company will be visible to Bellator’s viewership of over 1 billion individuals. Meanwhile, NFL stars like Ricky Williams and Chris Long have told of their use of cannabis during their careers and now advocate for the League’s support of the medication. In a 2018 interview, it was made clear that Williams in particular “turned to marijuana to self-medicate for depression and social anxiety disorder, not to mention to help dull the pain from football's daily beatings.” On the subject of retirement from the NFL, Williams said, “I retired to take better care of myself. One of those things that helped was cannabis.”

 As the realms of cannabis and athletics meet at impressively high velocity, it’s more important than ever to address the factual evidence that defines proper use of what is still very much considered an alternative form of medicine (or in some cases, not even medicine at all). Developing a treatment plan involving cannabis can be rather complex, and despite its ever-growing popularity, there is a general lack of public understanding that only serves to further confuse those who could legitimately benefit from such therapies. 

What you may not know when it comes to cannabis is the fact that it can be extremely useful for those enduring rigors of regular athletic activity. Whether amateur or professional, most sports activity and exercise can wreak havoc on the body, particularly if we don’t prioritize preventative care and proper recovery.  

Doctor Jane Chris Long

Luckily, there are solutions that allow both the mind and body to prepare, act, and recover through all stages of physical activity. What’s more, medical cannabis typically offers the same or improved healing ability without the negative side effects common of most prescription or over-the-counter drugs. This is an enormous boon considering the frequency with which athletes are negatively affected by such drugs; in fact, research shows

“[A]thletes use NSAIDs and oral antibacterials more commonly than age-matched controls, especially athletes competing in speed and power sports. Inappropriately high doses and concomitant use of several different NSAIDs has been observed. All medicines have adverse effects that may have deleterious effects on elite athletes' performance.” 

The various positive outcomes possible with medical cannabis treatment can be split into three categories: Mind, Body, and Recovery. Athletically-inclined individuals will be quite familiar with the importance of each of these categories both in terms of engaging in and recovering from physical activity. It is important that you consider these elements carefully when seeking related healthcare solutions--cannabis-based or otherwise--and that you pay proper attention to the potential outcomes that could happen to you, specifically, as an individual. 

The Mind

Given that mental performance can make or break athletic performance, it makes the most sense to begin by examining the psychological aspects associated with medical cannabis use. Despite recreational cannabis’ supposed proclivity for enhancing laziness and increasing appetite, legitimate medical cannabis treatments can actually improve cognitive function. 

If you’ve ever prepared for an athletic event, you may be familiar with the stress it can put on your psyche. Athletes are often concerned about poor performance, embarrassment, or failure--thoughts that can be debilitating, and in some cases lead to a sort of predestined ineptitude initiated by the stress itself. For those who supplement their athletics with medical cannabis, however, such issues could be all but nonexistent; according to a study published by researchers from the National Institutes of Health in Baltimore, “Smoked cannabis can decrease anxiety, fear, depression and tension.”

Active and retired athletes in contact sports, especially combat sports and American football, are routinely prescribed antidepressant and antipsychotic medications as a direct result of persistent closed head trauma. The lay public has learned about the potential for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) which has claimed the lives of several high-profile retired NFL players[1]. With increasing frequency, basic and clinical research is showing that cannabidiol makes antipsychotic medications more effective and is well tolerated[2]. Additionally, research is showing that cannabidiol shows promise in treating the non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease which share similar pathophysiology with those of chronic traumatic encephalopathy[3]

Of course, dosage plays an important role in determining how effective this treatment is. THC content must be low in order to experience the positive effects of cannabis without experiencing the kind of psychotropic effects that can harm performance. Beyond that, administering cannabinoid medications for use of its other compounds offers safe, effective treatment without the side effects common in prescription medications. As with all medical treatments, however, it is extremely important to consult a doctor familiar with medical cannabis before starting treatment. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, cannabinoids have been shown in numerous real-world and clinical studies not only to be far less dependency-inducing than opioids but also to aid in the recovery from opioid dependency. Recent research has shown promise in providing some measure of resilience to cocaine and methamphetamine use disorders, both of which are frequently abused by athletes who seek to unwind after competition or sometimes as a possible performance-enhancing measure to cope with pre-existing pain from injury.

The Body

Sure, not all activities can be enhanced by medical cannabis consumption; the Huestis, Mazzoni, Rabin study accurately identified research that showed decreased cycling speed, grip strength, and certain other physical functions related to muscular power following inhalation of cannabis derivations. However, the same study explained that “vasodilation and bronchodilation were increased, suggesting that cannabis could also improve oxygenation to the tissues.” This essentially means that essential muscles receive more oxygen, enhancing the efficiency of energy use and improving recovery. A possible mechanism for decreased fine-motor control comes by way of increased cerebellar inflammation. The cerebellum is the part of the brain that is responsible for coordination of fine motor movements, and manipulation of a certain enzyme (MAGL, monoacylglycerol lipase) involved in the breakdown of naturally-occurring endocannabinoids causes inflammation in this region of the brain. Supplementation of COX-2 inhibitors (a class of anti-inflammatory drugs) may prevent this cerebellar inflammation.

Consuming cannabis in proper doses may actually allow you to work out for longer periods of time; according to data collected by researchers at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, athletes using cannabis may enjoy a reduction in the feelings of discomfort that often threaten to halt exercise. Though not yet conclusive, evidence suggests that “athletes have also been shown to have higher pain thresholds than controls” and that “cannabinoids may increase punctate and pressure pain thresholds.” In other words, even though athletes may have higher pain tolerance relative to those who don’t participate in physical activity regularly, there is potential for cannabis to help everyone work out longer and feel less pain during and after doing so. Which brings us to our third topic of discussion: recovery.

READ ALSO: Say Farewell to Pain & Anxiety and Hello to Your New Friend CBD

Recovery

While the benefits associated with cannabis use before and during workouts and athletic activity are significant, recovery is where these treatments are at their best. Some of cannabis’ most well-known attributes align perfectly with the most common results of intense activity, namely fatigue, inflammationsoreness and painnausea, and anxiety. Even better, cannabis can often take the place of more destructive “healing” habits; Chris Long, the aforementioned former NFL player and current cannabis advocate, offers insight on exactly this:

"We should be headed to a place where we allow players to enjoy what I would not even call a drug--it's far less dangerous than guzzling a fifth of alcohol and going out after a game. ...I think from a standpoint of what's safer for people and the player, certainly people in the spotlight, it is far less harmful than alcohol, it is far less harmful than tobacco."

Others in the know also are excitedly recommending cannabis to fellow athletes suffering from similar issues common of the profession. Crossfit athlete and nutrition coach Lorilynn McCorrister, who deals with symptoms of mild insomnia, is quick to explain why she values and recommends cannabis for recovery:

“Obviously, your body heals itself when you sleep and getting two or three hours a night was not enough for me to wake up, feel ready enough to push through a hard workout. [Cannabis treatments] changed my life. I was falling asleep easy, staying asleep the whole night and waking up feeling rested, which was amazing.”

Research shows that cannabis not only “improves sleep and recovery after an event,” but also “reduces anxiety and fear and aids the forgetting of negative events such as bad falls and so forth.” Though physical injuries are typically given more weight when considering an athlete's wellbeing, anxiety and other psychological roadblocks can be just as debilitating. Cannabis’ ability to lessen or eliminate such concerns gives it a unique advantage in terms of recovery effectiveness that prescription medications cannot match without significant potential negative side effects.

Of particular potential importance to the recovery of athletes is the effect that cannabidiol has exhibited on bone fracture healing. In the rat model, increased activity in the cells that are chiefly responsible for bone remodeling and fracture healing was demonstrated primarily with supplementation of cannabidiol (while THC alone and placebo were shown to have little effect at all). As athletes also undergo more frequent operative interventions compared to the rest of the population, cannabinoids in general, but especially cannabidiol, have been shown to help with the healing process.

How Do I Get Started?

Whether you regularly engage in sports or physical activity, identify as a “non-athlete,” or lie somewhere in between, medical cannabis may very well be a safe ticket to improved health. In addition to athletic recovery, treatment is often used to improve conditions of symptoms and diseases like Alzheimer's, cancer, epilepsy, mental health concerns, multiple sclerosis, muscle spasms, nausea, pain, sleep disorders, and much more. Cannabis is in no way a “miracle cure,” but many are finding relief that is otherwise unavailable or attached to distressing side effects.   

All medications come with specific efficacy and cautionary considerations that vary from person to person. Determining whether cannabis--or any medication for that matter--is appropriate for you depends on a number of factors that can only be identified through consultation between you and your preferred licensed cannabis medical practitioner.

Those not yet connected with a licensed medical cannabis physician and interested in treatment with medical cannabis for physical or mental maladies are invited to consult with us at Doctor Jane. In doing so, we will help you develop a proper course of action and effective treatment plan that will address all of your symptoms and concerns quickly and appropriately. Visit www.doctorjane.net to schedule an appointment, or reach out to me directly via phone or text at (561) 406-0685. 

Luis Enrique R. Liogier-Weyback, MD is the founder of Doctor Jane, Florida’s most discreet, professional and convenient concierge medical cannabis practice. A former NCAA Division I ice hockey player at the U.S. Naval Academy, Dr. Weyback frequently consults with professional athletes about the value of medical cannabis and CBD use. Being intimately familiar with concussions and neurotrauma, as he is originally trained in neurological surgery, Dr. Weyback provides extremely valuable and rare insight into the cannabis industry as a physician, advocate, and patient himself. He is affiliated with Athletes for CARE and will be a keynote speaker at The Hockey Summit, an 8-week training program for professional hockey players taking place in South Florida this August.

To learn more about Doctor Jane, visit www.DoctorJane.net.  

About Doctor Jane

Doctor Jane is South Florida’s most discreet, professional, and convenient concierge medical cannabis practice. Dr. Luis Enrique R. Liogier-Weyback and his wife, Katie Liogier-Weyback, B.S., R.N., founded Doctor Jane on the core tenets of bringing personal, convenient, professional and discreet patient care to the medical cannabis treatment process. Doctor Jane provides South Florida patients and their caregivers with a safe space where they can exercise their right to access medical cannabis therapy in an environment of their choosing, free from stigma and complications. 

Visit our website to find out more or to schedule your own medical cannabis consultation.   

[1]Junior Seau:  http://www.nfl.com/news/story/09000d5d828d07bd/article/junior-seau-dead-at-43-medical-examiner-rules-suicide

Ken Stabler: https://www.saturdaydownsouth.com/alabama-football/ken-stabler-estates-cte-settlement-claim-denied-3rd-time/

Chris Gedney: https://insidetheloudhouse.com/2019/06/24/syracuse-football-chris-gedney-suffered-stage-2-cte/

[2]McGuire, P. et al. Cannabidiol (CBD) as an Adjunctive Therapy in Schizophrenia: A Multicenter Randomized Controlled Trial. Am. J. Psychiatry 175, 225–231 (2018).

[3]Crippa, J. A. S. et al. Is cannabidiol the ideal drug to treat non-motor Parkinson’s disease symptoms? Eur. Arch. Psychiatry Clin. Neurosci. 269, 121–133 (2019).