An Intro to Cannabinoids for Athletes and the Rest of Us

An Intro to Cannabinoids for Athletes and the Rest of Us

Guest blog by William Dolphin

On a recent training ride, a masters racer was complaining to me about pain and how much ibuprofen he was taking. I said I used to take handfuls of ibuprofen too, but had been warned off by my doctor. He asked me what I did now and was surprised when I said cannabinoids. But he shouldn't have been.

People have known for centuries that cannabinoids can help manage pain, soreness, muscle spasms, digestive problems and many others. Athletes are increasingly turning to cannabinoids to recover from the stresses of training and life. Many people like me prefer cannabinoids since they can offer powerful benefits without the well-known risk of stomach, kidney, and liver damage Tylenol, ibuprofen or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) can cause. 

More than most people, athletes are concerned with both the effects and consequences of using various cannabinoids. This post will give you a high level overview of some of the differences between the major cannabinoids, what they may do for athletes, and the current rules for their use in competition and training. Future posts will get further into the weeds (if you will pardon the pun) about the science behind the specific benefits of individual cannabinoids.

What are Cannabinoids?

The chemicals classified as cannabinoids are quite diverse, and it may surprise some people to learn that not all cannabinoids come from the cannabis plant. Cannabinoids are compounds derived from the cannabis plant or other natural and synthetic compounds that interact with the natural cannabinoid receptor system in our bodies. 

The three basic types of cannabinoids are: 

  1. phytocannabinoids - compounds, such as CBD and THC, extracted or derived from cannabis plants

  2. endogenous cannabinoids - the natural chemicals our body uses to regulate itself

  3. synthetic cannabinoids - laboratory-produced chemicals which can attach to the receptors for cannabinoids in our bodies.

What are Phytocannabinoids?

There are more than 100 different types of phytocannabinoids. The two best known are THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol), the one that can make you feel intoxicated at certain doses, and CBD (cannabidiol), which does not produce intoxication but is being investigated for its positive health benefits. 
THC and CBD are, in some respects, opposites in how they affect us. These two chemicals operate in different metabolic pathways and affect those cannabinoid receptors quite differently. For instance, at higher doses THC can produce anxiety, while CBD often counteracts anxiety. Despite these differences, it would be a mistake to think that specific cannabinoids can be quickly labeled as “harmful” or “healthy” based on these general effects.

THC has well-known effects at certain doses, but it is also a highly effective tool for managing pain. This is particularly true for neuropathic pain — the type that results from nerve damage which is difficult to treat or resolve. CBD does not directly affect pain perception in the same way as THC, but is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. By reducing inflammation, CBD can address the root cause of some types of pain. 

What is the Entourage Effect?

Clinical research now confirms what anecdotal reports have long suggested — cannabinoids work together better than they do separately. This is best seen in the effectiveness of CBD. Consuming CBD as an isolate has identified benefits, but this isn’t the whole story of this compound. Research has shown that small amounts of THC and other minor cannabinoids work together to enhance the effects of CBD, increasing the effectiveness of its anti-inflammatory and other properties. This phenomenon is known as the “entourage effect.”

The power of cannabinoids working together is why many people report full-spectrum CBD products that contain trace amounts of THC and other cannabinoids tend to be more effective than isolates containing only CBD. This does not mean that a full-spectrum product is the right answer for everyone, as we will see below.

What Cannabinoids are in a Full-Spectrum CBD Product?

THC and CBD may be grabbing all the headlines as people learn more about cannabinoids, but they are far from the only compounds that have identified health benefits. Full-spectrum products will also contain other cannabinoids in small amounts such as CBG (cannabigerol) and CBN (cannabinol). 
CBN, formed when THC degrades, can be sedative for many people. As a result, CBN is gaining traction as a natural sleep aid. Lacking the psychoactive effects of THC, and the various negative effects of other pharmaceutical sleep aids, CBN can be a powerful aid to individuals looking to improve their sleep quality. 

CBG is another cannabinoid showing health benefits in areas as varied as digestive health and treating ocular problems. Like CBN or CBD, CBG does not carry any of the cognitive or potential legal consequences of taking THC. 

Should I Take Full-Spectrum or CBD Isolates?

The entourage effect may mean a full-spectrum product is more effective, but that doesn’t mean it is the right answer for everyone. Many factors might play into someone’s choice between a CBD isolate and a full-spectrum product. For professional and amateur athletes alike, the specter of a failed drug test is enough to scare you off from anything containing cannabinoids. Whether you are trying to race clean or keep a job with a security clearance, a failed drug test is a serious matter. 

Athletes who are tested are rightfully concerned about the substances they consume and the potential for a drug test to produce an adverse analytical finding. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and its American counterpart, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), allow athletes to use CBD in any amount both in training and in competition. CBD taken as an isolate is not considered a performance-enhancing substance by either of these organizations.

The picture is a bit more complex when it comes to THC for athletes. The rules governing the use of any amount of THC have changed substantially in recent years. WADA and USADA now both allow the use of THC out of competition, but still prohibit its use in competition. Because drug screening tests will detect metabolites of THC for days and sometimes weeks following use, caution should be exercised by anyone who is regularly tested.

As of this writing, the limits USADA/WADA have set for a positive drug test for THC metabolites (150 ng/ml) are now high enough that the use of any full-spectrum CBD product is unlikely to trigger a positive finding. Drug testing can be a very complex area, which is why CBD isolates may be a better answer for those concerned about the consequences of a positive test.

For anyone undergoing drug testing, a CBD isolate which does not introduce THC into your system is the safest possible option. For everyone else, there are a couple points to remember which may allay any concerns about full-spectrum CBD products. When taken at appropriate doses, health supplement full-spectrum CBD products typically do not contain enough THC to produce a positive drug screen. It is also worth noting the levels of THC in sports creams, topicals and tinctures are too low to cause any noticeable cognitive effects.

The growing field of cannabinoid research is far too large and exciting to sum up in one blog post. This quick overview is not medical advice, but it should be enough to get you oriented to the world of cannabinoids and why athletes like me are using them. 

William Dolphin, aka Wen’s dad, is a competitive cyclist and university lecturer who writes about cannabis and its use, including “Labeling of Cannabidiol Products: A Public Health Perspective” and the award-winning book The Medicalization of Marijuana: Legitimacy, Stigma, and the Patient Experience


Want to Learn More About Cannabinoids?

Sometimes the best way to learn about the benefits of CBD or full-spectrum products is to simply try one. From tinctures to creams to sports chews, Twisted Spoke has a wide variety of options to start enjoying the benefits of these naturally-occurring, healthy compounds. 

If you want to learn more about cannabinoids, we are here to help! At Twisted Spoke, our extensive background in the science behind cannabinoid products means we can provide answers to a wide range of questions, or point you in the direction of more information. Either way, we would love to help you learn more about the world of cannabinoids.


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