It’s used by some elite athletes for recovery and it’s increasingly easy to buy, but how much credible evidence is there behind the rise of CBD oil?
Is it a drug? Is it a medicine? No, it’s a ‘recovery super supplement’ – and no, it won’t get you high. CBD – or cannabidiol – is the new kid on the mainstream recovery block and, like so many other get-fit-quick supplements, there is a lot of hype around it.
The substance is one of more than 100 chemical compounds (known as cannabinoids) of the cannabis plant. Not surprisingly, despite not being addictive or psychoactive, it is accompanied by a lot of baggage.
In the UK, CBD has been categorised as a ‘novel food’ by the government and is available in many forms, from drops and oils, to creams, sprays, drinks and gummies.
The list of supposed benefits is extensive, with better sleep, reduced inflammation, pain and anxiety relief high among them. Some brands have also suggested CBD can reduce the severity and frequency of seizures, protect the brain, promote healthy skin, alleviate nausea, benefit cardiovascular health and control weight.
There’s backing from professional athletes, too, since WADA cleared it, with advocates in sports from UFC to triathlon, golf and rugby. England and Saracens rugby player George Kruis, elite American ultra runner Avery Collins and UFC legend Nate Diaz are among the big names. Former players from the NFL, where opioids have reportedly been in widespread use as painkillers, have also been outspoken in favour of CBD.
Smoke Without Fire?
Research into CBD and other cannabinoids began in the 1940s, and cannabis has long been purported to provide various health benefits. Therapeutic cannabis use in the NFL and professional baseball has reportedly been widespread for years, but the science behind what CBD extracts actually do is limited.
Even if you’re convinced of the benefits, knowing how much and which delivery methods to use, and which are trustworthy brands to buy, is confusing enough to leave anyone fuzzy headed.
“People have to be aware that the evidence is very low,” says Dr Gabriella Gobbi, professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. “We need more research to try to prove if it works or not, which dosage works, which formulation – there are many things to explore.”
Dr Gobbi has studied the effects of CBD in rats and found it reduced anxiety and gave pain relief without the psychoactive high and euphoria associated with another cannabis compound, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. She has secured funding for a human clinical trial and the US government is also backing other new studies, but the results could be years away and the main body of research is yet to establish specifically what CBD does when taken by people.
Some researchers think the compound interacts with the endocannabinoid system, which plays a role in regulating a range of functions such as sleep, mood and pain management. However, with much of the research done on rodents, it might not be as encouraging as it sounds.
“Very often the effects in animals are not replicated in humans,” Dr Gobbi says. “In particular, for psychiatric diseases like anxiety and depression, there is a strong placebo effect so the transfer of effects from animal studies often fails.”
The Rise of CBD
Despite the general lack of evidence for CBD benefits in humans, the market boomed at the end of the last decade. And Marc Burbidge, from the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC), predicts the industry in the UK alone will be worth £1bn by 2025. The CMC could be considered part of a powerful international pro-cannabis lobby, which may have helped to drive sales, but countless stories of the benefits also explain the growth.
“There is a massive amount of anecdotal evidence,” says George Kruis, who founded the brand fourfivecbd with his former Saracens teammate Dom Day. “Most of our customers take it for either pain or sleep and I find it helps with sleep, putting me in a calmer state.”
Day was rehabbing from a knee operation at the Premiership club when he encountered CBD, shortly after WADA took it off its banned list. He first tried it through vaping (which he doesn’t advise) and claimed the results were “pretty instantaneous”.
Dressing-room chatter led to Kruis experimenting with it and now Day, who takes it morning and night, claims around 400 professional athletes are using or have used their CBD products.
“I’m a little bit of a hippy at heart,” says Day. “I’m into my yoga, meditating and so on, and that’s probably what got me over the line on CBD, but now it’s a case of educating people about how positive the benefits can be. It’s not one of those fad medicines that will come and go. We firmly believe it’s here to stay and it’ll be a big part of people’s nutrition moving forward.”
But the NHS warns on its website: ‘Some cannabis-based products are available to buy over the internet without a prescription. It’s likely most of these products – even those called CBD oils – will be illegal to possess or supply. There’s a good chance they will contain THC and may not be safe to use. Health stores sell certain types of pure CBD. However, there’s no guarantee these products will be of good quality. They tend to only contain very small amounts of CBD, so it’s not clear what effect they would have.’
The THC issue has been a thorny one for the CBD market. Until recently, many have seen the law as open to interpretation on allowable levels below 0.2 per cent (which is insufficient to produce a high) and included the psychoactive compound in their products.
fourfivecbd was among them, and Day says these ‘full spectrum’ products produce an enhanced effect because the different chemical structures interact. However, his company also makes a virtue of the fact that it triple tests its CBD for accurate THC levels. Its products for athletes and those who are drug tested contain none at all.
Sports bodies, such as UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) and the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), urge caution. ‘Despite the permitted status of CBD, there is still a risk to athletes,’ states UKAD. ‘Athletes must still consider the risk of inadvertently ingesting a CBD product that either has a higher THC concentration than expected or contains another cannabinoid that is prohibited in sport.’
All cannabinoids other than CBD are prohibited in sport and USADA says they can stay in your system long after using them. It also claims it is almost impossible to obtain pure CBD extract or oil from the cannabis plant.
Confused? There’s more. The World Health Organization (WHO) says CBD is ‘generally well tolerated with a good safety profile’, but a Harvard Medical School publication claimed nausea, fatigue and irritability are potential side effects.
And while CBD still has a lot of fans and potential, it comes at a price – a 30ml from fourfivecbd starts from £24.99 – so unless you’ve got chronic recovery issues, it might be worth exploring cheaper alternatives before splashing out.
Words: Leo Spall