Plants Over Pills: The 2021 Summer Olympics

Only a few people have what it takes to become Olympic athletes. According to the Team USA website, some of the individuals representing the United States began their sports as young as two and three years old. These athletes train for hours a day, year after year, and they routinely achieve things that often seem impossible to the rest of us.

Unfortunately, the life of an Olympic athlete can also include pain, stress, and even injury. The past year has been a particularly challenging one for many athletes, who have been forced to deal with training changes, cancelled competitions, and other stresses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their chance to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Games has been delayed a whole year.

How do they handle it all?

An increasing number are including cannabidiol (CBD) in their recovery and self-care routines.

CBD is believed to help reduce inflammation, pain, and stress, to help with sleep, and to improve recovery. In the past, this substance was banned at the Olympics, but at the long-awaited 2020 games, things will be different. CBD has been removed from the list of banned substances, meaning that Olympic athletes will finally be able to opt for a natural, plant-derived treatment rather than reaching for pills.

CBD and The Olympics

Olympic athlete use of CBD, and a long list of other substances, is governed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). WADA was created in 1999, after a scandal the year before involving widespread doping among Tour de France athletes. The agency works to ensure that athletic competition remains doping free in the future.

Exactly what Olympic athletes can and cannot use is detailed in the World Anti-Doping Code. The use of CBD and other cannabinoids have been prohibited by the code since it was written. WADA oversees drug testing at the Olympic Games in order to ensure athlete compliance with the code. However, in addition to working to prevent doping, the agency also conducts periodic reviews and changes to the code if necessary.

In 2018, it removed CBD from the list of substances that is banned. 

Avoiding the Other Cannabinoids

While CBD is now okay, all other cannabinoids remain prohibited at the Olympics, which means that athletes need to be careful that their CBD product doesn’t also contain other cannabinoids. That isn’t always easy. As the number of CBD products in the marketplace has exploded in recent years—with very little oversight on quality—some researchers have decided to investigate what is actually in these products. In too many cases, they have discovered that the content does not match the label. 

For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been testing CBD products for a number of years. In a July 2020 report to Congress, the agency states that many of the products it has tested do not actually contain the amount of CBD stated on the label. For instance, in 2020 it analyzed 147 CBD and hemp products that were available online and found that less than half of them actually contained within 20 percent of the amount of CBD stated. FDA testing has also revealed that a significant number of CBD products contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other cannabinoids too. For example, in 2019, 31 CBD products were tested and 48 percent of them were found to have THC as well. Of the CBD products tested in 2020, 49 percent did.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which is the national anti-doping agency for the United States, has also warned about the fact that some CBD products might contain additional cannabinoids. It says, “It is very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain a pure CBD extract or oil from the cannabis plant. Anyone who buys a CBD oil, extract, or other CBD product should be aware that it may be a mixture of CBD and other cannabinoids. All other cannabinoids, including THC and the more than 115 other identified cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, as well as all synthetic cannabinoids, are prohibited in-competition.” It concludes, “The use of any CBD product is at the athlete’s own risk.”

Willing to Take the Risk

An increasing number of athletes are willing to take that risk though, because they believe that CBD is a much better choice than the most common option for treating pain and injury: drugs.

While drugs such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or opioids can be very effective, and are frequently used by athletes, they can also be harmful. For instance, research shows that a significant percentage of athletes use NSAIDs on a regular basis to reduce pain and inflammation and to prevent injury. In fact, NSAIDs are believed to be the most common medication that athletes use. However, these drugs can have major negative side effects such as gastrointestinal and kidney damage, and can increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke. 

dropper, spray bottle and cream

Many athletes also use opioids at some point, particularly for severe injuries.

However, opioids are even more dangerous because they are extremely addictive. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency warns, “While pain medications are something that many athletes may need to use at some point, prescription pain medications for injuries or chronic pain can quickly lead to addiction and other opioid abuse.” Misuse of opioids and opioid addiction are such serious problems in the United States that in 2017, the U.S. government declared the opioid crisis to be a public health emergency. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, among people prescribed opioids for chronic pain, 21 to 29 percent misuse the drugs, and 8 to 12 percent develop an opioid use disorder. Misuse and addition can lead to overdose, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the majority of U.S. drug overdose deaths are opioid related.

A Better Alternative

As a result of all these potential harms, CBD is a welcome alternative for many athletes.

A large—and growing—number report that that they find CBD both effective and without negative side effects.

While clinical research on the topic is still limited, an increasing number of researchers are also suggesting that CBD might be a good option, and urging additional study to get a better understanding on the subject. Some recent reviews have focused specifically on CBD use by athletes. For example, in a 2020 study in Pharmacological Research, the authors look at the available research and find that CBD might be an effective way for athletes to manage pain and inflammation, and reduce anxiety. In addition, they report that it might have neuroprotective effects and help with sleep disturbances. They conclude, “CBD can be considered a promising compound in the sport domain to help athletes to manage injury, anxiety, stress or sleep disorders.”

In another review—published in Sports Medicine in July 2020—

researchers state that there are indications that CBD might have a number of physiological, biochemical, and psychological benefits for athletes.

Among the potential benefits, they note that there is some evidence that CBD might help recovery from muscle soreness, inflammation, and damage that can result from strenuous exercise. Long periods of strenuous exercise can also cause gastrointestinal damage in athletes, and the authors report that CBD might help with that too. Finally, they find that CBD might also help with anxiety in athletes. After reviewing the available research, the authors maintain that the potential benefits are promising and stress, “This review suggests that rigorous, controlled investigations clarifying the utility of CBD in the sporting context are clearly warranted.” 

Olympic swimmers diving off of diving boards into water

CBD Brands for Athletes

As the CBD industry continues to experience explosive growth, a number of CBD companies have been created specifically for athletes, in many cases by athletes who have experienced firsthand the power of CBD. For example, Floyd Landis—who won the 2006 Tour de France, but was stripped of the title after a positive drug test for an illegal substance—started the CBD company, Floyd’s of Leadville. The website explains that after a painful hip replacement, which was followed by depression and an addiction to opioids, Landis finally discovered that the physical and mental pain that he experienced as an athlete could actually be treated with CBD instead of drugs. 

Megan and Rachael Rapinoe sitting next to each other and smiling

In a number of interviews, professional soccer player Rachael Rapinoe has said that she also discovered the power of CBD after struggling with multiple injuries and the use of over-the-counter and prescription drugs like opioids. She co-founded Mendi—another CBD brand marketed to athletes—to give other athletes an alternative to such drugs. Of the decision to allow Olympic athletes to use CBD she says,

“We’re about to embark on history. Athletes have finally been allowed to incorporate CBD products into their recovery routines to prepare them for the biggest stage in the world.” 

Like many of the CBD brands created for athletes, Mendi explains on their website that in addition to giving athletes a natural way to combat pain and inflammation, its products for pro athletes are third-party tested to ensure that they contain no trace of THC.

An Exciting Milestone

CBD use is not embraced by every sporting organization, and while it is becoming more widely accepted, a lot of people still fear and misunderstand this substance and the cannabis plant in general. However, being allowed in the Olympics is an exciting milestone for CBD, considering that just a few years ago it was categorized as a controlled substance in the United States, and thus illegal at the federal level. Nobody knows for sure what will come next for CBD, but let’s hope this milestone is just one of many more to come.

Written by Andrea C. Nakaya

Written by Andrea Nakaya

Author and Svn Space contributor. Andrea is a native of New Zealand, and holds a BA in English and an MA in communications from San Diego State University. She has written numerous articles and more than fifty books and anthologies, on a wide variety of current issues.

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