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THC and CBD: Two Cannabinoids Bamboozling Athletes Over Cannabis

THC and CBD: Two Cannabinoids Bamboozling Athletes Over Cannabis

This is the first time the PGA had to issued warnings to their golfers using CBD products because although they follow WADA rules, the golf organization wants its players to know that some CBD products may contain THC, which is still prohibited by the league.

The Tour recently decided to suspend golfer Robert Garrigus for three months after he tested positive for cannabis. Garrigus says that his cannabis use was part of a relapse that occurred after a long period of sobriety, but there is a definite uptick in the number of athletes banned for THC use across all kinds of sports, and so many of the cases are accidental.

Olympic snowboarder, Devin Logan, recently returned to her sport after a three-month ban she received for using CBD oil with higher levels of THC than the athlete was led to believe.

And even more recently, Italian swimmer Andrea Vergani failed a test taken April 2 during the national championships in Riccione and is provisionally suspended for cannabis. Vergani now risks a ban of up to six months.

It seems that WADA’s decision to allow athletes to use CBD has led to an increase in products and marketing directed toward athletes at all levels of play. There are products on the market that claim to be a CBD-rich formula with no THC—often meaning less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol—but the FDA, DEA, and private organizations including Major League Baseball (MLB) have conducted tests on CBD and ‘THC-free’ products only to find significant levels of psychoactive (and prohibited) THC or falsely labelled amounts of CBD. More than a dozen countries currently have CBD-based medications on the market, including Canada.

Cannabis consumers can’t exactly buy pure CBD molecules but they can buy whole plant extracts that contain CBD along with other cannabinoids, and odiferous terpenes and flavonoids. According to a theory called the “entourage effect,” taking all of these plant-produced compounds together might make them more effective than simply taking one compound (like CBD) on its own. 

So why then do sports organizations vilify cannabis’ most prominent cannabinoid and idealize the second most prevalent cannabinoid? At a time when athletes are very seriously looking into cannabinoid medicines, education about the difference is especially crucial because confusion could be career-ending.  

The Endocannabinoid System & the Pharmacokinetics of THC and CBD

Cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are two of over 400 chemical entities, which directly act on our neurotransmitter endocannabinoid system (ECS).

The ECS is made up of receptor sites on cells called CB1 and CB2. Endocannabinoids, produced from fats we eat, binds to both the CB1 and CB2 receptors. These CB1 and CB2 receptors send information all over the body to cells, organs and the nervous system.

When a cannabinoid activates a receptor by binding to it, a chemical reaction takes place in the cell, telling that cell to change its message. Such a response could change a pain signal so that it is diminished or completely extinguished. An athlete may be dealing with acute pain, chronic pain from a past injury, trouble sleeping, anxiety over the upcoming competition, plus they may be living with a congenital or degenerative condition.

Knowing where cannabinoid receptors are in the body helps to understand the physical and psychological conditions that cannabis medicine will modulate.  

In the brain, cannabinoid receptors are in areas that control pain, nausea, vomiting, learning, stress, memory, emotions, appetite, motor coordination and higher cognitive function.  

In the body, cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the gut, immune system, and liver, and are primarily involved in the regulation of inflammation.

Although the research is scant, the pharmacokinetics of the THC and CBD compounds reveal complex and sometimes conflicting findings when studied.

Research finds the Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) phytocannabinoid to be a potent anti-inflammatory, documented to have 20 times the anti-inflammatory power of aspirin and twice that of the steroid hydrocortisone.

Cannabidiol (CBD), on the other hand, is non-intoxicating and has several medicinal benefits, including anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, antioxidant, anticonvulsant and anti-anxiety properties. An impressive 2017 review of the safety profile of safety and side effects of cannabidiol found “up to 1500 mg per day have been repeatedly shown to be well tolerated by humans.” 

It could be that the decision to ban cannabis, namely THC, from competition has to do with some of the adverse effects that consuming tetrahydrocannabinol could have on a player, such as delayed reaction times. But the claim that “cannabis may improve performance in some sports” is, if we consider all that the two molecules do, possibly no more true for THC than it is for CBD when used separately. During a recent panel discussion on fitness and cannabis, Dr. Ira Price, founder of Synergy Health Clicic in Hamilton, On. and a leader in the clinical application of cannabinoid therapeutics for pain, pointed out that THC comes with the risk of impaired memory, reaction times and decision making, thereby making that cannabinoid almost the opposite of performance enhancing. “The increase in heart rate and blood pressure,” he explained to the audience, “plus the reduction in physical work capacity are not conditions consistent with winning gold.” 

Dr. Price encourages looking at the cannabinoids specifically and the function each performs rather than classifying cannabis as either appropriate or inappropriate for sport. Since THC can affect coordination, it might be better to avoid it immediately before a sport like mixed martial arts. “While cannabis might lower the the mixed martial artist’s anxiety before a fight,” says Dr. Price, “having slower reaction times could mean that athlete sustains more hits.”

Further research is necessary to characterize the precise nature of this endocannabinoid response to exercise, specifically how it relates to the nature and intensity of the activity, its duration, and the sex, and age of the participant. Animal models are useful in identify the production and binding sites of endocannabinoids as well as their functional role in exercise but human models are going to become increasingly important in the search for cannabinoid truths.

For instance, as scientific findings increasingly find that whole plant medicine, containing a full spectrum of cannabinoids and terpenes, is more favourable for many athletics-related conditions, having strong data could be the key to stopping the managing of individual cannabinoids and accepting the plant for all of its parts.

Next, we’ll look go further into the two main reasons athletes are using cannabis—pain relief and recovery.


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I’m a Canadian and freelance writer who came to cannabis as an alternative to sports medicine, because I'm also a long distance runner who wants to be doing what I love for a long time.

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