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The NFL has continued to make headlines in relation to marijuana use, both in terms of the league and its players — particularly in relation to the associated benefits of CBD.
On March 15, 2020, the NFL and players union ratified a ten-year labor agreement with broad-reaching terms impacting both NFL players and owners. One of the most noteworthy clauses in the agreement was one pertaining to marijuana use-- despite the NFL’s history of being unwelcoming to marijuana, medical or otherwise, the latest edition of the labor agreement actually reduced restrictions on player use. Under the new rules, players can no longer be suspended for a positive marijuana test. Testing is no longer year-round, but rather is limited to the first two weeks of training camp. And on top of that, the threshold of THC required to trigger a positive test has been quadrupled, which gives players flexibility in the type of marijuana product they consume.
For years, the NFL has been reluctant when it comes to the potential use of CBD within the league. This cannabinoid is currently legal, as stated in the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. However, there are some grey areas, as CBD is still illegal on the federal level. This means that it is only legal under state law. Unfortunately, until the federal government differentiates CBD and THC, it will be more challenging for researchers to get approved clinical trials. After all, cannabis continues to be classified as a Schedule 1 drug — although the available research clearly showcases its potential as an effective, safe therapeutic treatment option.
Historically, the NFL has enforced a CBD ban under the league’s substance abuse policy. Although the league did not explicitly state that it endorses the use of CBD or THC products, the labor agreement signed on March 15th quadruples the threshold of THC needed to trigger a positive test, which has led some to speculate that the days of the marijuana ban are effectively over in the NFL.
Prior to this change, any NFL player that tested positive for CBD on two or more occasions would be suspended. However, thanks to consistent pushback and advocacy, especially from current and retired players, the players union and league were able to reach an agreement.
In fact, a number of players have begun to speak out in relation to their personal experiences with CBD, including Seantrel Henderson who was diagnosed with Chron’s disease, an inflammatory condition of the bowel. After being suspended by the NFL for using his prescribed CBD treatment, arguments ensued to re-modify the NFL's current drug policy.
One of the very first advocates was Eugene Monroe, who after retiring in 2016, spoke out about the use of cannabinoids to treat pain and sports-related injuries. He has since become a board member of the NFLPA Pain Management Committee and an ambassador for the Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, now actively addressing issues such as neuroprotection — which is a major concern among NFL players.
Jake Plummer is also one of the NFL's biggest advocates. After suffering numerous injuries, he admitted to using CBD oil to better manage his pain. He began to actively speak out in 2016, and since then, many players have followed, including Rob Gronkowski — who has partnered with the makers of CBDMEDIC, a topical CBD cream. He personally uses the cream to soothe his muscle pain, stressing the fact that there is no THC in the product and once in the bloodstream, it is non-psychoactive.
At this time, the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, which highlights areas such as health and safety, compensation, and benefits, expires in 2020. Based on the growing body of research and advocation, it is likely that CBD will be revisited as a form of pain relief, especially in relation to inflammation.
Cannabis has been used for thousands of years, mainly for medicinal purposes. As evidenced by the changes to the contract, more and more players have stated that they not only use CBD, but that this non-intoxicating, non-habit forming extract actually works, particularly for pain management. However, this appears to be just the beginning in regards to the potential short- and long-term benefits of CBD.
Although many players express happiness in relation to their careers, there are concerns surrounding anxiety, depression, and stress both on and off the field. Unfortunately, the stigma around mental health often discourages players from seeking the help they need. In turn, many players suffer in silence.
CBD may offer an alternative treatment option, helping players relax both mentally and physically. Numerous studies have shown a relationship between CBD and its anti-anxiety effects, including a 2019 study that highlighted the impact of CBD treatment.
It was found that within the first month, anxiety scores decreased in 79.2 percent of patients. Sleep scores also improved in 66.7 percent of patients. Overall, it's believed that the antidepressive, anxiolytic, and neuroprotective benefits of CBD are related to its activity at 5-HT1A receptors — a subtype of serotonin receptor.
As stated in this study, one of the most notable benefits of CBD as a form an anti-anxiety treatment is its overall safety. There have been no reports of lethal overdose and any major complications are limited.
The use of cannabis as a pain remedy is increasingly being reported among elite athletes. In fact, according to recent research, 62 percent of people who use CBD (including non-athletes), do so to treat arthritis, joint pain, or chronic pain.
Prior to the decade before 2012, only nine studies were published on the use of cannabinoids for the treatment of pain. Since then, more than 30 articles have been published, including the research conducted at the San Diego's Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research. It was found that in comparison to a placebo (showcasing a 17 to 20 percent reduction in pain), cannabis reduced pain by up to 40 percent.
As stated in this 2018 review, chronic pain is the most cited reason to use medicinal cannabis. It is believed that cannabinoids, including CBD, induce an analgesic effect, based on the ways in which they impact nerve endings, pain pathways, and neural inflammation.
CBD may also help counteract the growing concern associated with opioid misuse in the NFL. Considering approximately 52 percent of NFL players have been exposed to opioids in order to address associated injuries and pain, with 71 percent misusing prescription pills, an alternative solution is needed.
In comparison to opioids, CBD is non-addictive, yet offers a wide range of benefits, including pain relief. CBD is also an effective alternative to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which are believed to increase one's risk of renal damage.
In fact, one key study observed eight-nine ultramarathon runners in relation to NSAIDs and acute kidney damage. It was found that those who took ibuprofen every four hours during a race, were approximately 18 percent more likely to finish with symptoms of acute kidney damage.
NFL players place immense strain on their bodies throughout their careers, resulting in increased inflammation. This is particularly true in regards to chronic pain and brain inflammation, as discussed below.
Both pain and inflammation are often the body's natural physiological responses to tissue injury — which can be further divided into acute and chronic. Although many injuries begin as an acute issue, in the NFL, inadequate recovery time is often realistic concern, resulting in chronic inflammation.
Over the years, players began to speak out regarding their experiences with Toradol, a NSAID. Acting as a quick-fix for the various injuries that players incur, many players take this drug for years, regardless of the possible long-term damage it does to their bodies. That is why many recommend the use of CBD, as it can help target inflammation, without inducing a substantial list of potential side effects.
Clinical and preclinical studies have shown a connection between inflammation, pain, and the endocannabinoid system. Currently, the most common therapeutic uses for CBD and cannabis, in general, are for inflammation associated with arthritis and musculoskeletal pain.
Among retired NFL players, arthritis is a major concern. For example, a 2009 study found that in comparison to the general population, NFL retirees, younger than 50, were five times as likely to have arthritis — which is a joint inflammation disorder.
CBD has been shown to benefit osteoarthritis patients. When studied in rats, CBD was shown to reduce joint inflammation and block osteoarthritis-related pain. An additional study showcased similar effects, as the topical application of CBD was shown to provide relief of arthritis pain-related inflammation without any evident side effects.
Outside of aches and pain, the most common and highly concerning health-relate issue is associated with brain trauma. In fact, studies have shown that more than 40 percent of retired NFL players showcase signs of traumatic brain injury. Unfortunately, this increases their risk of neurodegenerative conditions later on in life.
Considering concussions are so common among NFL players, it's imperative that athletes who play high-contact sports understand their risk in relation to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.
After examining 111 NFL players' brains in 2017, a neuropathologist found that 110 had CTE. Caused by repeat blows to the head, this disease can only be properly diagnosed after death. Once this disease develops, protein clumps form in the brain, causing brain cells to die. Among those living with CTE, some of the most common symptoms include changes in mood and behavior, aggression, depression, confusion, memory loss, and eventually, progressive dementia.
CBD is being widely studied in relation to CTE, particularly in relation to its neuroprotective properties. Researchers believe that CBD can help preserve brain tissue following traumatic brain injury, offering a proactive treatment option for NFL players.
As reported in this 2018 review, cannabinoids, including CBD and THC, offer neuroprotective antioxidant effects. More specifically, they help counteract glutamate excitoxicity, which causes neuronal damage following a brain injury. CBD specifically, has been shown to help combat symptoms of CTE, including agitation, nausea, dizziness, and psychotic symptoms. It was concluded that CBD supports CTE prevention.
While CBD is mainly studied in relation to its core health benefits, athletes can also benefit in relation to energy and performance levels. After all, when pain and inflammation are reduced and blood flow is enhanced, optimal athletic performance increases while recovery time decreases.
When athletes work out on a regular basis, they place stress on their bodies, resulting in oxidative damage. In turn, this can significantly impact performance. Since CBD is able to reduce the severity of oxidative damage, NFL players would benefit from faster recovery times and better performance levels long-term.
In regards to muscle building and protein synthesis, CBD may also offer a supportive role, based on its ability to maintain a healthier cortisol balance. Since hormones such as cortisol breakdown muscle tissue, it's imperative that athletes take a proactive approach.
CBD is now being studied as part of a holistic health and exercise routine among professional athletes. This is particularly true in relation to its potential impact on energy levels. Since CBD offers a natural stimulative effect, taking a CBD oil prior to working out may help increase one's energy levels and overall stamina, all while improving mental clarity.
In terms of long-term performance goals and recovery, CBD actively reduces inflammation, resulting in more intense, successful workouts. More specifically, CBD has been shown to reduce pro-inflammatory cytokines that released in exercise, including TNF and IL-6.
In this study, it was reported that among 605 adult cannabis users, 81.7 percent of participants endorsed the use of cannabis during exercise. It was stated that cannabis enhances workout enjoyment and recovery. Half of the participants also reported that cannabis increased their motivation levels, resulting in more beneficial workout sessions.
Currently, CBD shows immense promise for current and retired NFL players. As a growing number of former NFL players continue to support the use of CBD, it is likely that the league will reconsider the current ban.
While more research is needed at this time, numerous players have already experienced the difference that CBD makes in relation to their health. A more natural, non-habitual pain relief option is certainly a key area of interest. However, the benefits associated with neurological disorders could offer a breakthrough in regards to wellbeing of NFL players.
This is something that professional sports leagues recognize, and have demonstrated their commitment to by reducing or eliminating punishments for players who take advantage of the medicinal properties of the hemp plant.
Reviewed by Gabe Kennedy
Co-Founder of Plant People, Gabe Kennedy is an acclaimed chef and entrepreneur. Growing up in a house of healers and herbalists, he is passionate about the power of food as a tool for health, and actualized this passion and belief system into his company, Plant People. Named to Forbes 30 under 30 Gabe has shaped menus and cooked his way around the world with his mission to promote a more communal, green and healthy world.
Gabe is a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America and Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. You can learn more about his work at his website.