More and more fighters in the MMA world are turning to cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant that can help with pain relief and much more. It’s touted as a healthier and safer alternative to opioid-based painkillers, which are notoriously addictive and often riddled with severe side effects.
Although CBD cannot get you high, use of the compound has often courted controversy, perhaps most famously when Nate Diaz was spotted drawing on a CBD vape pen during a press conference following UFC 202.
In this article, we’ll look at the most important benefits of CBD for MMA fighters, and tell the stories of some who are finding it of immense therapeutic value.
CBD usage in the MMA world
Life isn’t just physical in the octagon for MMA fighters, but outside of it too – with an intense training regime necessary for success in the sport. And when in the ring, the goal is ultimately to knock out your opponent. The regular blows to the head can cause brain trauma and other types of neurological damage which only manifest over time.
Many MMA fighters are finding that CBD can aid the recovery process. The faster healing time and few side effects from CBD are two good reasons for fighters to switch away from other medications.
CBD has demonstrated neuroprotective properties in studies and is currently being used in Brazil to treat a patient with Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, the Department of Health & Human Services – a branch of the US federal government – has an active patent on CBD, and all cannabinoids from cannabis for that matter, for use as neuroprotectants and antioxidants.
Many patients suffering from chronic pain have found that CBD therapy has allowed them to reduce their dependency on opioid painkillers, or even stop taking them altogether.
Why is CBD effective?
The effectiveness of CBD is rooted in the fact that it operates in a system that is essentially designed to work with cannabinoids: the endocannabinoid system. Scientists first came across this system in the 1990s and found that the phytocannabinoids in cannabis were chemically similar to endocannabinoids – such as anandamide – that are produced by the body. Therefore, phytocannabinoids like CBD and THC can mimic the effects of endocannabinoids and regulate this system, which is paramount for physical and mental wellbeing.
Scientists are yet to ascertain just why the body has a system that responds to compounds that are pretty much unique to cannabis, but since the plant has been used for medicinal and spiritual purposes for thousands of years, it is possible that our bodies have evolved to respond to its compounds.
CBD is brilliant for those who would otherwise take medical cannabis but do want the psychoactive effects brought on by the THC. As researchers have developed an understanding of the specific properties of the most important cannabinoids, medical experts have begun to establish which hold medicinal value for various conditions.
Nate Diaz has always been very vocal about his use of CBD and has no qualms about using it in public. This has helped to reduce the cannabis stigma, showing people that it’s much more than just a plant for recreational use.
Diaz clarified to reporters that he takes CBD to help with “the healing process and inflammation.” He says that taking it before and after fights helps to “make your life a better place.” This frank and honest discussion about CBD will no doubt have been of use to others suffering from chronic pain without hope.
Not that going public came without risks for Diaz. When he took CBD at the press conference after UFC 202, the substance was still technically banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and there was a chance of a fine or suspension. But thanks to pressure from CBD advocates in MMA and other sports, WADA eventually relented and removed cannabidiol from the list of banned substances.
This breakthrough is a massive development for athletes in all sports, who are now free to take CBD without putting their careers in jeopardy. Yet it likely wouldn’t have happened – and at least not so fast – without the brave advocacy efforts from people like Diaz.
Bas Rutten’s support for CBD comes from the trouble he had with opioid painkillers, which he was forced to take during his MMA career. The former world champion says that he was addicted to opioids, which he took to treat chronic pain. But unfortunately, Rutten found that these drugs were doing more harm than good for his body, in and out of the ring.
Nowadays, Rutten spends much of his time advocating the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD, and the advantages the compound has over opioids for tackling pain.
Rutten came to the realization that he had an issue with painkillers after his last professional fight in 2006. His injuries from previous fights came back to haunt him just weeks before he was due to step in the ring, and he found himself taking an unsettling number of painkillers to manage the pain. He has spoken of how easy it is to become addicted.
“Before you know it, you’re taking insane amounts of painkillers,” Rutten warned.
The Vicodin and Norco painkillers that Rutten was prescribed were proving damaging for his liver due to the amount he was taking, according to his doctor. Oxycontin was the next painkiller that Rutten was tried on, but he notes that while it may provide a mood boost, it eventually stops helping with pain, but is so addictive that it’s hard to stop.
Rutten reckons that if he knew about CBD back then, he “might not have become addicted to painkillers.” He has said that the process of ending opioid addiction wasn’t easy, and that he hopes all fighters will start favoring the cannabis compound over addictive prescription painkillers.
Does CBD have any side effects?
It’s slightly disingenuous to say that there are no side effects at all with CBD, but in comparison with opioid painkillers, they are hardly a concern. Large doses tend to have a sedative effect on the body, and CBD may also lead to dry mouth.
But let’s consider at the most commonly prescribed painkillers. NSAIDs and opioids have been linked to addiction, liver damage, stomach ulcers and reduced life expectancy. An opioid overdose can even be deadly, with more than 40,000 Americans dying from either medicinal or recreational overdoses in 2016.
What’s next for CBD?
CBD is likely to become even more popular in the future as public attitudes shift favorably towards cannabis, and especially for medicinal use. We likely only know a fraction of the overall potential of cannabis at present, with scientists still learning about various cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system.
Prohibition has significantly stifled research over the past eight decades, but finally the US is moving in the right direction. The World Health Organization’s statement in December 2017 that CBD holds no public health risks or abuse potential was another huge step for medical cannabis.
However, it’s fair to say that the personal stories about CBD are often more effective at spreading than the word than a scientific study. And that leaves professional athletes indebted to the likes of Diaz and Rutten.