Is There a Connection Between Endocannabinoids & Exercise? What Athletes Should Know

Is There a Connection Between Endocannabinoids & Exercise? What Athletes Should Know

Learn the connection between endocannabinoids and exercise and how CBD may be able to supplement exercise’s feel good effects with CBD.

The conversation about CBD for athletic performance and recovery kicked off in 2019 when several top pro athletes went on the record to discuss how they’ve added CBD products to their training routines. Since then, fitness enthusiasts and athletes at all levels have taken an intense interest in CBD as a fitness tool.


The athletes who use CBD point to a wide range of applications for the cannabis-derived substance. Some athletes opt for topical formulas that combine CBD with established pain relievers. Others choose premium CBD oil capsules as a daily supplement.


But in reality, they’ve likely enjoyed the effects of cannabis-like substances all their lives without realizing it. That’s because the human body produces endocannabinoids, a process that can positively affect mood and act as a pain fighter among other effects. And it appears that exercise may cause the release of endocannabinoids.

An athletic woman poses in a sprint against a yellow background next to cbdMD topicals 1500 mg Freeze and 750 mg Recover

Have you ever heard the term “runner's high” to describe the incredible feeling some long-distance runners experience? As Jesse Pittsley, PhD describes it, “Psychologically, runners may experience euphoria, a feeling of being invincible, a reduced state of discomfort or pain, and even a loss in sense of time while running.”


Is there a connection between endocannabinoids and running?


For years, scientists attributed this phenomenon to the release of endorphins – essentially opioids the body produces internally. But now, some scientists hypothesize that endocannabinoids may play a larger role in the pleasant feelings people experience during and after exercise.


With that in mind, let’s look at how cannabinoids and exercise can cause us to feel better.

A diagram shows the relationship between CB2 receptors, cannabinoids, and neurons

What are Cannabinoids and Endocannabinoids?

All animals have special cellular receptors that make up the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The chemical compounds that interact with these receptors, whether synthesized in the body, plants, or a laboratory, are called cannabinoids.


Many people are familiar with phytocannabinoids, or cannabinoids produced in plants like the hemp and marijuana strains of Cannabis sativa L. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the abundant compound in marijuana that’s responsible for its intoxicating effects.


But what is CBD?


Cannabidiol, better known as CBD, is also present in marijuana, but it’s found in much higher concentrations in hemp that is specially bred for the purpose. By the definition set forth in U.S. federal law, hemp contains no more than 0.3 percent THC content, which does not cause intoxication when ingested.


When people think of using cannabis as a supplement for sports or fitness activities, they generally think of the applications of CBD for athletic performance and recovery.


There are also synthetic analogs to phytocannabinoids, but these are not widely used in consumer products.


Endocannabinoids are cannabinoids which naturally synthesize in the body. At present, two human endocannabinoids have been isolated by scientists – anandamide and sn-2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Scientists are in the early stages of researching these substances. Endocannabinoids and exercise is a particularly interesting course of study, especially how exertion may cause these substances to become released and interact with receptors.

A human form made of constellations sprints next to a diagram showing the systems of the body

Endocannabinoids and Exercise: What Scientists Think

Physicians widely advise exercise as a part of many treatment plans, even for issues related to depression and anxiety. Certainly, exercise is a powerful tool for body and mind wellness.


But why?


Medical experts have long pointed to the release of endorphins, a large group of peptides that act on opioid receptors in the brain, as the answer to why people frequently feel a mood boost during or after exercise. The word “endorphin” is a portmanteau of the words endogenous (from the body) and morphine. So yes. Your body creates and releases its own opioids.

And researchers have observed exercise-induced endorphin release. But is it possible there’s more going on?


According to some studies and reviews, a connection between the production of endocannabinoids and exercise also exists, which may better explain the runner’s high. But keep in mind, these studies are not yet conclusive on the matter.


One study describes how endurance exercise activates the ECS, and those who experience a runner’s high exhibit feelings more in line with the influence of cannabinoids compared to opioids.


A more recent study, published by the American College of Sports Medicine, draws yet another connection between endocannabinoids and exercise. It also strengthens the case for exercise as a tool to treat depression.


In their experiment to better understand the relationship between endocannabinoids and exercise, 17 women who self-reported a diagnosis of major depressive disorder engaged in varying intensities of exercise for 20 minutes. The subjects who engaged in prescribed moderate exercise (compared to self-selected exercise) exhibited increased endocannabinoid levels in their blood 10 minutes and 30 minutes after exercise. Those same subjects also reported a mood boost.


While this was a small study that only observed the correlation between increased cannabinoid levels in blood samples and mood, it’s clear that something interesting happened during the experiment. And even though these observations may not prove that endocannabinoids are the primary cause of the subjects’ mood alteration, the study could lead to breakthroughs that will help us better understand the connection between endocannabinoids and exercise.


Building on this research, we may also soon discover a relationship between endocannabinoids and running among endurance athletes – possibly solving the riddle of the runner’s high.

An athletic young woman in black workout clothes works out with heavy black ropes in a crossfit gym

Can You Supplement Exercise’s Feel-Good Effects with CBD?

This is a tricky question.


Scientists have yet to fully confirm the effects of CBD for athletic performance, recovery, or as a tool for mental health. The early research, which consists of small case studies with animal and human subjects, laboratory testing, and case reviews, indicates CBD may provide benefits in these contexts. But again, the research is incomplete.


At present, only one CBD-based substance, a prescription drug used to treat two rare forms of childhood epilepsy, has been studied enough to receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.


Still, there are many professional athletes who incorporate CBD into their wellness and training regimen in a variety of ways. Some, such as golf great Bubba Watson, have opted to use CBD topicals as a way to compliment their recovery. Others have tried CBD to simply maintain everyday wellbeing or to support regular sleep.


Even former pro Steve Smith Sr. has experienced the properties of CBD firsthand, “Working with cbdMD has become a family affair, and those closest to me have seen what CBD can do firsthand. Most who've followed me know my history in terms of struggling with personal issues. I'm proud to step forward and say that this partnership can be the platform the public needs to educate themselves on the power of CBD.”

Bubba Watson stands on a golf course and gets ready to take two CBD gummies from cbdMD

Learn More About CBD for Athletic Performance

Even with limited research, a large contingent of fitness enthusiasts and athletes supplement the effects of endocannabinoids and exercise with CBD products, ranging from CBD oil tinctures and CBD sleep aids to edibles like CBD gummies.


If you’d like to learn more about how you can integrate CBD into your fitness routine, check out these informative articles on the cbdMD Blog.


Using CBD to Optimize Your Fitness Performance

An in-depth look into how professional athletes use CBD; includes a handy FAQ to help you better understand the current science behind CBD for fitness.


CBD for a Pre-Workout & What You Need to Know First

Tips on how to use CBD before you start your workout, including valuable information about how some CBD products can help you start the day right after a good night’s sleep.


CBD for Post-Workout Recovery: Does it Work?

A look at how muscle gains result from a cycle of breaking down muscle fibers through exercise, the biomolecular process of repairing those muscles, and how CBD may assist the process.


How CBD Gummies Help Athletes

A breakdown of the ingredients found in CBD gummies, how athletes use them as part of their routines, and suggestions on how to add them to your regimen.


Power Up Your Protein Bars with CBD

Includes great information about how protein bars can supplement your workout and provides easy recipes for baked and no-bake CBD protein bars.

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