The stigma around weed is slowly shifting. Once considered a potentially life-ruining “gateway drug,” cannabis has a new reputation: miracle drug. Marijuana’s supporters laud it as the answer to everything that ails you, from pain to mental issues, all without the dangerous side effects of many pharmaceutical drugs.
But is it?
We do know this much: While many Americans aren’t quite ready to empty out their medicine cabinets and start a pot farm in the backyard, we’re curious about one area where cannabis has shown a great deal of promise: treating inflammation and muscle soreness. Even though cannabis’ federal classification as a schedule-1 drug blocking it from undergoing meaningful clinical trials, several studies have found that cannabis—or, more specifically, several of its non-psychoactive chemicals—is an effective anti-inflammatory.
But first, we have to understand how cannabis works.
Endocannabinoids are chemical compounds that occur naturally in the body. They’re crucial for regulating the immune system, insulin, inflammation, and fat and energy metabolism. The endocannabinoid system is a relatively new discovery, and scientists are still learning more about it, but they have found that it affects everything from fertility to memory, and may even be responsible for the post-workout “high” many people experience. Cannabinoids in marijuana mimic your body’s natural endocannabinoids. That’s why scientists are exploring cannabis’ effects on such a wide variety of bodily functions.
One endocannabinoid, 2-AG, is especially prevalent in the central nervous system. 2-AG regulates appetite, immune function, pain, and inflammation. And as it happens, CBD, the non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis, closely mimics 2-AG. That similarity has piqued researchers’ interest in CBD’s potential to treat epilepsy and autoimmune diseases like lupus, IBD, and inflammatory skin diseases.
“The whole point of the endocannabinoid system is to maintain homeostasis, so it wants to regulate an even balance of nerve transmissions, inflammation and everything else,” explains Perry Solomon, M.D., chief medical officer at HelloMD, a startup dedicated to educating people about marijuana. “Studies have found that THC in mice increase the death of T-cells, which are inflammatory; this helps in immunosuppression. Some studies have found that endocannabinoids themselves down-regulate chemicals the body produces when there’s inflammation. In theory, and even in some clinical trials, it shows there is a decrease in inflammation when using cannabis.”
For instance: Cannabis’ tendency to lower T-cell counts is has inspired researchers to study how cannabis might inhibit cancer cell growth without damaging healthy cells.
Cannabis Workout Recovery: What We Don’t Know
Even if limited cannabis research suggests it can help reduce inflammation, connecting cannabis use to better athletic performance is difficult.
“The problem with [studying] recovery is that it’s very subjective,” Solomon says. “Athletes say they put on a balm or ointment or smoke something, but they do it at different times and they’re different types of athletes. A lot of variable factors enter into proving that it’s the cannabis helping recovery: How hard they work out, their diet, what recovery drinks they’re taking.”
Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that weed helps recovery, of course. Ultra-marathoners like Avery Collins are vocal about using cannabidiol (CBD) after 40-mile runs. Triathletes are doing the same, both with THC mid-run and CBD afterward.
But the hard science—and there is relatively little, because cannabis is still schedule-1—is not as exuberant.
“There is some evidence that cannabis has anti-inflammatory effects in studies of cell function in ‘test tubes,’” says J. H. Atkinson, M.D., co-director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego. “At the cellular level, cannabinoids are thought to be potent anti-inflammatory agents because they inhibit the proliferation of certain kinds of cells important in inflammation and suppress production of molecules called cytokines, which are important signals turning on the inflammatory response.”
In fact, there are many studies about marijuana’s efficacy in reducing inflammation, and while there is no body of evidence that it prevents or treats soreness, it definitely has pain-relieving properties that could help athletes who are feeling especially sore after a tough training cycle.
Cannabis-derived Drugs: The Beginning of a Trend?
Currently, three FDA-approved drugs are derived from synthetic cannabinoids. They are approved to treat anorexia and nausea from chemotherapy. Recently, another drug was recommended for FDA approval: Epidiolex, which is indicated for treating epilepsy, is set to be the first ever FDA-approved drug derived from natural cannabis. Epidiolex was developed in Britain, where cannabis is a class-B drug. (It’s currently undergoing reviews to be downgraded to class C.)
But these are very specific indications for cannabis use, and targeted at potentially life-threatening illnesses. Recovering from leg day with CBD oil is a different beast.
The (Blurry) Bottom Line
While there is growing promise about the potential for cannabis to treat inflammatory diseases, serious medical questions remain. Do cannabis derivatives have the same effect in healthy people? Are cannabis derivatives effective—and safe—to self-medicate for soreness and inflamed muscles?
Unfortunately, doctors—even those like Solomon who advocate for more marijuana research—can’t definitively answer this question. “If everyone used the same product from the same source, we could do an observational study with more accurate results,” Solomon explains. “But you need large numbers and a consistent product.”
Atkinson agrees: “As far as product, I can only say I wouldn’t advocate its use,” he says. “I don’t know of studies suggesting cannabis worsens inflammation or delays muscle recovery. And cannabinoids or their derivatives may have a future role in treating inflammation. But it’s just that the evidence isn’t in yet.”
If you do want to experiment with cannabis for recovery, Solomon recommends an oral CBD tincture or a patch that you can apply exactly to the inflamed area—both of which will not make you impaired like THC would.
As of now, doctors can’t feasibly recommend marijuana for most medical uses because federal bans are a massive barrier to conducting clinical trials. That means there isn’t enough knowledge about effective methods of delivery (oral, inhaled, topical) or the proper dosing.
However, you will find that the perception is rapidly changing. In the past, admitting marijuana use to your doctor would have earned you a scolding. Nowadays, they barely blink.