CBD: Helpful Or Hype?

The CBD industry is booming. Advertised as providing relief for anxiety, chronic pain and insomnia, CBD appears to reap major health benefits. Glorious set out to discover if it actually works and is it safe for athletes?

By Alice Barraclough

Illustration by Kavel Rafferty

CBD is everywhere. From oils you put under your tongue to pills, gummy sweets, muscle creams, supplements and coffee – the plant extract has even been added to hair products, toothpicks and infused into workout gear. According to data from Dynata and YouGov, between eight and 11 per cent of UK adults – approximately four to six million people – have tried CBD. Cannabis market research firm, the Brightfield Group, predicts that the cannabis edibles market will surpass $10 billion in annual sales by 2025. There’s simply no denying it, CBD has taken off rapidly.

Marketed to promote sleep, reduce aches and pains, anxiety, stress and inflammation, CBD – or cannabidiol – is a chemical found naturally within the cannabis plant, known as cannabis sativa.* But, crucially, CBD contains no psychoactive properties – such as THC – and will not give the user a ‘high’, so consumers, and athletes can reap the health benefits, legally. The professional golfer Catriona Matthew, for example, uses CBD to keep her calm. British bobsledder and former track cyclist Victoria Williamson uses it to aid recovery and help with nerve pain. And GB weightlifter Jenny Tong swears by it too.

CBD in sport illustration CBD capsules
Appproximately four to six million UK adults have tried CBD.

But the question is: does it work?

Research suggests that CBD may have anti-inflammatory properties and work as a natural alternative to more traditional painkillers. Some studies also suggest that CBD can help with anxiety – a 2019 study, for example, in which 72 psychiatric patients treated with CBD found that anxiety improved, while a review in the Journal of Chemical Neuroanatomy revealed that rodents seemed to adapt better to stressful conditions and exhibited less depressive-like behaviour after taking CBD. But very few clinical studies of CBD actually exist.

“The randomised clinical trials into CBD are still limited,” says Dr Elisabeth Philipps, clinical neuroscientist and one of the UK’s leading experts in the Endocannabinoid System (ECS) in health and disease. “But there are some excellent small scale human studies along with real world evidence collected from clinical population studies that show CBD can reduce anxiety (in cases of sports performance, public speaking and generalised anxiety disorders) as well as reduce levels of inflammation, which in turn can reduce pain.

“The interesting part to CBD is that there are lots of CBD receptors in the part of the brain that perceives pain, so CBD has the potential to not only reduce inflammation at the site of injury but also change how we perceive the pain response in our brains – a double bonus of pain reduction,” she adds. “In my clinical experience, I have worked with professional athletes that successfully manage both acute and chronic pain from training and performance through using CBD as part of their recovery programme. This, in turn, reduces dependence on opiate medication, which can only be a positive thing due to ongoing opiate side effects.” In 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD from its list of banned substances – opening the door for elite athletes not only to use CBD products but also to endorse them too.

Scottish professional golfer and two-time Solheim Cup captain Catriona Matthew OBE embraced CBD. “I heard about it three or four years ago and I was aware of a couple of other players already using it, and I just thought why not try it and see if it makes any difference,” she says. Catriona says she takes CBD oil drops at night during competitions and also has a CBD muscle salve she uses post-workout to help with recovery – both from the brand Golfer’s CBD, for which she’s an ambassador.

“I think you’re always just looking for something that can help you improve performance. If I’m away at a tournament, I consistently use it for the week. I use the CBD gummy bears on the golf course to help me just to relax ever so slightly and then when I’m at home, I tend to use CBD when I’m working out more to help my recovery. Even if it makes the slightest little bit of difference – that can make all the difference in sport.”

CBD in Sport Illustration CBD balm
“CBD has the potential to not only reduce inflammation at the site of injury but also change how we perceive the pain response in our brains.”


Athletes often talk about marginal gains and how all those small tweaks and improvements add up. Even if it’s just a one per cent improvement in one area – like sleep quality or stress management – then the cumulative gains can end up being significant.

“I’ve had to overcome a lot of adversity and so, for me, all those one per cents are pretty vital when I’ve got a fused back and a fused pelvis,” says British bobsledder Victoria Williamson, who uses Puresport CBD to help manage her injuries. Victoria, a former sprint cyclist, broke her neck, her back and her pelvis in a terrible accident on a track in Rotterdam back in 2016, just before the Rio Olympics. “I was two millimetres from being paralysed,” she says. “It was an absolute freak accident. I couldn’t exercise for 18 months, I spent five weeks in hospital and had to learn to walk again. I went to a special unit in London, which was an intense 8am to 5pm rehab for 10 months to get me back cycling. I returned to the cycling team nearly two years to the day, got back on the velodrome and then made World Champs and World Cup in 2019.” Since then she’s switched two wheels for a bobsleigh – which, arguably, isn’t the easiest sport on the body.

“I think everyone’s a bit sceptical [of CBD] but personally, I think it’s great,” Victoria adds. “The sport I do is really high neural fatigue. The central nervous system takes a battering all week with explosive stuff in the gym, sprinting and pushing bobsleighs. It’s a power sport, which means that I can get quite quick adrenal fatigue – it can drain you quite quickly. And as an athlete, you need to be able to push your body back-to-back days. I do get nerve pain quite badly as well, because of the extent of my injuries, so I use CBD for two reasons really – to help me recover and for nerve pain.”

But while CBD is safe to use – it’s currently approved by the MHRA, NICE and prescribed on the NHS as Epidiolex for specific childhood epilepsies – using CBD as an athlete is not entirely without risks, as not every company is scrupulous about making sure its products are free of the banned compound THC. So athletes need to be absolutely sure of provenance. Especially as currently, there are zero CBD brands with the ‘Informed Sport’ label.

CBD in Sport illustration
“Even if it makes the slightest little bit of difference – that can make all the difference in sport.”
CBD in SPort Illustration CBD sleep Oil
“It’s not an overnight thing. You’ve got to be consistent with it.”

“I think you just have to be careful and do your research into what company you use,” says Catriona.

Victoria agrees: “I wouldn’t say that every brand out there is safe. I’m obviously a huge fan of Puresport – they’ve made sure that their CBD products are safe for athletes and I feel confident in their testing protocols, knowing that I’m not going to flag up on a drugs test.” British Weight Lifting athlete Jenny Tong also uses Puresport products. “Like many other people I was incredibly sceptical of CBD – I thought, well, how is this going to help me in any way, shape or form? When I first tried CBD in 2018, the products available on the market at the time were really low quality and didn’t have a particularly high level of CBD in them. And they were untested, so it wasn’t necessarily safe for me to use. I tried it. I wasn’t very consistent with taking it and after two weeks, I decided it wasn’t for me.”

CBD in Sport illustration CBD tea
CBD helps to reduce inflammation and pain relief.

Fast forward to 2020, Jenny decided to try it again. This time, she found it helped with reducing inflammation and pain relief. “I found out about Puresport – who weren’t just third party tested, but who also had the gold standard certification to make sure it was 100% zero THC,” she says. “Now I use it very regularly for pain relief and reducing inflammation. But also for improving the quality of my sleep and helping me to wind down and relax.” For the naysayers who claim CBD is just a fad, an expensive placebo or snake oil, both Jenny and Williamson say that consistency is key to CBD. “People want to see results immediately,” says Jenny. “And if they don’t, they become very sceptical. It’s like protein shakes – creatine is the one supplement that is scientifically proven to help with muscle growth and recovery. But if you take it once, it’s not going to do anything. It’s like going to the gym, doing one set of abs, then going over to the mirror to check if you’ve got abs yet. It’s not going to work – it’s not an overnight thing. You’ve got to be consistent with it.”

“It could well be a placebo for me,” she adds. “But I’ve bought into it and because of that, I do feel the benefit. Whether that’s real or whether it’s a placebo, I am now committed to CBD being part of my day-to-day process. I recover better. I sleep better. I perform better. And that’s my experience.”

Her advice? “Don’t believe the hype. Don’t just buy into it because someone else tells you to. Take your time to do your own research. Speak to people who have taken it and found benefits, speak to people who have found they don’t benefit from it and make up your own mind.”

Other than Golfer’s CBD and Puresport, other CBD sports brands that undergo vigorous testing include fourfive – who use CBD isolate in all their products and are third-party tested to prove no contamination with other cannabinoids like THC – and CBD Triathlete – also independently tested and verified as containing only pure CBD. Dr Philipps is also involved with the Sports Cannabis movement – which is striving to bring medical cannabis into the sports world.

It’s not hard to see why athletes, who will try almost anything to recover from workouts faster or improve performance, might become CBD converts. But for those of us who aren’t elite sportspeople – and don’t have to comply with drug test regulations – there are a whole host of cannabis wellness products out there promising reduced stress, improved sleep issues and glowy skincare.

Some of our favourites? thisworks sleep plus bath oil – for relaxing and unwinding before bed, MOi + ME’s CBD massage candle – infused with CBD, lavender, evening primrose, jasmine and sandalwood, and Conscious {by design} ‘wellness pours’ – drinks to recharge, nourish and revive. Holland & Barrett, Boots, Selfridges and Liberty London also all have a wide range of CBD products.

* Note that in the UK it is illegal for any CBD brand to make a health claim. This is regulated by the FSA.

Editorial Design and Art Direction Root

Don’t miss our CBD offers, receive a 15% discount from Conscious {by Design} and Golfer’s CBD.

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