Nate Diaz (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

How CBD is Helping MMA Fighters

Cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive form of cannabis, has sure been making waves in the world of MMA over recent years. The derivative is effective at treating pain and inflammation, and is a popular replacement to opioid painkillers, which an increasing number of fighters would prefer not to take due to the side effects and addictiveness of these drugs.

There’s no “high” or “stoned” effect from taking CBD, but that hasn’t stopped the cannabinoid from being controversial in MMA, and it was put in the spotlight following UFC 202, when Nate Diaz was questioned about vaping the substance in a post-fight press conference.

However, while Diaz received criticism, there are plenty of solid reasons why MMA fighters should use CBD as treatment and to help with recovery. And now, with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) changing the guidelines on CBD late last year, fighters can now use the compound at any time without punishment. Psychoactive THC remains restricted, however, if not completely banned.



The Octagon presents its challenges, but MMA fighters’ bodies are also put under immense strain while out of the cage, with an intense training schedule imperative for peak performance. In-cage action always presents a risk of brain injuries, as is the nature of the sport. However, sustained blows to the head can be increasingly damaging over time, as the likelihood of neurological damage is increased.

However, CBD can help with neurodegeneration, in easing pain after a fight, and speeding up healing time by encouraging more deep sleep, the phase of sleep where the muscles regenerate. These are just a couple of arguments for fighters to choose CBD over more traditional treatments.

The neuroprotective effects of CBD have been noticed by the U.S. federal government, which has a patent on the use of CBD – and all cannabinoids for that matter – as neuroprotectants. The antioxidant properties of cannabinoids also help to reduce oxidative stress in the brain.

Meanwhile, CBD also has anti-addiction properties, which is a bonus for those trying to substitute opioid medication for CBD – in addition to relieving pain, CBD decreases the strong dependency that comes with heavy usage of these drugs.

Understanding the Therapeutic Properties of CBD

To understand CBD’s benefits, one must understand the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is ancient, and responds to endogenous, lipid-based neurotransmitters called endocannabinoids, and phytocannabinoids – or just cannabinoids – which are taken from cannabis. Scientists had predicted the existence of the ECS for many decades, but their theories were only confirmed in the 1990s. Uncovering THC’s endogenous analogue, anandamide, was a key part of this process.

According to some research, the ECS has existed in various life forms for hundreds of millions of years. Ancient peoples all over the planet were familiar with at least the medicinal properties of cannabis, with artwork and texts referencing the herb. Even today, wild cannabis grows all over the world.

However, it is only in the past couple of decades that we have found out the specific properties of cannabis by isolating cannabinoids like CBD and THC. Distinguishing between non-psychoactive and psychoactive cannabis has been very helpful for the plant socially and politically, although cannabis experts continue to stress that while THC will normally induce a high, it’s still very therapeutic.

Let’s explore the CBD stories of Bas Rutten and Nate Diaz in more depth.

Bas Rutten: From MMA Fighter to Cannabis Advocate

As a former user of opioid painkiller, Bas Rutten knew all too well about their dangers – however at the time of fighting, the consensus was that these drugs were the best all-around pain-relievers available. Unfortunately, sustained opioid use caused Rutten to become addicted to OxyContin, a drug that he found effective at first, as well as a mood-enhancer; but over time, the drugs stop working. Prior to taking OxyContin, Rutten was prescribed Norco and Vicodin, however these were causing damage to his liver.

Rutten did not fully appreciate how addicted he was to these painkillers until the end of his career in 2006. He began taking pills at an even greater rate than usual to tackle injuries which had re-emerged.

In the years that have followed, Rutten has gone around talking about the benefits of CBD, and particularly the compound’s anti-inflammatory properties. He also explains why CBD can be better for pain management than opioids. Had CBD products been around during Rutten’s career, he doubts whether he would ever have been addicted to opioids. But with that now water on the bridge, the ex-fighter just hopes that other fighters will consider making a change from the status quo and give CBD a try.

The Infamous UFC 202 Press Conference

Diaz is a known supporter of cannabis and has not made any attempts to hide his personal association with the plant. Yet with CBD, Diaz went a step further, and vaped it in front of a gaggle of reporters following UFC 202. The fighter explained that he took CBD to treat inflammation, and to speed up the healing process in general. CBD is an intriguing anti-inflammatory that works in a different mechanism to NSAIDs like ibuprofen – endocannabinoids are thought to regulate inflammation by binding with the CB2 receptor.

Being so open about taking CBD was a brave move from Diaz, who was reprimanded after using his vape pen in that infamous press conference. But now, with CBD no longer being banned by WADA, we must look to the likes of Diaz for breaking down the cannabis stigma and promoting change for the benefit of other fighters and athletes. The science would surely have been unavoidable with time but drawing awareness to CBD may have accelerated the process.

Are There Risks to Taking CBD?

The risks with taking CBD are nowhere near as concerning as those from opioids and NSAIDs, but there are a couple to be aware of. High doses of CBD can lead to dry mouth and drowsiness, and the effects are generally very sedative on the body. However, these are a far cry from the stomach ulcers, liver damage, addiction and overdose risk that come from taking the aforementioned drugs. The Western world, and especially America, is locked in a drug abuse crisis, with more than 60,000 deaths by overdose reported in 2016.

After years of propping up the war on cannabis, the World Health Organization, a wing of the United Nations, offered a new take on CBD in December 2017, determining that the compound has no potential for abuse.

Final Thoughts on CBD

Legal medical cannabis looks set to be a reality soon across the Western world, and CBD vape oil and e-liquid, edibles and other non-psychoactive choices are sure to be among the most popular products.

Furthermore, researchers have a long way to go before they fully understand CBD, all the effects of the ECS and the impact that cannabinoids may have outside of this network. As time goes on, expect to see even more variety in the market.

Now that the main blocks to studying cannabis have gone, scientific advancements and the development of new cannabis-based medicines should come quickly. This is great news for both professional sportsmen and women, and anyone with an illness that is treatable through interactions with the endocannabinoid system.