Examining CBD's Relationship to Professional Surfing, and Its Effectiveness

Professional surfers have certainly gotten on the CBD bandwagon. But does the stuff work? Photos: Unsplash

The Inertia

In 2019, the WSL welcomed its first CBD sponsor: CBDMD, and since then, professional surfers have been falling like dominoes for cannabidiol products. They’ve also been excitedly sharing how CBD tinctures, capsules and balms benefit everything from recovery, pain management and joint health to anxiety – and therefore, help improve their surfing. 

Yet, the WSL is also sponsored by Corona and Red Bull, and no one is telling you to drink two of those per day. 

Hemp-derived CBD has become a cash crop since 2018’s Farm Bill made it legal if the product contains less than three percent THC, and a recent Forbes Health survey reports that over 60 percent of Americans tried a CBD product last year. The CBD market was valued at $18 billion in 2022, and New York-based investment bank Cowen & Co. estimates that the market could earn $15 billion by 2025.

It makes sense that surfers are feeling the CBD vibe. Professional athletes are always on the lookout for holistic remedies that help them avoid pain meds and pharmaceuticals, and pro surfers, most of whom are woefully underpaid, are no strangers to endorsement deals. However, for the run-of-the-mill, unsponsored surfer, it can be difficult to differentiate “true” testimonials from over-the-top paid advertising. 

Selfishly, I wonder this: do we know enough about CBD’s benefits to spend our hard-earned cash on these products? Can CBD really help our bodies, and therefore impact our surfing? 

The exuberant – and at times, gushing – testimonies from the likes of Mason Ho, Billy Kemper, Kassia Meador and Flynn Novak seem almost too good to be true. Novak told Surfline that taking CBD tincture before bed helped him to get great sleep, dream more, and feel completely “regenerated.”

Mason Ho wrote that his sponsor Nanocraft CBD makes his “acute little injuries almost non-existent,” and keeps him feeling “young and ready.” 

Kassia Meador stated that taking CBD made by Elixinol is a panacea for everything from sleep help, to jet lag to aiding in post-concussion neurological function, and Billy Kemper called Medterra CBD “eye-opening and powerful.” Kemper said that CBD helped him recover from a broken pelvis and a collapsed lung with “a tremendous drop in inflammation, a positive difference in my appetite and better, more restorative sleep.”

The surf collection of pro-CBD paraphernalia runs on and on. Ultimately, everyone should be stoked if world-class surfers who put their bodies through a constant wringer for our entertainment, are finding effective, natural relief. Even if CBD works for one out of 1,000 people, it’s worth it for that single person, right?

On the flip side of the money and ringing endorsements, recent data regarding CBD’s benefits is inconclusive. Cochrane, an international network based in the UK and a registered non-profit, relies on concrete evidence to supply data to clinicians, patients, researchers and policy-makers, and Cochrane reviews are recognized by medical professionals as some of the highest quality medical data synthesis available. In 2018, the study “Cannabis Products for Adults with Chronic Neuropathic Pain” concluded that “there is a lack of good evidence that any cannabis-derived product works for any chronic neuropathic pain.”

Similarly, the National Library of Medicine published a study entitled “Efficacy, Safety, and Regulation of Cannabidiol on Chronic Pain: A Systematic Review” in 2022. The findings acknowledge that CBD could be a candidate for an alternative to opioids based on CBD’s lack of addictive properties. However, the study concludes that while “CBD for chronic pain as an adjunct medication has gained popularity…the evidence is not strong enough to obtain a proper recommendation.”

Additionally, in 2023, the Association of American Medical Colleges deduced that there are “some indications” that CBD may help with anxiety, but with limited findings. They also found that CBD’s impact on sleep is “fairly inconclusive,” though the study found some promise with insomniacs. Results about dealing with pain were also mixed, however, they did not explore the effectiveness of high doses, and they did reveal that topical CBD helped patients with peripheral neuropathy – damage to the nerves located outside of the brain and spinal cord – who reported less cold, itchiness and overall pain.

Most CBD studies over the last few years conclude with the fact that we need well-designed, scientifically valid clinical trials to estimate CBD’s worth, unlock its possible role as mainstream medicine, and understand how much to take and what the long-range benefits and drawbacks may be. 

Yet, it can be difficult to study a substance that falls victim to an overall lack of company oversight throughout the market. Multiple reports illustrate that many CBD products are mislabeled in terms of their contents. Plus, many companies are inconsistent about dosage. Johns Hopkins Medicine Researchers, for example, showed widespread mislabeling of CBD products.

One bright spot occurs when CBD is combined with THC, utilizing what cannabinoid researchers call the “entourage effect.” In clinical trials, Sativex, a spray with equal parts CBD and THC, proved significantly successful as an anesthetic for cancer-related pain and MS. The spray is approved in Canada to treat cancer pain and in the UK for MS-related pain and is currently undergoing trials for use in the States. 

Per usual, the U.S. health system, while conducting trials of Sativex, remains overly cautious about its future use. Perhaps this is a case of the U.S. medical community, the FDA and the entire bureaucracy of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services remaining purposefully deaf to what professional surfers – and other athletes – are shouting from the rooftops.

However, when I ask Dr. Brian Sullivan, a family physician in Redmond, Oregon about his take on the possible benefits of CBD, he offers a real-world example to explain the current lack of concrete data. Sullivan states that, hypothetically, it takes “a handful of massive, randomized, placebo-controlled studies to inform generations of debate regarding how many (and which) people need to be treated with baby aspirin for a decade to prevent one heart attack.” Unfortunately, Sullivan doesn’t see similarly comprehensive studies arriving for CBD anytime soon and he remains skeptical of this type of unproven therapy for his patients.

I can almost hear the eager, vengeful scribbling in the comments section now, riffing on everything from how Big Pharma corrupts and hides the truth, to how CBD and/or THC can be used to treat everything from a broken leg to a busted heart. I get it, and I’m just as open to CBD – and THC – as effective therapies as I am skeptical of these large organizations and bureaucracies.

But I’m also skeptical of for-profit companies that charge average-income surfers exorbitant prices for hemp that was used to make rope purses and surfy shoes a short time ago. Data, and science, should be at the heart of this decision, right – unless we’re now at war with science?

Back to Dr. Sullivan again, who notes that “data is super important because otherwise we would only act emotionally.” Sullivan hits on the idea that humans are chiefly emotional beings, and that therefore, our brains are not shaped to make decisions based on evidence, but rather emotions, as we only have a “modest and variable capacity for logic.” 

Do surfers want CBD to work so badly that they are dropping some tincture, dropping into waves, and imagining placebo effects? In turn, are we allowing advertisements featuring revelatory pro surfers ripping waves and then posing with CBD to influence us? Of course we are! People love advertising; did you not see the Super Bowl? We’re eternally searching for shiny, transformative products that will make us different, cooler people, and perhaps improve our roundhouse cutbacks. As Sullivan suggests, “Data is particularly important when ulterior motives are present…[motives] which would likely influence our decisions – including the capacity to make money from selling a therapy, or the presence of a cultural bias that a potential treatment is ‘cool.’” 

Surfing is cool, and by association, CBD is cool. Kale, clean eating, self-care, raw milk, juice cleanses, paleo, brain boosters, natural energy, digital detox, personalized medicine, intermittent fasting, ice baths, ecotherapy – these trends were also considered “cool” over the last few years, and some of them have gone the way of the dodo.

Ultimately, do what makes you feel good, with all the facts on the table. But stay skeptical, my friends, and make decisions based on your own needs, not what anyone else is telling you. As Sullivan asks, “what better way to stick it to our parents than to champion the endless health benefits of a plant that would historically get us suspended from high school?”

Thanks, Doc. I couldn’t have said it better myself.



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