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Industry-Funded Research Found CBD Beverage Neither Helped nor Hurt Healthy Adults

Graduate student led research project to determine whether CBD-laced beverages affect physical or mental health in active, healthy adults.

Ryland Townsend, a student in the University of Northern Colorado's Sport and Exercise Science Ph. D. – Exercise Physiology Concentration, was a student project lead on CBD-related research. Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. awarded UNC a $250,000 grant to support the study. The placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial investigated whether different doses of a CBD beverage would affect physical or mental health.

"We looked at a 60-milligram dose of CBD, a 30-milligram dose of CBD and compared that to a control (placebo) in active, healthy adults," Townsend said.

He scheduled the 102 participants — mostly college students — for multiple visits and supplied them with CBD beverages throughout the eight-week study. Participants were furnished Fitbits to track sleep and steps, and they completed surveys about how they felt.

Ryland townsend facing front and smiling at the camera.

Ryland Townsend

"It did not alter things for the better or for the worse in a drastic manner. A lot of people mentioned they felt quite good the first week or two, so maybe there was a tolerance buildup where better effects started to level off. Future research could look at a higher dose for a shorter time," he said.

The project merged two of Townsend's fascinations: holistic health and applicable research.

"We are surprisingly one of the only labs that looks at CBD in healthy, active individuals. We are at that forefront for that," he said.

Professor Laura Stewart in the College of Natural and Health Sciences'Department of Kinesiology, Nutrition, and Dietetics is a primary reason Ocean Spray entrusted UNC's lab with the study. Her research explores the relationship between cannabis compounds and physical and mental health. She also directs UNC's new Complementary Health and Integrative Physiology Center (CHIPC).

"Dr. Stewart cultivates a very positive environment. She holds me accountable but takes the extra step to check in to see how I'm doing. It's shaped my whole doctoral experience, and I could not be any luckier," Townsend said.

Stewart recalled the study commenced just as the lab was reopening after being shut down during COVID.

"Ryland had to jump into this project without a lot of previous experience. He went from nothing happening in the lab to recruiting 100 people into an eight-week study with over 400 different visits for all the individual participants. It was a massive undertaking, and the funder wanted it finished in under a year," she said.

Stewart has researched cannabis products since 2015. In one of her studies, CBD showed potential for improving immune function and sleep.

"Interestingly, in this larger study, we didn't see that. At least in low doses of daily CBD taken as part of a beverage, we didn't see a lot of potential for either improvement or a hindrance to someone's health. I still think this study is very meaningful for the average person, especially given the fact that many CBD products instruct consumers to use CBD daily," Stewart said.

Her weekly meetings with Townsend included late nights and early mornings in the lab. But despite the intense workload, she said he kept things lighthearted with a fun story each meeting. Typically, students excel in either teaching or clinical work, but she noted Townsend was adept in both areas.

"Ryland has diverse strengths. He can work in a clinical environment with healthy people or with people with medical conditions as it relates to exercise and complementary and alternative medicine. He's an excellent teacher, and his students love him. He is also a certified strength and conditioning coach, so he can work on the performance side as well," she said.

Townsend's work and research reflect his varied interests. He works with CHIPC, teaches exercise physiology and lab courses, and develops training and nutrition plans for NFL- and MLB-caliber athletes. His prior research included a study on club sport athletes' perceptions of transgender athletes with doctoral student Jenna Altomare.

"Transgender folk are underserved in the research community. Some individuals mentioned how they had biases previously, but once they met a transgender individual, or had one on their team, they did a 180 or at least changed their positions," he said.

After graduating this summer, Townsend plans to continue working in holistic health as a professor in an academic setting or directly with individuals who want to improve their performance.

"I'm really fascinated by holistic health, general wellness and research so I want to look into possibilities within holistic health avenues on a college campus, on a team or directly with athletes or individuals who want to increase their performance. I love to help people. That's my thing," Townsend said.

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