Recently, new ways to improve sports performance and aid recovery have sparked an interest in ozone therapy. Ozone, a naturally occurring form of oxygen containing three oxygen atoms, has gained recognition for its potential benefits.
Ozone therapy is hardly a new technology–it has been in use for over 150 years. During World War I, ozone was used topically to treat wounds and help prevent infection and inflammation. To this day, it continues to be used for various conditions despite its controversial image.
Athletes and other fitness enthusiasts are turning to ozone therapy as a complementary method to other performance and recovery strategies. As a highly reactive molecule, it works by reacting with molecules in the human body, generating byproducts that trigger physiologic responses. These could result in anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting, and oxygenating properties that support performance, reduce fatigue, and support the body’s ability to repair and regenerate.
Clinical trials in athletes, although limited, have shown that ozone therapy enhances athletic performance. Therefore, using ozone therapy involves navigating anti-doping rules. However, integration into sports medicine and performance enhancement programs holds promise for athletes seeking a holistic approach to athletic excellence. In this article, we break down why.
Athletes in World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)-regulated sports need to be aware of regulations surrounding sports medicine treatments. Ozone therapy is no exception. The WADA has provided guidance specific to ozone therapy. It highlights that ozone itself is not a prohibited substance, but certain routes of administration are.
WADA has banned any situation where blood is removed and reintroduced to the body. Therefore, autohemotherapy is not allowed. Any injections of allowed substances also have to be less than 100 mL within a 12-hour period. However, other delivery routes, such as rectal insufflation, are permitted.
Ozone therapy should be administered under the guidance of those who are familiar with WADA regulations. This helps ensure that it is given correctly, and without introducing another banned substance.
Ozone reacts with various molecules in the body, creating molecules that deliver health benefits. When it’s high in the atmosphere, ozone is present at high enough doses to be toxic when inhaled. While you certainly could generate a detrimental dose of ozone into the body, it's primarily breathing ozone that is toxic. Our lungs don't have the antioxidant defenses capable of handling ozone. Whereas, the same dose could be administered into the blood without the detrimental effect due to the antioxidant capacity.
Ozone exposure without inhalation at low doses, such as with ozone therapy, is very safe. The small doses of ozone trigger beneficial pathways in the body. These may include:
Before we dive into how ozone therapy delivers athletic benefits, it is important to understand that ozone can be administered in many ways. The route used depends on the effect you are hoping to achieve and what’s legal in your sport:
The choice of administration route depends on your specific health objectives and the condition you want addressed. It is always best to consult with a healthcare provider to determine which method might benefit you.
Ozone therapy has become a popular choice for athletes because many of them experience benefits anecdotally. While few studies have looked at specific effects of ozone in sports, results from studies in other conditions can be deduced to apply to sports performance.
The ability to oxygenate tissues is a key determinant in sports performance, recovery, and tissue healing as oxygen is essential for healthy mitochondrial function. Oxygenation is a crucial factor for athletic performance and recovery. Oxygen and oxidative therapy like ozone do this by optimizing cellular respiration and energy production processes in the body.
Ozone therapy can also trigger the production of protective antioxidant enzymes and vasodilators to promote overall cell health. As a vasodilator, it can improve blood flow, which also enhances oxygen and nutrient delivery. With autohemotherapy, ozone reacts with the cell membrane of red blood cells, thinning the blood.
One study, involving eight elite amateur athletes, looked at ozone autohemotherapy to see how well it could enhance oxygen delivery to body tissues. Through periodic tests that measured the anaerobic threshold, six athletes showed clear improvement. This suggested that ozone autohemotherapy may enhance oxygen delivery to muscles and peripheral tissues.
Caption: Effects of ozone autohemotherapy on anaerobic threshold based on Conconi test. Left panel: initial anaerobic threshold, middle: the athlete’s average anaerobic threshold in response to training. Right panel: the improvement in anaerobic threshold (at lower heart rate and speed) in response to ozone therapy. Adapted from Gjonovic et al (2006).
In another study, 26 subjects with blood flow disorders received ozone autohemotherapy to see if it could modify muscle oxygenation parameters. They received treatments every other day for a week. The study found that ozone could modify oxygenation in resting muscles, especially in those with lower levels of oxygen, making it potentially useful in athletes.
Another clinical trial enrolled six healthy male volunteers who received one 20-minute session in an ozone-oxygen steam sauna, compared to a steam sauna alone. At 0, 0.5, and 1.0 hours after the ozone session, the participants had elevated partial pressure of oxygen in their venous blood. After the ozone treatments for up to 0.5 hours, participants also had increased blood markers of oxidative stress and immune system activation.
While no clinical studies are using rectal insufflation in athletes, studies in hypoxic patients suggest that rectal insufflation can improve tissue oxygenation throughout the body.
Mitochondrial function is crucial for exercise performance and recovery, even in glycolytic or power sports.
Ozone and some of its fatty acid peroxidation products activate the Kreb’s cycle, boosting the production of ATP and thus energy. In the blood, ozone can enhance the breakdown of glucose in red blood cells for energy.
In a clinical trial involving six healthy patients, high-dose autohemotherapy significantly boosted the bioenergetic health index, a measure of mitochondrial function.
Ozone might also impact how red blood cells (RBCs), the cells that transport oxygen around your body, function. In a rabbit study, researchers used rectal insufflation to deliver ozone through the rectum and observed its effects on RBCs. After 15 days of treatment, the RBCs had multiple notable changes – improved flexibility, less aggregation, and better stress resilience.
While this study was done in animals, the results might have a few benefits for athletes:
It is important to note that in this study applied the treatment for a longer duration (21 and 36 days), some of these changes eventually returned to baseline.
Ozone therapy also enhances energy production in red blood cells causing their hemoglobin to dissociate from oxygen more readily. This may imply better oxygenation of target tissues such as muscles.
Because ozone therapy improves oxygenation, mitochondrial health, and red blood cell function, it can improve endurance, stamina, and resilience.
In one study on athletic performance in football players from the Turkish National League, ozone therapy showed remarkable benefits. Thirty male football players were initially assessed using an Astrand Treadmill Test. The players who received ozone autohemotherapy twice a week for five weeks had significant improvement in performance compared to those who didn’t get the therapy.
The players had an impressive 28% increase in VO2 max (a measure of aerobic fitness, the maximum amount of oxygen the body can absorb and use) and a 20% increase in max running time. In contrast, the control group only had a 12% increase in VO2 max and a 6% increase in max running time. These findings suggest that ozone therapy could be a highly effective strategy for enhancing athletic performance, particularly beneficial before critical seasons or tournaments.
Caption: Ozone therapy boosted max running time by 20% (top panel) and VO2max by 28% (bottom panel). Adapted from Turan MT (2021).
Strenuous training can temporarily increase oxidative stress and inflammation, along with cortisol. All of these can weaken the immune system. So, ozone therapy’s immune-boosting effects can be particularly beneficial both in terms of preventing illnesses and enhancing recovery from training.
Ozone can help with the immune system in two ways
Inflammation plays a dual role in sports–you need inflammation to generate many training responses, but too much inflammation can hinder recovery and reduce well-being. Intense and long training sessions can also generate too much inflammation which makes recovery and injury healing difficult.
Ozone supports your body to do the right thing with inflammation. It does not suppress the inflammation you need for training responses, but it balances out excess or chronic inflammation that hinders healing. When acute inflammation is needed, such as during acute injuries, shortly after a training session, or during infections, ozone stimulates the inflammation.
Ozone also seems to improve epithelialization, collagen deposition, and cell proliferation. This is why ozone injection into soft tissues and joints can promote recovery from injury. More importantly, ozone therapy can also help normalize pain neurons, which may induce pain relief.
Studies show ozone can combat the effects of oxidative stress. As we age, this becomes even more important. One animal study found these effects in aging mice. Researchers showed ozone can reduce oxidation markers and improve glutathione status. The ozonated byproducts in your blood boost the production of antioxidant enzymes, acting as superheroes that promote cellular health and protection.
Ozone therapy triggers the production of many antioxidant enzymes, including:
These enzymes neutralize free radicals, protecting cells and tissues from damage. For athletes in intense training, this can be a game-changer for recovery, aging, immune health, energy, and many other aspects of health.
Ozone therapy has the potential to play a helpful role in post-exercise recovery, which requires the ability to balance oxidative stress and inflammation, and mitochondrial function. By stimulating mitochondrial ATP production, ozone therapy could support a faster recovery process. This is especially helpful for athletes undergoing intense training or competition.
By adjusting oxidative stress and cytokine levels, ozone can also mitigate inflammation and alleviate exercise-induced muscle soreness. By recovering more quickly after strenuous exercise, athletes can continue to perform at a high level. It's like giving the body a boost to recover more efficiently after pushing its limits during physical activity.
Ozone injections are often used to treat injuries and degeneration in high-level sports. To treat the problem, ozone is injected directly into the affected area, such as joints, muscles, or ligaments. The rationale behind it in the context of sports medicine lies in its ability to stimulate a healing response.
Ozone and ozone byproducts help with:
Ozone therapy is often a lower-risk and better-tolerated treatment than surgery and certain medications. In one study, 52 herniated disc patients who had not responded to conservative treatments received intramuscular ozone injections alongside steroid and local anesthetic. When followed up, they had lower pain intensity and disability scores, and all reported statistically-significant improvements.
In a study of 238 knee pain subjects, ozone injections provided faster and superior short-term pain relief compared to other types of injections, including hyaluronic acid and platelet-rich plasma. Those who received ozone reported improvements in pain, stiffness, and function after two months indicating that this treatment is valuable for short-term knee pain.
In hamstring injuries, ozone was effective and well-tolerated. The researchers also noted that there was increased blood flow to the injured muscle, and subjects had less pain and performed better in the toe-touch test.
Summary of Ozone for Injury & Overuse