These days, marijuana enthusiasts are happy to point out a possible link between their substance of choice and almost every possible health condition. Suffering from cancer? THC can help you manage the nausea from your chemotherapy. Tired of sore muscles after a workout? CBD is great for pain relief and reducing inflammation. Experiencing anxiety and depression? Cannabinoids can make you feel utterly euphoric.
Unfortunately, many of cannabis’s current treatments aren’t well-researched. In fact, plenty of studies contradict one another with regards to whether marijuana does anything other than distract users with a fun high. However, there is one health condition that is unequivocally improved through the application of cannabinoids: epilepsy.
What epilepsy is
Epilepsy is a broad category of neurological disorders characterised by unpredictable seizures. Most people recognise a seizure to be an event where a person loses consciousness and shakes or contorts, but in truth, anything the brain can do, it can do in the form of a seizure. Some people experience seizures as muscle spasms, but many others experience symptoms like walking in circles, unnecessary chewing, saying nonsense words or phrases or seeing an aura.
The category of ‘epilepsy’ doesn’t describe how someone developed their condition. Though many are born with neurological differences that result in seizures, others develop epilepsy after a traumatic event, like a car crash or brain surgery. Some begin exhibiting symptoms of epilepsy at a young age, even infancy, while others do not develop the disorder until late in life.
Epilepsy is a spectrum condition, meaning that some people diagnosed with epilepsy have infrequent and manageable seizure events, while others demonstrate intense, incessant seizures that result in other health problems. Epilepsy is chronic, meaning it doesn’t go away without treatment – and for many, that treatment is cannabis.
How cannabis helps
Cannabis contains unique compounds which act on the human body in a specific way. Called cannabinoids, these compounds most often target the endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS), which connects other systems around the body, facilitates messages between them and helps maintain internal balance and efficient functionality. The most famous cannabinoid is called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and it is responsible for the high associated with marijuana. Another cannabinoid rapidly growing in popularity is cannabidiol (CBD), which is what those suffering from epilepsy can make good use of.
Though CBD was the first cannabinoid discovered, way back in 1940, remarkably little is known about its effects on the human body. This is largely due to cannabis’s federal legal status, which makes it extraordinarily difficult to obtain even for scientific study. Initially, scientists believed that CBD bound with certain ECS receptors, as THC does, and affected the body without causing psychotropic effects. However, further research indicates that CBD seems to influence the ECS to produce more of its own compounds, which is perhaps why it helps with the treatment of epilepsy.
Studies on the compound indicate that it can aid in controlling the frequency and severity of seizures. The best research is the result of an FDA-approved CBD product designed specifically to help manage seizures in patients suffering from particularly severe childhood epilepsy disorders. Scientists found that the drug was capable of helping reduce the occurrence of convulsive and drop seizures in those suffering from two serious forms of epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. Though the mechanism by which CBD has these beneficial effects is not well-understood as yet, those suffering from epilepsy should talk to their doctors about making use of these findings in treating their own seizures.
Where sufferers can get treatment
While many states now permit the sale and use of marijuana products, it isn’t advisable for those suffering from epilepsy to pick up whatever CBD they can find at an Illinois recreational cannabis dispensary. Cannabis is known to interact with other medications in a potentially dangerous way, so only under a doctor’s supervision should those with epilepsy strive to treat their seizures with cannabinoids.
Once a certain dosage of CBD is deemed safe, users might gain a prescription for Epidiolex, the FDA-approved CBD drug, or obtain a license to buy medical marijuana, which tends to have lower costs and higher CBD content than recreational offerings.
We still have so much to learn about the brain, about epilepsy disorders and about cannabis. In the coming years, we must be hopeful that research will reveal how CBD functions in the human body and how we can harness its power for further good.
Image credit: Freepik
Peter Wallace has been an advocate for mental health awareness for years. He holds a master’s degree in counselling from the University of Edinburgh.