Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological conditions people suffer from, and it’s defined by recurrent seizures that occur because of a sudden jolt of electrical activity taking place in the brain. When this happens, it leads to a disruption in the messaging between brain cells. There has been a lot of research in recent years on the condition, but also more specifically marijuana and epilepsy.

It’s not just epilepsy where researchers are looking for possible benefits that can come from the use of medical marijuana. The concept of medical marijuana is becoming more mainstream, and researchers are finding more possible therapeutic uses for it. Could a plant that was introduced to the United States by early settlers provide relief for people with epilepsy today? Marijuana (Cannabis sativa) has been grown in the United States since the early 1700s. Settlers brought the plant from Europe to produce hemp. Its use as a medicine was recorded in a reference book from 1850 titled “United States Pharmacopeia”.

According to a recent paper in The Journal of the International League Against Epilepsy(Epilepsia), marijuana was used to treat a variety of conditions in ancient China as far back as 2,700 B.C. They included:

  • menstrual disorders
  • gout
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • malaria
  • constipation

There is also evidence it was used in medieval times to treat:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • epilepsy
  • inflammation
  • pain
  • fever

Marijuana was given the status of a “schedule 1” drug class in the U.S. in 1970.

Does marijuana help epilepsy and what should you know about marijuana and epilepsy? There are certain cannabinoids, which are compounds found in cannabis that are possibly useful for medical reasons. The two primary cannabinoids that are studied are THC and cannabidiol or CBD. There is some evidence showing that cannabis can be helpful to control seizures. In particular, when looking at marijuana and epilepsy, it’s actually the CBD that may be valuable as a way to control seizures. CBD is not psychoactive, meaning that if it is used, it doesn’t cause people to feel high. There are currently studies being done in the U.S. on a drug called Epidolex, which is derived from CBD. Epidolex is a primarily oil-based CBD extract, and the FDA has provided permission to some epilepsy centers to use the drug for a limited number of patients. In a current study of Epidolex, it was shown that seizures decreased by 54% on average with this treatment, including in participants whose seizures were previously unresponsive to other treatments. While the positive links between marijuana and epilepsy or more specifically CBD are promising, there are side effects of marijuana. If someone attempts to self-medicate their epilepsy with marijuana, they don’t know what they’re getting, and there’s no consistency in ingredients or dosing. There are so many different strains of marijuana that can yield very different results. There are also drug interactions with marijuana and other substances that people with epilepsy might take such as VPA which is a commonly relied-upon anti-seizure medicine. The combination of marijuana and VPA may cause liver issues. There are also legal issues to contend with when it comes to marijuana and epilepsy. For example, while many states do allow cannabis to be dispensed for medical purposes, there may be contradictions with federal laws and there are legality issues about transporting cannabis across state lines or having these items shipped to you. Despite the possible side effects of using marijuana as a treatment for epilepsy, the Epilepsy Foundation’s official statement on marijuana and epilepsy is that they support the lifting of federal barriers blocking research on cannabis and CBD. They also support access to these possible therapies when people haven’t seen results from other epilepsy treatment options.

Many people suffering from epilepsy say marijuana stops their seizures, but there is little scientific evidence. Researchers must apply for a special license from the Drug Enforcement Agency in order to study marijuana. They need permission to access to a supply kept by the National Institute for Drug Abuse. These challenges have slowed research.

However, there have been a handful of studies conducted in the U.S. since 1970. Other studies, even some ongoing, have been done around the world. The findings reveal that the most well-known active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is just one of a group of compounds which have medicinal effects. Another, known as cannabidiol (CBD), does not cause the “high” associated with marijuana. It is emerging as one of the plant’s leading medicinal compounds. Based on these initial studies, there are many studies currently ongoing throughout the US and other countries that are trying to answer the question of whether a drug formulation of CBD can help control seizures.

Both THC and CBD are in a group of substances called cannabinoids. They bind to receptors in the brain and are effective against pain associated with conditions like multiple sclerosis and HIV/AIDS. By attaching to receptors, they block the transmission of pain signals. CBD binds to more than just pain receptors. It appears to work on other signaling systems within the brain and has protective and anti-inflammatory properties. Exactly how it works in epilepsy isn’t fully understood. But there have been small studies that show the results of using CBD. Studies of mice published in Epilepsia have shown mixed results. While some found CBD was effective against seizures, others did not. This may be due to the way the drug was given, since some methods work better than others.

Further research includes a survey published in the journal Epilepsy & Behaviour. The survey consisted of parents who were using a facebook group to share and discuss information regarding the use of cannabis in the treatment of their children who suffered from seizures. Information obtained from the survey shows, that the average amount of conventional medication given to the children before using cannabis was 12. The results from using cannabis seem to be highly effective. 84 percent of parents said the number of their child’s seizures reduced. 11 percent reported complete success, with their children experiencing no more seizures. 42 percent of parents stated, that their child has experienced over 80 percent less seizures and a further 32 percent said their child’s seizures had reduced. The only side effects experienced were drowsiness and fatigue. However, children also experienced increased alertness, better mood and improved sleep.

The idea of using the compounds found in marijuana to treat epilepsy is gaining appeal. Researchers must confirm its effectiveness, and solve the problem of strength and how to give it. Potency can vary widely from plant to plant. Inhaling the drug versus eating CBD can alter the strength as well.

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