ALS stands for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and is also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease after the baseball legend who had his career and life tragically cut short by the condition. The term motor neuron disease (MND) is also a commonly used term, as this refers to the group of disorders to which ALS belongs – ALS being most common of these illnesses.
Recently, the world sadly lost its most famous sufferer of the disease, physicist Stephen Hawking. The disease was further made known to the world at large by 2015’s viral sensation “The Ice Bucket Challenge”, which managed to raise over $115 million for research into ALS.
Research into the cause and a possible cure for ALS is on-going, but currently, we have no answer to either of those questions. Treatments are aimed at helping slow the disease and give patients as high a quality of life as possible.
Lately, there has been a lot of news coverage of people self-medicating using cannabis-based treatments, and some have experienced phenomenal success. In this article, we look at some of the possible benefits that cannabidiol (CBD) – one of marijuana’s two main active ingredients – could have for ALS. If you are curious and want more information, then please read on.
What is ALS?
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease affecting nerve cells in the central nervous system. Motor neurons are found everywhere, from the brain and spinal cord to all the muscles throughout our bodies. They play a vital role in the brain’s ability to control muscle movement.
ALS causes these motor neurons to progressively degenerate, and eventually die – preventing the brain from controlling muscle movement. As voluntary muscle action becomes progressively worsened, those with the disease may lose their ability to eat, move, speak and even breathe.
There are two types of ALS. The most common is Sporadic, which accounts for 90-95% of cases in the US. It can affect anyone at any time and its cause is currently unknown. The other is Familial, which accounts for the remaining 5-10% of US cases, and this is caused by genetic inheritance.
For those with Familial ALS, there is a 50% chance their children will inherit the gene mutation which causes the disorder, and thus possibly develop the disease themselves. ALS usually strikes between the ages of 40 and 70, and an estimated 20,000 Americans have the disease. Military veterans are roughly twice as likely to be diagnosed, but no one knows why.
Most commonly, ALS starts in the limbs, hands, or feet before spreading to other parts of the body. As it advances, more nerve cells are destroyed and more muscles are affected and weakened.
Some of the early symptoms of ALS are:
- Weakness in the legs, feet or ankles.
- Difficulty walking or carrying out routine activities.
- Trouble swallowing or slurred speech.
- Twitching and cramps in the arms, tongue and shoulders.
- Hand weakness.
- Difficulty in holding the head up and with maintaining posture.
The disease doesn’t usually affect your brain’s thinking ability, your senses, or your bladder and bowel control. This means you can keep actively involved with the people around you, although you will most likely become severely disabled.
How is ALS traditionally treated?
There is no current cure that halts or reverses ALS. Treatment is aimed at helping those with ALS have as high a quality of life as possible for as long as possible. Treatment is based around the following two avenues:
- Medication: There are two drugs used to treat ALS. One is Riluzole, which can slow the progression of ALS in some patients, but not all. Side effects include changes in liver function, dizziness, and gastrointestinal conditions. The other is Edaravone, which can reduce the decline in everyday function caused by ALS. It is a relatively new treatment, only having been approved in 2017. The side effects can include gait disturbances, swelling, shortness of breath, bruising, and hives. It can also cause serious allergic reactions in some people. As well as these, your doctor may recommend drugs to relieve some of the symptoms of ALS, such as spasticity, pain, fatigue, and muscle spasms.
- Therapies: Often people with ALS undergo a variety of different therapies to help with their condition. Physical therapy helps with mobility issues and pain. Occupational therapy helps maintain independence. Speech therapy can help with communication issues and can help explore alternative forms of communication such as text-to-speech computers. Psychological therapy is often recommended too, as being diagnosed with ALS can have a huge effect on your mental wellbeing and often people will struggle to cope.
How could CBD oil help with ALS?
Along with THC, CBD is one of the main active ingredients in cannabis. Cannabis affects our body by acting upon our endocannabinoid system, an internal body system which has been proven to be linked to a large number of bodily functions including pain, breathing ability, muscle spasm, and muscle relaxation.
Of course, these are all functions which ALS worsens significantly. CBD itself works by interacting with the endocannabinoid system, and it has been suggested that the compound could have a positive effect on all of these processes.
As CBD has been shown to help with these functions affected by the disease, it makes sense that CBD could help ALS patients, as these are some of the most commonly experienced symptoms. CBD will not cure ALS, but it could have the potential to help alleviate some of the more frequently experienced symptoms. This means it has the potential to give those with ALS a better quality of life.
You may be put off using CBD as it is derived from the cannabis plant, and you might be worried about possible side effects. However, CBD does not have any of the traditional mind-altering effects of marijuana.
This is because THC, not CBD, is the ingredient in cannabis that gives recreational users the psychoactive ‘high’ effect they are looking for; CBD does not have any psychoactive properties and, in fact, works against THC’s psychoactive effects.
This means that using CBD-based treatment could be suitable for everyday use. It also means CBD is legal on a federal level (as long as it contains less than 0.3% THC), as it cannot be abused recreationally.
Are there studies into CBD’s effectiveness against ALS?
Research into CBD’s effectiveness in treating ALS is still in its infancy, but there have been some positive findings. These findings have led to a growing movement within the scientific community stating that more research should be carried out into the use of CBD and other cannabinoids against ALS. It certainly seems like an area that will be explored more in the coming years.
Here are the details of the few studies that have been carried out to date:
Carter and Rosen published an early overview of the use of marijuana in the management of ALS in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, 2001. They conducted a scientific review of the various effects cannabis has been found to have on the body, and concluded that ‘marijuana should be considered in the pharmacological management of ALS.’ They urged more research to be carried out on marijuana’s usefulness in the fight against ALS.
The American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine published further research on the topic in 2004. Amtmann et al. carried out the first anonymous survey of ALS patients regarding their use of cannabis, and those who reported using it found it to be effective in reducing several symptoms associated with the disease. The sample size was small, with only 13 of the 131 respondents reporting using cannabis. Despite the small sample size, the results were positive, inferring that marijuana could be a possible benefit for ALS sufferers. The findings indicate that more research should be carried out.
In 2010, Carter et al. had a huge breakthrough with their findings published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care. They induced a mouse with ALS-specific symptoms and then treated it with cannabis. Amazingly, they found that cannabis “prolonged neuronal cell survival, delayed onset, and slowed progression of the disease.” Their findings led them to also add their voices to the growing calls for clinical trials on cannabinoids effectiveness to be carried out on humans with ALS. The researchers stated that, based on the available data, it was reasonable to assume that cannabis could slow ALS progression, extend patient life expectancy, and make a difference in reducing the burden of the disease.
Final Thoughts on CBD as a Treatment for ALS
More research is certainly required, but what we know so far suggests that CBD could have the potential to be a massive help to sufferers of ALS. It seems to work against many of the main symptoms which present a problem to patients.
What’s more, CBD has very few side effects as it doesn’t get you ‘high’, and it could be taken alongside other medications. This means that, if CBD doesn’t prove effective for you, you haven’t risked anything in the process of ruling out a possible alternative treatment option.
No one is suggesting that CBD will cure ALS, and you shouldn’t expect it to. However, it could help improve the quality of your life, based on everything that is known about ALS and the potential benefits of CBD-based treatments.
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