Many people may remember the Ice Bucket Challenge which was trending a few years ago- where people all over the world used the power of social media to raise awareness for ALS by dumping buckets of ice water over their heads. With the help of celebrities and politicians, the ALS foundation was able to raise over $90 million for scientific research. Though the Ice Bucket Challenge did a lot to raise awareness and funds for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the disease continues to wreak havoc on the lives of those diagnosed and their loved ones. While scientists have still been unable to identify a cure for ALS, many patients have found that using medical cannabis (also known as medical marijuana) can greatly help to ease the symptoms of this debilitating disease. Let’s take a look at three things you should know about medical cannabis and ALS.
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. Also known as Lou Gherig’s Disease after the famous baseball player diagnosed with it, ALS causes the rapid progression of weakness and paralysis cultimating in death after 2-5 years. The exact cause of ALS is not known at this time and although the pharmaceutical industry has made some treatment plans available, none of the conventional treatments have been able to stop the progression of the disease or prevent death.
As ALS progresses, patients lose the ability to control their muscle movement. Daily acts such as chewing, walking, and speaking first become difficult and then ultimately impossible. As the nerves die, the messages to the muscles stop being sent and as a result the muscles begin to twitch as they weaken and eventually die. Patients suffering from ALS, while weak, remain mentally alert and conscious- totally aware of the disease as it progresses yet powerless to stop it. Death often results from respiratory failure.
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for ALS but some pharmaceutical medications have been approved by the FDA for the treatment of its symptoms. These medications attempt to slow and reduce nerve damage and slow down the decline of muscle functioning. While the medications may be effective in slowing down ALS, they are unable to stop the inevitable progression, and unfortunately carry the risks of negative side effects. Rilutek (riluzole), one of the medications commonly prescribed for ALS patients is associated with the following side effects: weakness, drowsiness, nausea, stomach pain, dizziness, decreased lung functioning, diarrhea and/or constipation, headaches, vomiting, and loss of appetite. Edaravone (radicava), another commonly prescribed drug given to patients intravenously, has side effects including bruising, shortness of breath, and headaches. Researchers are still not sure if Edaravone helps prolong lifespan or not. Both of these medications are very expensive. As if these side effects are not bad enough, patients suffering with ALS also often experience symptoms of pain, depression, anxiety, and insomnia which often leads to the patient being prescribed more medication which have their own unpleasant side effects.
There is a growing amount of scientific evidence that suggests that medical cannabis treatment plans may perform better than pharmaceutical medications in the treatment of ALS. Many studies have shown that the chemical compounds in cannabis- THC and CBD– contain antioxidative and anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective qualities which are effective at slowing the progression of ALS. Due to these unique properties, medical cannabis is efficient at treating a variety of the symptoms of ALS including uncontrollable salivation, involuntary movement and muscle spasms, pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. Unlike with pharmaceutical medications, patients using medical cannabis can manage their symptoms without the risks associated with negative side effects.
The hallmark of ALS- nerve damage- is caused by two known factors: oxidative stress and excitotoxicity. Cannabis has shown to effectively address both of these factors. Oxidative stress is caused by an imbalance between antioxidants and free radicals. A known antioxidant, cannabis helps to decrease the damage caused to nerves. Excitotoxicity is when nerve tissues, already compromised by an excess of an amino acid known as glutamate, are further injured and destroyed. The excessive amounts of glutamate then lead to cell death. Both THC and CBD work to decrease the amount of glutamate released, preventing the nerve cells from excitotoxicity and cellular death.
There are a variety of methods of ingestion available to patients using medical cannabis to manage the symptoms of ALS. These include cannabis extract oils, tinctures, edibles, topical ointments, and vaporizers. Smoking cannabis can damage the already weakened respiratory system and as such is not advised. The method of ingestion, as well as the strain utilized, will depend on each patient’s needs. Both THC and CBD are beneficial in treating and relieving the symptoms of ALS and patients are urged to speak to a qualified medical cannabis practitioner to find the correct ratio, dosage, and method of ingestion to ensure the best results from a medical cannabis protocol.