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Cannabis and Epilepsy Treatment

January 23, 2017
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Since medicinal cannabis has become a more commonplace alternative for a well-established list of ailments, patients are finding a place for it next to their Advil and Tums. But unlike many other chronic illnesses that can be managed with over-the-counter supplements, epilepsy requires a specific cocktail of chemicals not readily available at the local corner store.

This is why cannabis – specifically its chemical constituent CBD (cannabidiol) – has become so important for families struggling to treat their epileptic loved ones. Cannabis has demonstrated so much promise in the treatment of epilepsy that FDA-approved clinical trials are underway. But why is it that cannabis in particular is so effective at treating seizures, and why is it critical that clinical investigations continue?

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What Is Epilepsy and What Causes It?

EEG tests can help learn more about epilepsy causes

Epilepsy is characterized by recurring seizures of variable intensity and effect. These seizures are usually caused by disturbances in specific regions of the brain’s circuitry that create storms of extra electrical activity. Approximately 1 in every 26 Americans will develop epilepsy in their lifetime, and two-thirds of those diagnosed will have no specific origin for the disorder. But perhaps the most harrowing fact is that 34% of childhood deaths are due to epilepsy or accidents that occur during seizures. These figures illustrate the “hiding in plain sight” commonality of epilepsy and the incredible unmet need for the development of novel drugs to treat seizures.

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While a seizure disorder can be a massive disruption to someone’s way of life and can even be deadly, most patients manage to acquire treatment and medicine while others simply grow out of it – though this is not always the case. Seizures and seizure disorders are as unique as the person afflicted by them, which can make seizures difficult to treat. Recently, epilepsy and cannabis have been highlighted in the news, especially success stories focusing on children with epilepsy who are trying medicinal cannabis. A few notable examples include Charlotte Figi and the high CBD Charlotte’s Web cannabis strain named after her, as well as Renee and Brandon Petro.

These cases and others have shone a spotlight on the medicinal uses of cannabis, regardless of its classification as a Schedule I narcotic (having no medicinal use in the eyes of the Federal government) and the generally accepted legal age of consumption for mind-altering substances (save caffeine and sugar).

The Current State of Cannabis and Epilepsy Research

cannabis and epilepsy clinical trial stages

These inspiring stories help illuminate the efficacy of medical cannabis while defining its range of treatment from the elderly to the young. While the capabilities of CBD and medical cannabis use seems to be self-evident, the DEA has only recently allowed academic institutions to explore the effects, side effects, and usefulness of cannabis as a medicinal plant. This seemingly innocuous change of face is an enormous leap forward for researchers, pharmaceutical companies, breeders, and the cannabis community at large as more scientific capital is put toward understanding this populous plant.

“Based on these preclinical studies, one would be excited about the potential therapeutic potential of the cannabinoids,” wrote Dr. Francis M. Filloux in the journal Translational Pediatrics. “However, it is undeniable that the complex regulation that surrounds these Schedule I substances has impeded scientific investigation of their therapeutic potential.”

There has been no other drug in history that has been as widely consumed and applied for medicinal use without the institutional blessing symbolized by clinical human trials. But patients around the country currently have access to the “generic” versions of life-saving, CBD-rich cannabis products that are thriving beyond the regulatory reach of the FDA. So by conducting clinical trials with pure CBD, as GW Pharmaceuticals is with Epidiolex, concrete, tested scientific evidence can lay the first bricks in the road toward a variety of CBD/THC ratio products as well as synergistic cannabis cocktails targeted at other specific maladies.

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Clinical trials become more rigorous and far reaching as they progress through each stage. Currently GW Pharmaceuticals is undergoing Stage 3 clinical trials on Epidiolex, a nearly pure CBD preparation (98%+), to confirm the therapeutic value of this cannabinoid. This is also an astounding leap forward for cannabis and medicine, because, as noted by Dr. Filloux:

“Until the last few years, the published data was minimal and included [fewer] than 70 subjects. Very few of these were children. Furthermore, none of these studies would meet criteria as Class I-III clinical trials (50-53). However, this state of affairs is rapidly changing given the current climate.”

While this scientific success story isn’t a tear-jerker like Brandon’s or Charlotte’s, it does explain a necessary step toward proving the efficacy of cannabis-based therapies and its more egalitarian medicinal prescription.

Why Does Cannabis Work for Epilepsy and Seizures?

medical cannabis for epilepsy and seizures
The endogenous cannabinoid system is ubiquitous in our bodies, and is heavily regulated by cannabinoids found in cannabis.  With such potent biological usefulness throughout the human body, it’s obvious that the more scientific study that goes into the cannabis industry and the plurality of products it has created, the more the consumer will benefit. Time will be a better judge, but the future of medicinal cannabis as a treatment for disorders like epilepsy is here. Catherine Jacobson, Director of Clinical Research at Canadian licensed producer Tilray (note: Tilray is owned by Privateer Holdings, Leafly’s parent company), weighs in on the future of medicinal cannabis and the scientific progress that needs to be made:

“A pure CBD formula was the safest way to begin trials on epilepsy patients because of its lack of psychoactivity. The trouble with developing a single pure CBD formula is that epilepsy has never been a one-size fits all disorder. Of the 200,000 children living with treatment-resistant epilepsy, only a fraction has access to clinical trials investigating CBD. This leaves most parents and patients to acquire their own CBD-rich cannabis, which always contains some percentage of THC. It’s important to learn from these cases to understand which types of epilepsies might respond to a combination product, and to inform future clinical trials. Early results from clinical studies on GW’s Epidiolex clearly show a beneficial effect of CBD on some types of seizures, but more research is needed to fully understand whether a combination THC/CBD product can reduce the seizure burden in those patients who don’t respond to CBD alone.”

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This statement aligns well with conclusions drawn by Dr. Edward Maa, Chief of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Program at Denver Health and Hospitals. “It is possible that CBD and [THC] work synergistically to suppress seizures,” Dr. Maa write in Epilepsia. “In fact Ethan Russo, senior medical advisor to GW Pharma, recently reviewed the evidence for the ‘entourage effect’ of the phytocannabinoids and terpenoids, and he makes a strong case for their synergistic effects in a variety of disease states.”

Epilepsy is surprisingly common, exceptionally disruptive, and potentially deadly. But the uncertainty behind the effectiveness of cannabis and CBD in regards to epilepsy treatment is fading. This “controlled substance” is finally receiving its due diligence from the scientific community, and Dr. Jacobson is at the forefront of much of the forthcoming research.

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Jeremiah Wilhelm

Jeremiah Wilhelm is a former strain researcher at Leafly.

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  • Chris Voris

    No Hoosier should have to leave their home, their family, their friends, to obtain a life changing medication!

  • Paul Sorensen

    The Fed and the ‘traditional’ medical community would rather have epilepsy patients suffer the terrible side effects of current seizure medications.
    The story of Charlotte Figi really highlights this problem. Watch the video.

  • Dan E

    Cannabis efficacy regarding seizures has been documented since 1839, after Sir OShaugnessy brought Ganja to Britain from India. The Feds tried to hide the pharmacology by changing the name to marijuana and lo and behold…it worked.

    Ironically, children have died because of this subterfuge under the guise of morality.

  • I would love to see something regarding cannabis use in the elderly. My mom is taking a seizure med that messes her up…wouldn’t a CBD formula be better? I think it would.

  • cannaman106

    Looking for quality medical cannabis? Go to http://www.weedlymart.com/shop/

  • Greg Caudill

    I too have epilepsy and I do self medicate. I have tried CBD oil only it alone didn’t do enough to help me feel better. So far the one thing that I have found that really does help me to feel better is to just smoke a bowl. When I first start feeling the symptoms of my epilepsy it becomes the only thing that I can think about making it hard to concentrate on the simplest of task. I have found that if I take a couple puffs and relax for a few minutes it allows me to change my focus and think about other things which helps me to feel better, believe it or not it actually helps me to concentrate better.

    • Travis

      Do you have like a little day dream that you said “change my focus and think about other things”?

      • If you have seizures & end up on high-powered pharmaceuticals, such as Lamictal (me), it often makes you have the “stupids”. So I get what he’s saying, if you don’t have a scrambled brain, you think of other stuff and can concentrate on that instead of the sucky illness making us sick. I’m looking into MM bc my Dr is an idiot, dropped my Valium off, leaving me without that backup so I’m constantly worrying about having more big seizures. I almost died during a bad fit of status epilepticus. So if we’re not worried, that leaves us free to use our brains to concentrate on being alive & being a more productive member of society. I have JME/Janz Syndrome/Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy, which the medication has made me so depressed to the point of anhedonia. So if I can get off the crazy pharma meds, I think my life may return to my pre-overmedicated state. I have to take Keppra to counter the bad side effects of Lamictal. I was told I’ll be on it for the rest of my life. So yeah, if I can have control of seizures, PTSD & extreme anxiety all in one, that would make me relax & quit worrying thus be able to concentrate. I hope I’m making sense! I’m only starting to research it. I cannot smoke, so I’m looking for what I need to do/what kind & what form I should try out. Someone brought me wax but I have no clue what to do with it. I’ve had a few friends offer to give me lessons (lol they don’t mind haha) but I don’t want to just be taking it & it be wasted. Anybody who can give me tips would be greatly appreciated. The one I have is Durian Glow Wax. Any ideas? TIA. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a65a67d6992636dec1e14d5971e59de800c4d118ac5df635d60fca2f3def3163.jpg

        • Travis

          I never heard of Glow Wax. I’m on Lamictal to. Along with Neurontin, and a 3rd bill. I don’t have any stupids, like you, with that. I was on Kepra but that gave me a Bad temper!
          It started out when I was 7 years old with day dreams. But once I hit 17 a had a seizure. I believe 3 of them till I was 18 and had brain surgery. Well I’m still on meds but No seizures. Just the day dreams again. I guess they cause/have caused my really bad short term memory loss.

    • Papillon k

      What do you mean by ”smoke a bowl” ? I have epilepsy too….please tell me what this means ?

      • BA5578

        Good evening. I’m amazed that nobody answered your question- it was a very clear question. By “smoke a bowl”, Greg Caudill was referring to smoking dried cannabis leaf. One of the most common ways it’s smoked is in a “bowl” on a pipe, the same way one would smoke tobacco in a pipe. Smoking cannabis isn’t the most efficient way of consuming it, but it is the quickest way of getting it into your system and you’d feel the effects much more quickly than ingesting the oil.
        If you’re not a regular cannabis smoker and you have epilepsy, you may want to start with the oil. Your specific dose that works for you may not be obvious at first, but it’s worth giving it a shot. A dear friend of mine was diagnosed with epilepsy as an adult, at about 30 years old and she has found great relief from seizures by taking the oil (high in CBD, very low in THC). I’d recommend Charlotte’s Web, which is a strain of the cannabis plant grown by the Stanley Brothers in Colorado (https://www.cwhemp.com). They set out to grow cannabis high in THC once it became legal in Colorado, but instead, they grew a strain that was very low in THC and very high in CBD. It’s now the primary focus of their entire business- helping people with medical conditions, specifically epilepsy.
        Hopefully Leafly won’t mind, but I’m also attaching a link to an awesome series of documentaries done by Dr. Sanjay Gupta regarding the health benefits of the cannabis plant- something our government has lied to us about for several decades.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-SZzgfyXhJI&list=PLym_dC-PXmBnWqfw2XZIdm8ZuuW-zo2ie

        Hopefully this helped- take care.

  • LoveCannabis EU

    Hello, I use the CBD which helps me, I feel great! I believe this product. I have a discount coupon from Elixinol and I can share it: 10off489

  • Four years ago my cousin suffered from epileptic seizures and had neurosurgery to help. Since then he had been taking medication that made him feel awful and he used to complain of excruciating headaches. Florida passed medical marijuana recently and he has been using medical cannabis successfully, no more headaches. However, when visiting other states he cannot get his medicine because of medical marijuana reciprocity issues. Any thoughts?

    • BA5578

      Good evening Jason. Unfortunately with cannabis remaining illegal by federal law, it’s still illegal to take it across state lines, even from one legal state to another. Depending on the strain he uses to treat his epilepsy, for instance if it is high in CBD and super low in THC (0.3% or below I believe), he could keep a bottle of hemp oil with him anywhere in the country. According to the Farm Bill Act of 2014, the federal government allows states to regulate their own hemp production, but it’s legal to possess anywhere in the US. So, hemp oil falls into that category. I live in Texas. We’re not allowed to produce it here, but we can possess it, so I buy mine from CWHemp.com. That’s the Stanley Brothers- the same guys who make Charlotte’s Web.
      Another option is to find out before he visits another state, to see if he can get a medical card in that other state, since he’s already been granted a medical card in Florida. Depending on the state, you may have to be a resident.
      Finally, the third option is if he’s visiting one of the nine totally- legal states. No medical card needed.
      It should not have to be this way- we should be able to access the plant anywhere, anytime. But the pharmaceutical companies have their hands so deep in the pockets of politicians, that it may still be a while until the federal government comes around.

  • gomez K

    I HEREBY ADVISE ALL EPILEPSY PATIENTS TO VISIT CANNAPHARMAS FOR THEIR COMPLETE TREATMENT. THANKS TO CANNAPHARMAS, MY SON IS NOW FREE FROM EPILEPSY AND MANY OTHER.