Cannabis and ALS: What You Need to Know
Remember when you couldn’t log onto social media without seeing someone dump a bucket of ice water over their heads for a good cause? The famous Ice Bucket Challenge helped raise awareness and research funds for the devastating disease called ALS. We hope some of those funds go to further investigate the relationship between cannabis and ALS.
ALS is also known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” named after the famous baseball player who built a heroic reputation for playing through his physical limitation. This neurodegenerative condition causes the muscles to waste away and has no cure — but there is hope. In this article, we will cover ALS and how cannabis can relieve symptoms and help stop the disease from progressing.
What Exactly is ALS?
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a degenerative neurological disease that involves the neurons (nerve cells) that control voluntary muscle movement. These voluntary muscles are responsible for actions like talking, walking, and chewing. ALS is a progressive disease that gets worse with time. There is no cure for ALS, and there aren’t any proven treatments to reverse or slow its progression.
ALS is part of a group of disorders called motor neuron diseases, which are characterized by the deterioration and death of these neurons. Nerve cells connect the brain and spinal cord to muscles all over the body, providing communication links between the brain and all the voluntary muscles. When motor neurons start to degenerate and die over time, messages aren’t sent to the muscles. Without the ability to function, the muscles begin to weaken, twitch, become paralyzed, and waste away. The brain eventually loses the ability to control voluntary movements, and the muscles deteriorate, which can lead to many debilitating symptoms including respiratory failure.
The most common symptoms of ALS are muscle stiffness and weakness. As the disease progresses, patients lose the ability to move, eat, speak, and sometimes even breath. Many ASL patients also suffer from depression that develops from a reduced quality of life.
Over 30,000 Americans are affected by ALS, but we still don’t know exactly how it is caused.
While there is no cure for ALS, there are medications used to reduce nerve damage and to try and slow the decline of function. Other drugs are used to treat the symptoms of ALS like stiffness, drooling, depression, sleep problems, constipation, and uncontrolled episodes of crying or laughing. The effectiveness of these medications can vary, and they often cause uncomfortable side effects.
Can Cannabis Treat ALS?
Cannabis has been used to bring relief from the symptoms of ALS for a long time, and researchers are finding it may even slow the progression of the diseases. The nerve damage associated with ALS happens through a combination of excitotoxicity and oxidative stress. Cannabis has the potential to address both of these issues.
Cannabis has been a known antioxidant for a long time and can help decrease the nerve damage caused by too many free radicals within the body. Along with being a powerful antioxidant, cannabis also provides neuroprotection that can spare the neurons from the excitotoxicity caused by injured nerve tissue. The neuroprotection cannabis offers may be able to slow the damage that leads to cell death.
A 2004 animal study found that cannabinoids were able to slow the motor impairment and prolong survival in individuals with motor neuron cell damage. Researchers concluded that the cannabinoid treatment reduced both oxidative damage and excitotoxicity. Other studies have looked at the neuroprotection benefits of cannabis for ALS patients, with promising results. Researchers are currently studying how CB2 receptors can play a role in ALS progression and are working to understand how the endocannabinoid system is involved in reducing oxidative cell damage and neuroinflammation.
Cannabis and ALS: Managing Symptoms
While we are still learning how cannabis can help slow the progression of ALS, we do know that it can provide much-needed relief to many of its uncomfortable symptoms. Marijuana can help with issues like chronic pain, muscle spasticity, appetite, and sleep problems. A 2001 literature review in the American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Care found that many symptoms of ALS are treatable with cannabis and summarized their findings in this table:
Not only can cannabis help relieve physical symptoms, but it can also improve a patient’s psychological state. ALS can take a massive toll on mental health, and cannabis can help boost mood, reduce anxiety, and alleviate depression.
A 2012 survey of 48 ALS patients who used cannabis to alleviate symptoms found many positive benefits. Patients reported improvements in appetite, sleep, swallowing, mood, and better speech. These patients only reported a few side effects like a sore throat and red eyes, which can be avoided by other methods of cannabis use like edibles and topicals, rather than smoking.
With continued research on medical cannabis as a treatment for ALS, we will see a future with more options for patients and alternatives to prescription drugs without the side effects. If you have questions about whether medical cannabis may help you manage your condition, be sure to schedule an appointment.
Wondering if cannabis can treat ALS? Learn everything you need to know about how cannabis can help people with ALS find relief.
News and Special Updates
If you follow cannabis news with any frequency, you’ve probably read headlines promising incredible new advances in the field of cannabis medicine. Every week—or so it seems—researchers discover new uses for this very ancient medicine, ranging from halting the spread of cancer to curing ebola.
Unsurprisingly, many of these claims turn out to be unfounded—or in the case of cancer—based on questionable conclusions. Though cannabis most certainly has a use in helping us manage the side effects of cancer treatments, and some studies have in fact established that cannabinoids may slow the growth of certain cancers. That said, there’s a wide gulf between demonstrating such an effect in the laboratory and putting it into action.
One application of cannabis medicine that has demonstrated authenticated results is the interaction between cannabis and ALS. ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease—is a terminal neurodegenerative disease. Before we share the current knowledge about interactions between cannabis and ALS, we’ll take a moment to explain a little about the disease itself.
What is ALS?
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. When a person is afflicted with ALS, the motor neurons that form pathways between the brain and the spinal cord and the muscles weaken and die. The result is that the person gradually loses the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe. Once diagnosed, the average life expectancy of a person with ALS is two to five years.
ALS usually strikes people between the ages of 40 and 70, and it is estimated there are between 16,000 and 30,000 Americans who have the disease at any given time. For reasons that remain unknown, military veterans are approximately twice as likely to be diagnosed with the disease as the general public.
Cannabis and ALS: What We Currently Know
Although there is no evidence that cannabis can “cure” ALS, there are indications that it can help slow the progression of the disease. In addition to helping patients manage the symptoms of the disease, cannabis—in much the same way that it helps those undergoing treatment for cancer—subjectively helps them control many of the disease’s side effects, such as spasticity and pain.
But a study published in 2016 suggests that, because the cannabinoid system seems to be involved in the pathology of ALS, cannabis may have a role to play in prolonging the lives of those living with the disease.
These findings build upon previous animal-model studies. In 2004, researchers found that THC, the most prevalent cannabinoid, delayed the progression of ALS in mice. More broadly, the role of both THC and CBD as antioxidants and neuroprotectants is well established. Because they decrease the release of the amino acid glutamate following nerve cell injuries like those experienced with ALS, these vital components of cannabis medicine protect and prolong the lives of threatened motor neurons.
While we’re optimistic that careful study will reveal even more valid medical uses for cannabis in treating ALS, as careful clinicians, doctors and researchers, it’s our duty to proceed with caution. There’s little doubt that cannabis can help manage the symptoms of serious diseases such as cancer and ALS, however, it would be irresponsible to suggest it is a “cure.”
That said, we look forward to future studies with anticipation. By studying this most ancient of medicines with the most cutting-edge tools at our disposal, we’re confident that validated, authoritative answers will emerge to lead us to better courses of treatment and one day—we sincerely hope—a real cure.
ALS is a neurodegenerative disease afflicting up to 30,000 Americans. While there's no known cure, the research on cannabis and ALS is promising.