Cannabis for Epilepsy: Is It a Treatment or a Hoax? - December 09, 2021

Cannabis has taken the world by a storm, especially affecting the medical industry that has so far depended on federally approved medications and treatments. The herb has time and again displayed its potentials in full force, proving its benefits for multiple chronic disorders and illnesses or simply for a better lifestyle. There is more than enough anecdotal evidence available today that advocates the use of cannabis to get relief from chronic symptoms.

But when the herb is viewed as a Schedule 1 drug, we start second guessing its potential.

With cannabis, the narrative is similar.

There has been a handful of research to prove the medical benefits of marijuana but we believe it’s not enough to back all the claims. A large part of cannabis’s ‘benefits’ are still based on anecdotal evidence rather than extensive research and studies.

One of cannabis’s known ‘benefits’ is its association with treating epileptic seizures. This association is also supported by the state, making epilepsy a qualified condition to receive medical cannabis support. Want to know about other qualifying conditions? Find them below!

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But does evidence support these claims?

We understand that you might have many questions about the efficacy and potential of cannabis and more specifically, CBD, for treating Epilepsy. Is it beneficial? What are the side effects? Is it a hoax or an actual treatment? We’re here to answer these questions.

But before we get into that, let’s get the basics right.

What is Epilepsy?

What Is Epilepsy?

The World Health Organization states a devastating number. More than 50 million people worldwide are affected by epilepsy, making it the most common neurological disorder.

As a chronic brain disorder, Epilepsy is most commonly associated with recurrent, unprovoked seizures of varying degrees. These could involve unresponsiveness to any stimuli for a few seconds to full body spasms and unconsciousness.

These seizures are what uncontrolled and excessive electrical activity in the brain looks like.

According to the International League Against Epilepsy, seizures can be general (affecting the whole brain), partial (aka focal, affecting one part of the brain) or unknown (their offset is unknown).

General Seizures
  • Begin at one or more points, then spreads to the whole body
  • Types: Absence, Tonic, Atonic, Clonic, Myoclonic, Tonic-clonic seizures
Focal Seizures
  • Affect one part of the brain
  • Types: Simple and Complex Partial Seizures
Unknown Seizures
  • Beginning of the seizure is unknown
  • Also defined as epileptic spasms
  • Can be the result of head trauma, substance abuse, infectious diseases and pathological conditions

If a patient suffers from a mild seizure, the symptoms might not be very telling, going unnoticed, like a lack of awareness. In case of a stronger seizure, a patient may suffer from:

  • Uncontrollable jerking of the body
  • Loss of consciousness and awareness
  • Temporary confusion
  • Staring spells
  • Emotional and cognitive symptoms like anxiety and fear

Most patients of epileptic disorders are prescribed a type of anticonvulsant (anti seizure medication). However, not every medication works for every patient, which is why the Epilepsy Foundation advocates access to all potential medications to patients, even cannabis. (we’ll get to that later)

Cannabis and its Potential
Before we talk about how cannabis or it’s derivatives can help treat epilepsy, we need to talk about its overall potential to be consumed by patients.

Cannabis, legally sourced from hemp, contains multiple cannabinoids that bring out the herb’s therapeutic effects. The two major cannabinoids being CBD and THC are associated with most of its benefits.

THC– Tetrahydrocannabinol or Delta 9 THC leads to a ‘high’ in consumers, especially when consumed in higher concentrations.

CBD– Cannabidiol is the non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis which is associated with creating more relaxing, pain relieving and anticonvulsant effects.

While both the cannabinoids work wonders together, pure form of CBD has found more use in the treatment of certain types of epilepsy.

Is Cannabis Being Used to Treat Epilepsy?

We already know that the FDA doesn’t particularly support cannabis use for medical purposes, majorly due to the lack of studies and its potential complexities when consumed by patients. However, it is the same organization that has federally legalized a cannabis product for the treatment of rare forms of epilepsy. Here are a few things to note:

  • The FDA has approved ‘Epidiolex’ to be the first ever cannabis sourced medication in the U.S.
  • The medication has pure form of CBD and no traces of THC, the psychoactive drug. This means that the medication will not cause a high.
  • Epidiolex is used to control seizures in patients suffering from Dravet- syndrome, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Tuberous Sclerosis Complex.
  • The medication is used to treat children and infants that have been diagnosed with the previously stated medical conditions.

When it comes to other types of epileptic disorders, not enough studies have been conducted to prove the potential of cannabis. The FDA has, therefore, not approved any other cannabis or CBD product to become a medication.

But there is no questioning that the herb has potential for helping in the treatment of a variety of seizure disorders.

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Here’s What Research Says!

We’ve already mentioned that a handful of studies have been conducted to test the efficacy of CBD on epileptic disorders. Most of these however, have been directed at disorders like Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and include participants belonging to the category of minors or young adults.

Open label study for drug resistant epilepsy: 12 patients out of 40, aged between 1 to 17 years, reported substantial improvement to their condition.

Being studied as a possible treatment to refractory epilepsy in children and young adults: 13 patients, between the age of 13 and 19 were administered doses of 5-25 mg/day along with CLB (Clobazam). The study reported 50% seizure reduction in 69.23% patients.

Another open label study for drug resistant epilepsy: This one, including patients between the age of 1 and 30 years, showed an overall improvement in the quality of life of 48 patients.

All clinical trials of Epidiolex has similar results:

  • A majority of the participants experienced improvement in their symptoms
  • A small percentage of participants had to reduce medicine intake due to large doses of epidiolex
  • Some discontinued use of Epidiolex due to change in liver function
  • As we speak, multiple studies are being conducted to further test the potential of CBD in treating Epilepsy
  • Some common side effects of Epidiolex were sleepiness, sedation, decreased appetite, sleep disorder, fatigues, rash and infections

Epilepsy Foundation’s Stand on Medical Cannabis

Cannabis for Epilepsy

In its letter to the FDA the Epilepsy Foundation made it’s stand very clear.

Cannabis products that have the potential of treating or helping in the treatment of epilepsy should be easily available for patients to try.

Many patients of epilepsy, even with regular medication and treatment are affected by regular seizures or other side effects due to their medication. The seizures greatly affect the patient’s quality of life, sometimes leading to injury, disability or death. There are multiple patients who, even after regular treatment, find themselves with a failed experience.

In such a situation, the foundation strongly supports patients who want to give cannabis a chance. Already available as a medication for rare forms of seizure disorders, cannabis products (predominantly CBD) can be a potential treatment for other forms of epilepsy too.

The following are some specifications given by the foundation:

  • The Foundation supports the rights of patients and families living with epilepsy to depend on medical marijuana or other substitutes, as long as directed by physicians.
  • Not only this, but the foundation believes that the FDA must step up and set up regulations for CBD products to ensure that they are produced and marketed as genuinely as possible.
  • Most CBD and cannabis products available today, except for those that fall under state-regulated programs, are unregulated.
  • Epilepsy patients should have the chance of experimenting with cannabis doses when their prescribed treatment fails.
  • CBD products must have more robust labelling, so the products are not mistaken for other ingredients like hemp oil (which is not the same as CBD oil).

Are There Any Side Effects to CBD

Cannabis, CBD and THC are not without side effects. Since it is only the pure form of CBD that has so far been approved for treating Epilepsy and is most extensively researched, we’ll focus on the negative impacts of CBD only.

Some common side effects of CBD are:

  • Sleepiness
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Decreased appetite

Other than these common side effects, CBD is also known to interact with prescribed medications. As per the current research available, we know that CBD indeed can interact with some of these seizure medications causing negative effects.

Other than these common side effects, CBD is also known to interact with prescribed medications. As per the current research available, we know that CBD indeed can interact with some of these seizure medications causing negative effects.

  • In patients consuming both CBD and Valproic Acid (VPA) – an anti-seizure medication, they experienced a three times increase in their liver enzymes. It is the interaction between CBD and a by-product of VPA that is believed to be responsible for changes in the liver functions.
  • Consumption of CBD with Clobazam (Onfi) has also resulted in extreme tiredness in patients. The interaction, rather than with the medication as a whole, is believed to be with its component after breakdown.

Can Medical Cannabis Replace Medication to Treat Epilepsy

As much as we support the use of CBD for its long list of benefits, not just for treating symptoms but improving the overall quality of life, we can’t claim that it’ll replace medications completely.

In some patients, regular use of CBD might help reduce or completely remove the use of other medications if they no longer benefit the consumer. However, that is not the case with a majority of the consumers.

Most patients have found that a synergetic use of both prescribed medications and cannabis supplements bring them the most relief they’ve ever experienced.

If a patient wants to make the shift, they must consult their physician before doing so. Such a decision should not be taken in a haste, without proper guidance.

But does that mean it is impossible?

Of course not!

Just like Epidiolex, a medically approved CBD product to treat epilepsy, we can always look forward to more such medications being curated. This, however, requires more extensive research on the cannabinoid, its benefits, side effects and how it reacts with other types of epilepsies.

At the end of the day, what might work for one, might not work for others. This holds true for prescribed medications for epilepsy, Epidiolex and cannabis. Patients should be able to access all these products to find the best possible product or combination of products to help with their condition.

Cannabis for Epilepsy Is It a Treatment or a Hoax?

Till now we’ve established the obvious: Cannabis is not a hoax.

Despite the absence of substantial evidence that can tell us everything we need to know about the herb, cannabis has been upgraded in status. Starting from its status as a Schedule 1 drug, it is not available to citizens in the form of a medication for epilepsy (Epidiolex), as medical recommendations (made by MMJ doctors) and recreationally (with less than 0.3% THC).

While we’ve established that cannabis, and in this case CBD, are effective in alleviating symptoms of epilepsy, can we call it a treatment?

We wish it was that simple.

CBD has not yet proven to be the most effective substitute for epileptic medication when used by itself. In other words, it is in conjunction with other seizure medication that CBD has shown the most positive results.

There is still a lot of research required, targeting epilepsies other than Lennox-Gastuat and Dravet to learn about the herb’s potential.

Since CBD is not federally regulated, there aren’t any basic quality standards that have to be fulfilled. This makes the available CBD products unsafe for consumption. Consumers are responsible for going through the quality claims, reading the certificate of analysis and ensuring that the product they are buying stays true to its claims.

As of now, there is no CBD product, other than Epidiolex, that can be referred to as a treatment for epilepsy.

Ending Words

The association is real, but we still have a long way to go.

CBD has proven to be beneficial for patients with epilepsy, but it’s not without side effects. As a herb that isn’t regulated, has limited research and has the potential of interacting with other medications, the study is too young to make medical claims.

Following anecdotal evidence, the cannabinoid sure has helped hundreds of patients find relief in their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

As advocates of medical cannabis use, we look forward to more research in the field and open access to federally regulated and approved CBD based medications.

Online Medical Card Team

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