Easing the Symptoms of ALS with Cannabinoids
The Need for Cannabinoid Awareness
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a devastating progressive neurodegenerative disease for which there is no cure. It causes the destruction and ultimately the death of neurons that control the activity of skeletal muscles.
For patients and their loved ones, the challenges of a degenerative disease are overwhelming. The patient may endure tremendous suffering, and the symptoms and conditions which cause the suffering must be managed to the utmost degree. Research has shown that cannabinoids play a role in slowing down the progression of ALS and allow patients to effectively manage the symptoms associated with this disease.
Therefore, it is important that patients and their loved ones know that cannabinoids are an available, effective option for managing the difficulties of living with ALS. Additionally, it is critical that we continue to research how phytocannabinoids can prevent and treat the numerous diseases and disorders, like ALS, that continue to devastate human lives.
An Overview of ALS
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects neurons in the spinal cord and motor cortex that are responsible for the control of voluntary muscles (the skeletal muscles). The disease impedes nourishment of the brain neurons eventually leading to their death. Also, the brain cannot initiate or control the muscles, hence it becomes impossible to carry out voluntary movement. ALS patients can lose their ability to eat, move, speak—even their ability to breathe.
The main cause of this disorder is not known. The disease is classified into two types—sporadic and familial. According to the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association, 90 to 95 percent of ALS cases in the United States are of the sporadic type. Familial ALS is inherited and accounts for just 10 percent of ALS cases in the U.S. People most commonly affected are within the age range of 40 to 70 years. Men have a 20 percent higher risk of developing the disease compared to women.
ALS has no cure. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, patients with ALS mostly die from respiratory failure within 3-5 years from the onset of symptoms. Because ALS has no cure, the aim of treatmentis to slow the damage to motor neurons using the medication Riluzole. Riluzole does not reverse the neuronal damage. It is only known to prolong survival for a few months.
Most physicians will prescribe medications to combat muscle cramps and fatigue, reduce muscle spasms, and decrease excess phlegm and saliva. Medications may also be prescribed to help with pain, constipation, sleep disorders, and depression.
The Effects of Cannabinoids on ALS
It has long been known that cannabis plays a beneficial role in slowing the progression of ALS and offers relief from its associated symptoms. Preclinical studies have shown that cannabinoids, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabinol (CBN), have anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and anti-oxidative effects. Numerous animal studies have shown that administration of cannabinoids can slow down the onset of ALS, prolong neuronal life, and also slow the progression of the disease.
Cannabidiol (CBD) has also been shown to significantly impede the onset of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Cannabis also helps ALS patients to manage appetite loss, pain, sleeping problems, depression, symptoms of drooling associated with the disease, and spasticity. Pain associated with ALS is combated because of the anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects of cannabis. In addition, it helps in the management of spasticity with its muscle-relaxing features. Its appetite-whetting effects also help in the prevention of wasting that may occur in the final stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Reducing the Knowledge Gaps in Cannabinoid Science
Currently, thirty states have legalized medical cannabis. Approximately two-thirds of those states list ALS as a disease qualifying for medicinal cannabis treatment. The niches in which the preventative and therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids are realized and applied are rapidly expanding. Still, too many people are not educated about cannabinoids as an effective option until they or a loved one is desperate and suffering from a serious disease or disorder. Cannabinoids should be a standard in treatment, not an alternative to therapies like Riluzole, that have very little efficacy.
It is important that we continue conducting research on cannabinoids to discover and offer further evidence of their benefits. And it’s past the time to educate the public about the benefits—preventative and therapeutic—that cannabinoids can offer for so many diseases and disorders. We need to extinguish the negative stigma surrounding cannabis and highlight the actual, beneficial results.
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- Amtmann, D., Weydt, P., Johnson, KL. Jensen, M.P., and Carter, G.T. (2004). Survey of cannabis use in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care, 21(2), 94-104.
- Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Fact Sheet. (n.d.) National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Retrieved from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Amyotrophic-Lateral-Sclerosis-ALS-Information-Page
- Bilsland, L.G., Dick, J.R., Pryce, G., Petrosino, S., Di Marzo, V., Baker, D., and Greensmith, L. (2006). Increasing cannabinoid levels by pharmacological and genetic manipulation delay disease progression in SOD1 mice. The FASEB Journal, 20(7), 1003-1005.
- Carter, G.T., Abood, M.E., Aggarwal, S.K., and Weiss, M.D. (2010). Cannabis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: hypothetical and practical applications, and a call for clinical trials. American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Medicine, 27(5), 347-356.
- Raman, C., McAllister, S.D., Rizvi, G., Patel, S.G., Moore, D.H., and Abood, M.E. (2004). Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: delayed disease progression in mice by treatment with a cannabinoid. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis & Other Motor Neuron Disorders, 5(1), 33-30.
- Weydt, P., Hong, S., Witting, A., Moller, T., Stella, N. and Kliot, M. (2005). Cannabinol delays symptom onset in SOD1 transgenic mice without affecting survival. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis & Other Motor Neuron Disorders, 6(3), 182-184.
- What is ALS? (n.d.). ALS Association. Retrieved from http://www.alsa.org/about-als/what-is-als.html.