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Does Medical Marijuana Offer Hope for People with ALS?

A few years back, a viral Internet “ice bucket” challenge got everyone hooked—from celebrities like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, to some of the wealthiest people on the planet such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. While at some point, people got so engrossed in the seemingly fun activity, it did effectively generate awareness and funding toward the cause it was intended for, and that is ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

ALS is a serious medical condition that has no cure. Rather, this neurological disease is degenerative—those afflicted with it slowly lose control of vital bodily functions such as speaking, eating, and even breathing. Thus, it leads to eventual death. According to doctors, patients diagnosed with ALS have a prognosis of only 3 to 5 years to live. However, there is a growing number of people with ALS who have been successfully overcoming it and adding years to their lives, through the use of alternative treatments such as medical marijuana or cannabis.

These people have turned to medical cannabis products, most notably cannabis oil or CBD oil, in relieving the debilitating symptoms of ALS with great success. Although there hasn’t been any strongly established and academically scientific studies regarding the use of medical cannabis in conjunction with ALS, the anecdotal evidence is becoming stronger and stronger, leading many to look into this highly promising mode of treatment.

Understanding ALS

It is important to understand how ALS manifests in the human body and how debilitating it is for an individual, in order to gain deeper insight into the importance and urgency of finding ways to address this condition. ALS as a progressive neurodegenerative disease primarily affects the nerve cells in the brain as well as the spinal cord. The etymology of the word “amyotrophic” itself gives an insight into the disease—“a” means no or negative; “myo” means muscle, and “trophic” means nourishment. Hence, amyotrophic roughly translates into “lack of muscle nourishment” or “no muscle nourishment.”

Physically, this means that the human body is slowly wasting away as the muscles atrophy. “Lateral” pertains to the nature of the spinal cord’s position, and where the nerve cells that control muscles (called motor neurons) are found. The degeneration of these areas leads to hardening or “sclerosis.” This is also the cause of the patient’s loss of ability to speak, eat, and move. The motor neurons affected by ALS are those that control voluntary movements.

There are actually two types of ALS—sporadic and familial. The former is the most common form of ALS especially in the United States, accounting for up to 95 percent of all cases. Sporadic means it can affect any individual at any given point in time, anywhere. There is no known cause of sporadic ALS. Familial type, meanwhile, accounts for the remaining percentage of ALS sufferers. Familial pertains to ALS that is inherited. French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot is credited to have discovered the disease way back in 1869, but ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after a famous baseball player who was among the first prominent personalities to have it.

Understanding Marijuana

It is also then vital to understand how marijuana acts in the human body, and why it holds so much promise in treating ALS as a neurological disease. Looking farther back into the history of human civilization, marijuana or cannabis has been effectively used for centuries in achieving general well-being and dealing with medical conditions as well as physical ailments. In fact, the earliest known written account of cannabis use is from 2727 B.C. during the time of Chinese emperor Shen Nung. Ancient Romans and Greeks also used cannabis, as well as the Middle Eastern cultures. Cannabis only arrived on Western shores in the mid-1500s when Spaniards brought it to Chile for the plant’s use as fiber. Similarly, in North America, hemp (a related plant) was cultivated in plantations for practical uses as rope, clothing, and paper.

The marijuana plant is particularly prized for its flowers and buds, where the concentration of the substance called cannabinoids is found. Cannabinoids interact with the body’s own natural endocannabinoid system or ECS, which is connected with the central nervous system and affects one’s mood, memory, and other aspects and functions. That is why taking marijuana has such a profound effect on the human body. Enhancing the body’s own ECS is achieved by taking marijuana, which is called a phytocannabinoid. There are also synthetic cannabinoids developed by scientists in laboratories, and dispensed like mainstream pharmaceutical drugs.

Note that there are as many as a hundred types of cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, but there are two types that are particularly sought after for human use—these are THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, and CBD or cannabidiol. THC is the psychoactive substance that causes the well-known “high” that recreational marijuana users experience. For individuals with medical conditions such as depression, anxiety, and the like, THC is actually beneficial for producing feelings of calm, happiness, and general well-being. CBD on the other hand is more therapeutic and useful for diseases such as chronic pain and even cancer. 

Medical Marijuana and ALS

The earliest and most marked symptoms of ALS are twitching of the muscles, as well as stiffness or spasms. Muscle weakness also becomes evident. ALS progresses to difficulty in chewing and swallowing, thus many ALS patients resort to tube feeding in later years. ALS also starts to affect the limbs or extremities such as the arms or legs. In the continuous quest to investigate the disease, it has been found in familiar ALS cases that an aberration exists in the gene responsible for the production of SOD1 (superoxide dismutase 1). SOD1 is a potent antioxidant, and plays an important role in getting rid of free radicals that can damage cells.

Research has also pointed to a neurotransmitter called glutamate, which may be responsible in the development of ALS through a process called excitotoxicity. ALS patients have been discovered to possess high levels of glutamate in their spinal fluid, and in related laboratory experiments, neurons that have been exposed to high levels of glutamate die—suggesting that the presence of this substance may be harmful.

Conventional ALS treatment is focused on controlling these symptoms, including chronic pain, loss of appetite, and mental conditions such as depression. Only one drug called riluzole has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of ALS itself, which somehow delays the eventual failure of a patient’s respiratory system. The magic of cannabis lies in its ability to somewhat delay the progress of ALS, or even in some cases completely halt it. Cannabis assists in reverting normal bodily functions and preventing spasms and muscular atrophy. All of these are reported in anecdotal evidence from numerous patients who have survived the disease for up to 15 years. 

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The Promise of Medical Cannabis

The medical community is exerting more and more effort to document cannabis effects properly, and mounting preclinical data is showing that cannabis indeed has powerful anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective effects. With regular use and application, especially in bioavailable forms such as cannabis oil or CBD oil, medical cannabis may potentially address ALS completely and prolong the lives of those who suffer from this condition.

Cannabis oil is purportedly a preferred method of taking medical cannabis because of its versatility. It can be vaporized using special devices or it can even be ingested directly or orally. Cannabis oil can also be incorporated into daily food, making it more a sustainable and long-term mode of treatment especially for ALS patients who suffer from symptoms round the clock. Most importantly, cannabis oil can be concocted properly, ideally to contain equal parts THC and CBD to achieve a formulation that is applicable for a wide range of diseases. Cannabis oil can be dispensed in a carefully calibrated manner, thus regulating its use more effectively for the proper effect.

Cannabis or CBD oil

Cannabis oil also goes by various other names, such as RSO (Rick Simpson oil), Phoenix tears, or milagro oil. CBD oil generally refers to a product that has a concentration of the sought-after cannabidiol, as opposed to the psychoactive THC. Cannabis oil is produced by cooking the plant’s flowers and buds, where cannabinoids are concentrated, using a solvent such as alcohol. The resulting sticky resin is collected and processed into a highly concentrated liquid.

The cannabis resin is composed of lipids or fats, thus the plant’s cannabinoids are soluble in fat as well. Because of this, oils such as olive or coconut are also used as a carrier for cannabis formulations. This makes the cannabis oil more bioavailable or absorbed in the body. Raw cannabis oil is considered the “holy grail” of liquid cannabis, because the THC found in this type of formulation is in its primary acid form, which is not psychoactive. This is achieved by extracting the resin without using heat—a difficult process and thus, raw cannabis oil is quite difficult to come by in the market.

Buyers should beware of cannabis oil that is produced by less desirable or illegal methods. This can obviously pose more harm than good for patients seeking relief from medical conditions. It would also be wise to purchase cannabis oil and other products derived from organically grown plants, which are pesticide-free. When cannabis plants are processed into oil, take note that any chemicals that have come into contact with the leaves or flowers also end up in the finished product and may be ingested by the end-user. Marijuana farming is therefore an important aspect of medical marijuana regulations that lawmakers and the state should look into.

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Choosing to Take Medical Cannabis

As with any type of medication, before embarking on the decision to try medical cannabis for medical conditions such as ALS, it is best to consult a medical professional for guidance. Proper documentation and paperwork is still necessary to substantiate the need for medical marijuana or cannabis. It can also be taken in conjunction with traditional medical or pharmaceutical treatments, and thus medical cannabis use should be closely monitored.

Note that medical cannabis is not yet covered by insurance companies and state programs such as Medicare or Medicaid, and as such this may be a consideration for those looking to use it on a long-term basis. In the United States, while the federal government has not yet approved the availability of medical marijuana, 29 states together with the District of Columbia have already legislated in one form or another the possession, use, and distribution of medical cannabis. Around the globe, medical marijuana is already legal in countries such as Austria, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. Recreational use of marijuana is even allowed in the Netherlands.

Patients with ALS who wish to make use of medical cannabis need to be aware of the specific laws and regulations stipulated by the particular state they reside in. There are certain restrictions as to dispending medical marijuana, using it in public, or sharing it with others, for instance. Medical marijuana users understand that part of ongoing and eventual complete acceptance of cannabis depends on responsible use of it, and as such they fully cooperate with any existing laws or statutes that seek to regulate it. Time will eventually come when marijuana earns its legitimate status in the medical field, and ALS patients will be among those who will benefit greatly from such developments.