What Is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)?
ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neurodegenerative disease caused by the destruction of motor neurons. Motor neurons are cells in your nervous system that are responsible for transmitting signals to your muscles to control their movement. The most common symptoms of ALS are weakness, slurred speech, dysfunction and issues like difficulty walking or paralysis. Many patients maintain cognitive function, though some patients develop problems with mental processing or dementia. There’s no known cure for ALS and many patients die within five years of diagnosis.
Cannabis Can Ease Pain & Stimulate Appetite in ALS Patients
A 2001 review of existing literature by the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care found that marijuana is helpful in alleviating many symptoms associated with ALS. Many patients with ALS experience persistent pain, and cannabis provides both analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties that aid in the decrease of pain. Marijuana is also a muscle relaxant, which helps with the spasticity caused by ALS.
As well, many patients who are diagnosed with ALS suffer from wasting at some point in their disease progression and are unable to maintain their body weight. Similar to how cannabis can aid cancer and AIDS patients, cannabis can act as an appetite stimulant.
Cannabis also has neuroprotective qualities that help protect patients from neural oxidation, which causes free radicals that can damage cells in the body. The review also found that cannabis can be helpful for the ALS symptoms of dyspnea or difficulty breathing, drooling, depression and dysautonomia—a disorder of the autonomic nervous system.
Preliminary Studies Show Cannabis’s Ability to Prevent Cellular Damage
A 2004 study found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) may be helpful in reducing side effects in ALS patients who use cannabis. The study, which was conducted using mice, found that THC may be helpful in reducing damage caused by free radicals as well as excitotoxicity, which is caused by excessive neuron stimulation and can lead to internal damage. This study showed that cannabis may not only be effective at reducing the symptoms of ALS, but also at preventing damage caused by the disease.
A 2005 study completed using transgenic mice, who could act as models for humans with ALS, found that the use of cannabinol (CBN) could delay the onset of ALS-like symptoms. Non-psychoactive CBN is a cannabinoid found in the marijuana plant, often in smaller amounts than those of THC and cannabidiol (CBD).
It’s important to note that though CBN could delay the symptoms, it didn’t necessarily change the life expectancy of the mice used in the study. The evidence gathered from the study shows that stimulating or inhibiting the endocannabinoid system may change the processes of diseases like ALS.
A 2010 study by the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care found that cannabis could offer multiple elements that are crucial to helping the body fight against ALS. Cannabis can act as an anti-inflammatory, an antioxidant and a factor to help maintain the healthy function of cells.
Clinical Trials Are Required to Further Study Cannabis & ALS
Researchers came to the conclusion that, “With respect to the treatment of ALS, from both a disease modifying and symptom management viewpoint, clinical trials with cannabis are the next logical step. Based on the currently available scientific data, it is reasonable to think that cannabis might significantly slow the progression of ALS, potentially extending life expectancy and substantially reducing the overall burden of the disease.”
As more data are collected, cannabis’s multidimensionality is becoming an attractive quality when tackling a multifaceted disease such as ALS. We see large amounts of anecdotal evidence for how cannabis can help decrease the discomfort experienced by ALS patients, providing them with relief from their pain and other side effects. That said, cannabis has the potential to do more for these patients. More studies are needed to see if cannabis might possibly be an effective therapy in extending the lives of patients. Preliminary studies so far provide new hope for a disease that currently has no cure.
Do you have questions about this article? Go to HelloMD's Answers page where you can connect with a health practitioner or well-informed member of our community who will respond to your queries.