Schizophrenia is a delicate topic in the cannabis world. For too long, Reefer Madness propaganda claimed that cannabis causes this condition. Recent studies indicate otherwise. Though schizophrenic patients may want to avoid some forms of the plant, a non-psychoactive component in the herb is proving to be a potent antipsychotic. Here’s what you need to know about cannabis and schizophrenia.
What is schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is not easy to describe. To use technical terms, schizophrenia is a chronic brain disorder. Those with this disease experience a “break from reality”, a subjective “splitting of the mind”. To get a better idea of the condition, it’s best to watch the video in the section below.
Contrary to popular belief, schizophrenia is not the same as split personalities (Dissociative Identity Disorder). This disorder is also one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented mental health conditions there is. Unfairly so. To quote from Hank Green:
Schizophrenia causes more anxiety in the media, in the public, and even in doctor’s offices than any other mental illness. As a result, it’s sufferers have often been shunned, abused, or locked up.
Rather than one single condition, schizophrenia disorders are now thought of as a spectrum. Two people may be diagnosed with the same condition, but severity and symptoms vary from individual to individual.
Some signs of schizophrenia include:
- Hallucinations (auditory, visual)
- Disorganized or abnormal motor behavior
- Disorganized thinking and speech
- Lack of motivation, inability to perform basic tasks like showering or bathing
- Inability to make eye contact, lack of facial expression
- Monotone speech
- Social withdrawal
Does cannabis cause schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia has been unjustly targeted as a potential side effect of cannabis use. During the Reefer Madness era of the 1930s, propaganda campaigns used schizophrenia and psychosis as a scare tactic to discourage people from smoking the herb. This is a major insult to those with psychiatric conditions. This fear-mongering only further stigmatizes a condition that faces enough social flack to begin with.
No, cannabis cannot cause schizophrenia. To develop schizophrenia, you have to be predisposed to the disorder. That being said, those that are predisposed to schizophrenia or psychotic disorders should be cautious. If these disorders run in your family or you have been recently diagnosed yourself, there are a few things you should know.
Does cannabis trigger schizophrenia?
As mentioned earlier, no one knows what causes schizophrenia. It looks to be partly hereditary, but even if you have certain genetic mutations, you still may not develop the disorder. Genes are only “flipped on” when certain conditions are met. For example, if one of your parents has schizophrenia, you have a 13% chance of developing the disorder.
Further, studies with identical twins show that one twin may develop the condition and the other may not. If your identical twin has it, there’s a 40 to 50% chance that you will as well. If schizophrenia was completely genetic, both of these numbers would be 100%.
So, while genes may lead somewhat to the development of schizophrenia, environment, and external factors also play a huge role. This is where cannabis comes in. It is impossible to say that cannabis alone triggers schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is far too complicated for just one contributing cause.
However, if you have a certain amount of environmental and genetic risk factors stacked against you, the psychoactive nature of cannabis may not help you manage the condition.
Recent research has shown that cannabis consumers predisposed to schizophrenia experience symptom onset an average of 2.7 years earlier than they would without the herb. Those extra three years schizophrenia-free can have a drastic impact on your quality of life later on.
Now, why could THC lead to earlier onset? Your neurotransmitters may play a role.
Should I avoid THC?
The primary psychoactive substance in cannabis is delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC has an almost unbelievable amount of medical benefits and can aid in the treatment of many conditions. Schizophrenia doesn’t seem to be one of them.
Though doctors and researchers are still working vigilantly to crack the secrets of this mysterious disease, there is an odd trend in the brains of those with schizophrenia. That trend is poor regulation of dopamine.
Dopamine is a stimulating neurotransmitter. It increases the excitability of the brain. Too much dopamine in the wrong place at the wrong time is thought to trigger psychotic symptoms. Too little dopamine in the wrong place at the wrong time can contribute to a lack of motivation, speech difficulties, and inability to feel pleasure.
Many prescription antipsychotics target dopamine receptors to halt some of the symptoms of schizophrenia. When you first smoke THC, it temporarily floods your brain with dopamine. This is why it feels so good to smoke. Dopamine is like an exciting little reward for your brain. If excess dopamine is contributing to some paranoid or delusional behavior, adding more dopamine may make it worse.
If you continue to smoke heavily over time, THC can also reduce the effectiveness of dopamine receptors due to tolerance. If you’re symptomatic because of extremely low dopamine, symptoms will reappear once you’ve developed tolerance. Taking a tolerance break can help you recover from this phenomena.
Said very simply, THC might just be too exciting for a mind that’s already too excited. The dopamine hypothesis alone, however, is still a gross oversimplification of a very complex problem. We’ve still got quite a lot to learn about THC and schizophrenia.
So, don’t write off the herb just yet. Recent research suggests that another little cannabis compound may be extremely beneficial to patients with schizophrenia.
How can cannabis help schizophrenia?
Cannabis as a treatment for schizophrenia is a highly controversial topic. Because of the potential risks of THC, many folks have sworn off the herb completely. Thankfully, the herb’s reputation hasn’t stopped scientists from looking into whether or not cannabinoids can help those with the disorder.
Cannabis is more than THC. The psychoactive may be the reason the herb has become so popular as a recreational drug, but other cannabinoids are proving to be just as interesting thanks to potent medicinal properties. A cannabinoid is a special chemical compound found in the cannabis plant.
These compounds interact with cell receptors in our own bodies. These cell receptors make up a larger network called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is responsible for all sorts of things, including sleep regulation, mood, cognitive thought, pleasure, and reward.
Though things aren’t entirely clear at this point, some research suggests that levels of the body’s natural endocannabinoids are dysregulated in schizophrenia. These levels were altered in specific brain regions as well as in the cerebral spinal fluid and blood.
The presence of endocannabinoid irregularities may explain why certain patients with schizophrenia respond well to non-psychoactive cannabis. Here are the details:
1. The power of CBD
Those with schizophrenia may be extremely interested in a little cannabinoid called CBD. CBD (cannabidiol) is a non-psychoactive compound in cannabis. It has made countless headlines over the past few years for its effectiveness in treating childhood epilepsy.
Recently, it has been gaining attention for its powerful antipsychotic effects. One review of scientific literature published in 2012 looked at evidence of CBD’s antipsychotic potential over a 30 year period. The review argued that CBD seems to work similarly to the atypical antipsychotics on the market.
Another 2012 study pitted CBD against antipsychotic drug amisulpride (Solian). Patients saw improvements from both drugs, but CBD had a significantly better side effect profile. Unlike amisulpride, those given CBD also experienced a spike in anandamide levels. Anandamide is an endocannabinoid, our body’s own THC. This spike was associated with greater clinical improvement.
2. Putting CBD to the test
In 2015, Britain’s GW Pharmaceuticals announced a positive proof of concept for using CBD treatment in schizophrenia. The company conducted a CBD trial with 88 patients with schizophrenia. The study was a randomized, clinical, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in treatment-resistant patients that took place at various treatment centers in the UK. The gold standard when it comes to scientific research.
All of the participants stayed on their traditional medications through the duration of the trial.
The result? CBD was consistently better than the placebo. Those given the cannabinoid had improvements in cognition and symptom severity was improved by over 20%. The CBD produced no severe side effects in anyone. Though, 5% of those studied experienced diarrhea, nausea, and headache.
Announcing their positive proof of concept, GW Pharma officials write:
This trial followed extensive pre-clinical research conducted by GW since 2007 into the effects of cannabinoids in psychiatric disease. This research showed CBD to have notable anti-psychotic effects in accepted pre-clinical models of schizophrenia, and also provides indicators that there is potential to enhance the effect of CBD with additional cannabinoids.
Previously published studies have suggested that CBD may have useful efficacy either as monotherapy or in combination with first line antipsychotic agents.
CBD has yet another key medical benefit. It is a potent anti-inflammatory. Research has shown that schizophrenia is associated with increased inflammatory activity in the brain. A research team from the Imperial College of London injected dyes into patients with schizophrenia, as well as patients thought to be at high-risk. The dyes were used to track immune activity in the brain.
Surprise, surprise. The team found increased microglial cells (immune cells of the brain) in both those with schizophrenia and those with high-risk of developing the condition. These cells are inflammatory cells, typically triggered when the body senses some kind of pathogen or infection.
CBD has the power to quell this inflammation by turning down the immune system. This gives the cannabinoid yet another mechanism of action against schizophrenia. It seems to boost levels of our natural endocannabinoids, alleviating symptoms. Now, it also seems that it may help reduce some of the damaging inflammation that creates chaos in the brain. Pretty amazing, right?
These strains all have a THC content of less than 1%. The CBD content between 15-20%. These strains are non-psychoactive and are more or less hemp. Other high-CBD strains may still have a little too much THC to be comfortable. Arguably, the most effective way to consume these strains as a medication is via high-CBD oils.
If you’re going to experiment with high-CBD cannabis, it is very important to opt for products that have been lab tested. This will help you know exactly what you’re buying and also help you avoid excess THC.
- Charlotte’s Web
You can legally buy Charlotte’s Web products online. They are so low in THC that they are sold as hemp oil, which is legal for everyone. No medical cannabis card required.
Alternative information for schizophrenia
In case all of that info on CBD wasn’t interesting enough, in the past several years, new research has unearthed some intriguing findings that may have broad implications for schizophrenia treatment. Here are a couple of brief summaries of some up and coming theories.
There is no such thing as an illness that only impacts one part of the body. The body is a complicated ecosystem, and when something goes haywire, a lot of things go haywire. Just because symptoms manifest most strongly in one particular way does not mean that one particular organ is the only thing affected.
One of the easiest ways to go about whole-body healing is through diet. Some fascinating research has come out recently about the way in which those with schizophrenia process gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains.
In 2006, a team led by A. E. Kalaydjian reviewed the scientific literature surrounding schizophrenia and Celiac disease. Celiac is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system begins to attack the small intestine after exposure to gluten. The team came to a pretty interesting conclusion. They write:
A drastic reduction, if not full remission, of schizophrenic symptoms after initiation of gluten withdrawal has been noted in a variety of studies. However, this occurs only in a subset of schizophrenic patients.
Though much of this research is new, the potential connection between gluten and schizophrenia was first brought up over 60 years ago. Researchers in the 1950s found that putting schizophrenic patients on gluten-free diets drastically improved their symptoms. Additional research has pointed to the presence of gluten antibodies in the blood as a commonality among schizophrenic patients.
Sure, going gluten-free is not a cure-all answer to an illness that no one really understands. But, these gluten abnormalities suggest that maybe experimenting with some diet changes can relieve some systemic inflammation and calm down the immune system in some patients.
A doctor/ functional medicine practitioner can test for underlying conditions like Celiac disease and walk you through an anti-inflammatory diet.
2. Infection theory
While gluten sensitivity might be pertinent to a subset of schizophrenic patients, many may not respond to this information at all. There’s one more interesting tidbit about the condition that isn’t commonly discussed. This is the infection theory of schizophrenia.
Maternal infection during pregnancy is thought to be a major risk factor for the onset of schizophrenia. This has inspired researchers to do some experiments. In a 2012 study, for example, scientists injected pregnant mice with H1N1 or a control solution on the 7th day of pregnancy. On the 16th day of pregnancy, they extracted the fetal mice and took a look at their genes.
All of the virus-exposed mice showed significant genetic changes compared to controls. Funny thing, the changes occurred in regions associated with brain changes in schizophrenia. Increased immune activity was also found. Other research has come to similar conclusions.
This is important to bring up is because, like gluten sensitivity, the infection theory points the finger at the immune system. If an infection is in fact what “flips on” genes associated with schizophrenia, it makes a bit of sense why some patients would respond really well to CBD treatment. As mentioned earlier, CBD is a powerful anti-inflammatory. The cannabinoid is an immunomodulator, meaning that it “turns off” an overactive immune system.
A doctor/ functional medicine practitioner can test for increased inflammatory markers in your blood and talk to you about treatments that address those issues.
It’s time we rethink schizophrenia. Compassionate care for this condition is an absolute must. Effective medication with manageable side-effects is sorely needed. Between its potent antipsychotic and anti-inflammatory properties, it looks like CBD is one hell of a contender.
Note: we are not doctors or medical professionals. This article is meant for educational purposes only and should not be used in place of medical advice or treatment.
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