Is cannabis good for patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease? Thankfully, many medical cannabis states and some progressive countries include Lou Gehrig’s disease as a qualifying condition. The progression of this disease can be extremely rapid, giving patients little time to dilly dally with finding the most effective options. Fortunately for those interested in cannabis therapies, the available evidence suggests that the herb may lend a hand at easing symptoms of the disease.
What is Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS)
Lou Gehrig’s disease has a more formal name, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The condition earned it’s more popular name after former Yankees baseball star Henry Louis “Lou” Gehrig, retired from the sport in 1939 after he began having difficulty tieing his shoelaces and staying on top of his game.
Gehrig had developed a rare, progressive, and fatal neurological disorder, which took his life a short two years after leaving the team.
In ALS, motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord degenerate and die. This causes the muscles that rely upon them to waste away, causing muscle spasms, rigidity, and corresponding pain and inflammation.
Unfortunately, ALS often takes the lives of many patients due to respiratory failure. However, that’s not always the case. There are different variants of ALS, some of which are less severe.
World-famous physicist and author Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21. Now, he is in his 70s and remains a cultural and scientific icon.
Common symptoms of ALS include:
- Muscle weakness
- Tripping, dropping things, clumsiness
- Stiff muscles
- Loss of muscles
- Speech impairments
- Periods of laughter or crying
The most common form of Lou Gehrig’s disease often hits in adulthood, often between the ages of 40 and 70. Once the condition is diagnosed, the average survival time is three to five years.
Promise for cannabis & Lou Gehrig’s disease
There is quite a lot of interest in cannabis therapies for ALS. The herb has a history of potential in neurological disorders, including epilepsy, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease. Now, ALS is a much-awaited target for future research.
Some preclinical evidence implies that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a critical role in the development of ALS. In 2006, for example, one study found that compounds that connected with a specific cannabinoid receptor (CB2) delayed ALS symptoms in mouse models.
The ECS is a large network of cell receptors and the corresponding molecules that connect with them. Cannabis contains compounds that interact with the endocannabinoid system, making the herb a potential disease-modifying agent.
In a review published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care, authors cite preclinical data suggesting that cannabis has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective effects.
They also suggested that the herb may have beneficial effects in key pharmaceutical targets in ALS, including:
- Glutamate uptake, which controls the excitability of brain cells
- Enhanced mitochondrial function, the organelle which produces energy for cells to use
- Increased neurotrophic growth factor(s), a neurotransmitter that controls nerve growth and development
- Engagement of microglial cells, the immune system in the brain
- Anti-apoptotic agents, compounds which prevent cells from self-destructing
The same paper proposed further that cannabis may be useful in symptom management in ALS patients. These include symptoms of analgesia, muscle relaxation, bronchodilation, and appetite, sleep, and saliva reduction.
All of these benefits may even help slow the progression of the disease over time, as is speculated with other neurological disorders.
The authors conclude in their abstract,
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.
Already, cannabis-like pharmaceuticals containing synthetic THC are available for patients with cancer and HIV/AIDS. However, even if these options were available to Lou Gehrig’s patients, cannabis may still be a superior therapy.
Researchers in a 2015 review entitled “Complementary and Alternative Therapies in ALS” compared cannabis to dronabinol, a man-made version of THC. They argue,
Most patients with ALS would find likely find dronabinol too sedating and associated with too many psychoactive effects and it is not an appropriate substitute for natural cannabis.
Studies and surveys in patients
In 2004, the results of a survey were published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care. The survey received responses from 131 Lou Gehrig’s patients, 13 of which reported using cannabis.
Though this number is small, the results are consistent with a wide number of anecdotes available in all corners of the internet. Cannabis improves quality of life by making common daily activities more bearable.
The cannabis consumers felt the longest relief from depression, one of the often overlooked side effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Patients also reported feeling pain relief, increased appetite, reduced spasticity, and improved sleep by self-treating with cannabis.
However, not all cannabis products seem to be effective. A small, 27 patient trial of THC treatment for ALS was conducted using the synthetic THC dronabinol (Marinol).
Dronabinol failed to have a significant effect on the cramps. 5mg of THC was given twice daily. However, this study received some criticism, as THC alone may not be the most effective or convenient therapy for most ALS patients.
In a 2012 paper, academic researchers and the nonprofit organization PeopleLikeMe, Inc. partnered for a review on the value of medical cannabis for ALS. The article explained that 48 patients in the PeopleLikeMe community reported using cannabis for ALS.
Some of the symptoms they claim cannabis relieved include:
- Improved speech
- Improved swallowing
- Eased fasciculations (small contractions under the skin)
- Increased appetite
- Improved mood
- Improved sleep
As perhaps many cannabis fans might expect, patients reported side effects of dry mouth, clumsiness, dizziness, sore throat, and lung disease.
While patients should always talk to a doctor before trying cannabis therapies, it is important to note that the healthiest ways of consuming the herb include:
Strains for Lou Gehrig’s disease
Unfortunately, there have been no large-scale clinical trials of cannabis for ALS. This means that the burden is on patients and their doctors to continue to explore different cannabis products to find what really works.
Connecting with other patients at cannabis events and in online forums can get a sense of what other patients have found successful. However, there are a few cannabis strains popular for neuropathic pain and muscle cramps:
In general, one cannabis variety is thought to be better for the daytime than the other. Cannabis sativas are often used by medical cannabis patients seeking daytime relief.
However, sativas are not often the strongest pain-fighting strains around. Indica cannabis strains provide a heavier sedation, but also tend to offer stronger relief from body pain.
Here are a few strong-handed strains thought to be helpful with pain and muscle spasms:
- White Rhino (indica)
- Animal Cookies (indica-dominant hybrid)
- White Fire OG (indica-dominant hybrid)
- God Bud (indica)
- G-13 (indica)
- Casey Jones (sativa)
While there is some speculation that THC and whole-plant cannabis treatments can help ease symptoms of ALS, strains high in cannabidiol (CBD) may also be a worthwhile option for interested patients.
CBD is a nonpsychoactive cannabinoid, meaning that it does not cause the “high” that makes cannabis so famous.
Rather, a taste or two of a High-CBD strain is energizing yet mellow, pleasant, and upbeat. Many who are completely new to cannabis opt to try CBD first, which is an easy way to warm up to the herb.
Preclinical evidence has shown that CBD is a neuroprotective antioxidant, a trait that is much-needed from an effective ALS treatment. Already, even ratios of cannabis-derived THC and CBD are used to make an anti-spasmodic medication for multiple sclerosis. The drug is called Sativex and it is available in several countries, including Canada and the UK.
To learn more about the experience CBD provides, take a look at the article here.
Cannabis topicals are perhaps the easiest ways to incorporate cannabis into your life. Nonpsychoactive, cannabis-infused balms, oils, and lotions can be applied directly to the skin as a topical analgesic and anti-inflammatory.
The effects of topical cannabis certainly are not as strong as the herb when it is inhaled or ingested. However, cannabis topicals engage cannabinoid receptors in a localized area, producing a beneficial effect.
To learn how to make your own cannabis-infused coconut oil, find a recipe here.
As always, the information in this article is presented for educational and informative purposes only. Always consult a doctor before making any changes to your treatment plan.
However, there is no doubt that medical cannabis for ALS is a topic that sorely needs to be addressed. Already, patients all over the globe are taking matters into their own hands and taking a chance with the herb.
Only more research will determine just what it is about cannabis that is so helpful to Lou Gehrig’s patients.