Medical Cannabis for Mitochondrial Disease [Fully Explained]


Medical marijuana is becoming more popular as legalization sweeps across the USA. Its proponents claim that it offers natural relief from a wide range of physical and psychological ailments.

The situation has left many people wondering how cannabis therapy can help them and their loved ones.

Today we will look at whether it can benefit patients with an exceptionally complex group of genetic conditions. Here’s all you need to know regarding cannabis for mitochondrial disease.

What Is Mitochondrial Disease?

Mitochondrial disease is a genetic disorder that affects the mitochondria, an essential component of our cells.

Mitochondria have the vital role of providing energy for all of our biological processes. They do this by converting sugar and fat from food into a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This process is known as oxidative phosphorylation.

Mitochondria rely on over 1000 different proteins to function correctly. If any of these proteins are defective, then the mitochondria cannot produce energy effectively. This is precisely what happens in mitochondrial disease.

Due to a genetic mutation, one or more of the mitochondria’s proteins can become damaged. Some cells contain more defective mitochondria than others, meaning that two people with mitochondrial disease can experience the condition very differently.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe. However, several types of mitochondrial diseases follow a particular pattern, for example, Leigh syndrome.

Mitochondrial disease tends to affect some tissues and organs more often than others. These include the following:

  • Brain
  • Muscles
  • Nerves
  • Heart
  • Liver
  • Kidneys
  • Eyes
  • Ears

Let’s look at the symptoms of mitochondrial disease in more detail.

Mitochondrial Disease Symptoms

As we have already mentioned, mitochondrial disease symptoms can vary significantly in severity. They can also affect various parts of the body in different patients. Some of the most common include:

In most cases, these symptoms will become apparent before the age of 20. They can sometimes be progressive, becoming worse over time.

What Causes Mitochondrial Disease?

Mitochondrial disease is a genetic disorder, meaning that it is inherited from one’s parents.

In some types of mitochondrial disease, both parents must carry a defective gene for the condition to manifest. However, in some cases, it can be inherited from the mother alone.

Current Mitochondrial Disease Treatments (Not Cannabis)

There is no cure for mitochondrial disease. Therefore, treatments aim to manage symptoms and improve patients’ quality of life as much as possible. If a patient has distinct problems such as epilepsy and diabetes, doctors can prescribe medication to treat these conditions.

Some physicians also believe that certain supplements may help to improve the mitochondria’s ability to produce energy. These include Coenzyme Q10 and B vitamins, such as thiamine and riboflavin. Dietary changes may also help.

With effective treatment options lacking, many patients and their families are seeking additional help from natural remedies. So, is cannabis a good option for mitochondrial disease?

Unfortunately, the answer is not straightforward.

Can Cannabis Help Mitochondrial Disease?

Cannabis can help with such a wide range of problems because it interacts with one of the body’s in-built health systems. This system is known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS). It comprises a collection of cell receptors and chemicals called endocannabinoids.

When these two components combine, they trigger a whole range of physiological reactions. They are present throughout the body and help to maintain a state of homeostasis (balance).

A lot of research exists on how the ECS can affect functions like mood and pain perception. However, less exists on how it influences energy production.

That said, some scientists believe that it plays a critical role. For example, a 2012 study for the journal Philosophical Transactions suggests that the ECS can dramatically impact mitochondrial function. Its authors discuss a range of different mechanisms by which this may occur.

One theory is that endocannabinoids increase the amount of calcium available in cells. This is important because small increases in calcium levels can stimulate cell function. However, too much calcium can cause the cell to swell up and die.

This is where things get complicated because there are two primary medicinal compounds in marijuana, THC and CBD. Both of these chemicals can act on the ECS, albeit in very different ways.

THC or CBD for Mitochondrial Disease?

THC is probably the most famous chemical in cannabis. It is known for causing the intoxicating high that recreational users seek. It also has a range of medical benefits, including relieving pain and nausea, enhancing the appetite, and improving mood.

THC has a similar molecular shape to one of our natural endocannabinoids, anandamide. This allows it to bind with cannabinoid receptors throughout the body and brain. In fact, it binds with these receptors much more effectively than anandamide, which is why it has mind-altering effects.

CBD, on the other hand, does not bind with cannabinoid receptors directly. It enhances ECS activity by slowing the breakdown of endocannabinoids. It also interacts with a range of other systems, giving it potent anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective effects.

In terms of how THC and CBD affect mitochondrial disease, the evidence is somewhat conflicting. One 2014 study in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology, and Metabolism suggests that compounds that activate cannabinoid receptors could damage mitochondria.

This means that by stimulating these receptors, either directly or indirectly, THC and CBD could negatively affect mitochondrial function. However, the study later goes on to say that, under pathological conditions, ECS activation could benefit mitochondria.

Another 2015 study for BioMed Research International states that THC, specifically, can negatively impact mitochondria in the brain. The authors suggest that it could harm these crucial structures and increase the risk of strokes.

Finally, a more recent 2018 study in Frontiers in Pharmacology claims that CBD could increase the activity of mitochondrial complexes. Its antioxidant and neuroprotective properties could also protect cells from damage.

Much more research is necessary before we can say for sure whether cannabis helps or hinders mitochondrial disease. What is clear is that it is a delicate balancing act and likely to be highly dependent on correct dosing.

How to Get Medical Cannabis for Mitochondrial Disease

Mitochondrial disease does not feature on the list of medical marijuana qualifying conditions for many states. However, Georgia does list it as a valid reason to join its ‘Low THC Oil Registry.’ This program allows qualifying patients to possess cannabis oil containing no more than 5% THC. Patients anywhere else will struggle to get medical marijuana for mitochondrial disease.

If you live in a state with recreational cannabis, you could purchase the herb from a licensed dispensary, providing you are over 21. However, we strongly advise speaking to a knowledgeable physician before doing so.

It may also be best to stick to high-CBD strains such as Cannatonic or Charlotte’s Web until we know more about the impact of THC on mitochondrial disease.

Another option is to buy CBD oil that comes from hemp rather than marijuana. These products contain less than 0.3% THC and are legal in the majority of places. CBD oil may have several benefits for people with mitochondrial disease.

CBD Oil for Epilepsy and Autism in Mitochondrial Disease

There is some evidence to support the use of CBD oil for conditions like epilepsy and autism, which can accompany mitochondrial disease. In fact, epilepsy is the only condition that the FDA has approved for treatment with a specific form of CBD, Epidiolex.

A 2019 study for the journal Molecules investigated. It summarized the results of several clinical trials, and concluded: “the results obtained to date encourage the use of CBD associated with anti-epileptic drugs.”

It does, however, urge caution when using CBD alongside other medication. The compound can interact with many drugs, including anti-seizure medicines. Therefore, careful monitoring is essential.

A 2018 study in Frontiers in Pharmacology looked at the effect of CBD on autism. It found that its participants experienced improvements across several symptoms, including self-injury, hyperactivity, sleep, and anxiety.

However, some participants did experience worsening of symptoms, and the study was not large enough to draw any firm conclusions.

Medical Cannabis for Mitochondrial Disease: Final Thoughts

Mitochondrial disease is a complex disorder and, as such, requires complex treatment. It is currently unclear whether cannabis or CBD oil could play a role as far more research is necessary.

Some studies suggest that cannabinoids, especially CBD, could provide some benefits. However, others imply that they may cause more problems in the long run.

If you are considering using any cannabis-based medicine for mitochondrial disease, it is essential to consult your physician first. They will be able to offer you guidance according to your unique situation and symptoms.

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