Earlier this year, the American Epilepsy Society published the results of what has proved to be one of the most important and conclusive cannabis research studies ever done. The study tested the effects of CBD on 216 subjects with treatment-resistant epilepsy (TRE), and determined that the non-psychoactive cannabinoid caused a significant reduction in seizure frequency in over 60% of patients.
Likewise, a simultaneous study out of New York University’s Comprehensive Epilepsy Center produced similar results: out of 120 Dravet syndrome patients (Dravet is a rare, life-threatening, extremely debilitating epilepsy disorder), a reduction in seizure frequency was observed in over 39% of patients, with 5% of them going completely seizure free after the 14 week test period had ended.
In this article, in addition to going over the results of the studies in more detail, we’ll talk about what epilepsy is, what some of its conventional treatment methods are, and how CBD functions to reduce both the frequency and severity of seizures in epileptic patients of all age levels.
Epilepsy: What is it, what causes it, and who’s at risk?
Simply put, epilepsy is a neurological disorder wherein individuals suffer from recurring, sporadic, and unpredictable seizures. It’s a far-reaching and somewhat random disease that has no known cause in over 70% of diagnosed cases.
That being said, causative events such as viral brain infections, localized brain injury/trauma, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, brain tumors, and blood vessel abnormalities have shown to drastically increase the risk of epilepsy. Heredity is likewise believed to play an important role in the development of epileptic disorders, though the specific genes and triggering events are still relatively unknown.
In terms of occurrence, epilepsy currently affects about 2.5 million people in America, with over 180,000 new cases arising each year. And what used to be a more common disorder among children is now becoming more and more prominent in individuals of all age levels: according to San Francisco’s VA Epilepsy Center for Excellence, there are now as many people with epilepsy aged 60 and older as there are children aged 10 or younger.
The bottom line is, other than heredity or traumatic brain injury, there really are no known causes that spark the onset of epilepsy – it seems anyone at any age can develop the disorder.
Conventional Epilepsy Treatments
The need to effectively treat epilepsy stems from the fact that recurrent seizures, especially severe ones, have a significant “wearing” effect on both the body and the brain. That is to say, if left unchecked, they will inevitably give rise to an array of other health problems and eventually will solicit damage to internal organ and tissue systems down the road.
A far as conventional treatment, medical professionals generally take one of three routes when determining an appropriate seizure prevention plan.
In mild cases, simple lifestyle changes (which can include anything from diet modifications to Vagus nerve stimulations) are sometimes enough to reduce seizure intensity and frequency. However, pharmaceutical medications and even surgery are often deemed necessary for patients that suffer from more intense and severe forms of the disorder, even though the most severe forms of epilepsy are treatment-resistant and non-responsive to pharmaceutical medications (more on that below).
Functionally, all antiepileptic drugs (AED’s) convey some sort of molecular anticonvulsant component which acts to inhibit or otherwise halt various parts of the brain and central nervous system. While relatively effective (AED’s have been shown to reduce the occurrence of seizures in about 50% of patients), the major downfall of these drugs is that they’re incredibly dangerous and produce severe, potentially life-threatening side effects.
Research has shown, for example, that nearly every anticonvulsant on the market increases the risk of depression and suicidal thoughts, some of which can last for up to six months with continued use of the medication. Additionally, drugs like valproate (which is the most widely-prescribed antiepileptic drug in the country) have been commonly known to produce side effects such as digestive/intestinal complications (which occur in about 50% of patients), weight gain, hand tremors, severe ADHD, menstrual irregularities in women, birth defects, and infections of the pancreas.
As you might assume, the laundry list of dangerous and potentially life-threatening side effects that come along with most pharmaceutical epilepsy medications has been enough to send many patients on a hunt for alternative treatment methods. This is where CBD has been a shining light.
Ever since medical publications have begun filtering in and word has started getting out about the effectiveness of CBD for epilepsy, patients of all ages and health conditions have been chomping at the bit to try the all-natural cannabis extract to see if it’s effective for them and their unique condition. Additionally, statements and news stories from high-profile sources like CNN and NBC News have only added to the hype surrounding CBD and its effectiveness for epileptic conditions.
Generally speaking, the non-psychoactive cannabinoid has been increasing its appeal over pharmaceutical medications for five main POTENTIAL reasons:
- It’s safe
Unlike high strength prescription meds, CBD has shown to produce very little side effects in most individuals. In one particular study, in fact, (which was published last year in the neuropsychiatric journal Epilepsia) CBD was categorically presented to effectively treat epileptic conditions with a negligible risk of adverse side effects.
- It’s effective
Like we mentioned earlier, in addition to the two major studies which are cited in this article, there have been dozens and dozens of other scientific publications on the specific efficacy of CBD for epilepsy. In fact, seizures have traditionally been one of the most thoroughly researched and well-documented areas of cannabis research within the last three decades. For a full list of the most recent CBD publications on epileptic conditions, check out the non-profit organization Project CBD.
- It’s 100% natural
Again, CBD is a 100% natural extract that comes directly from the hemp (cannabis) plant. Unlike other medications like Sativex which use synthetic, laboratory-produced cannabinoids, cannabidiol is a 100% pure and naturally-occurring compound.
- It doesn’t get you high
The vast majority of all CBD products come from the hemp plant, which is different from the marijuana plant in that it contains less than 0.3% THC (which is the cannabinoid responsible for the stereotypical, mind-altering marijuana highs). This is why CBD oils and other CBD products produce zero psychoactive activity.
- It targets whole body homeostasis rather than localized neuronal inhibition
Every pharmaceutical epilepsy medication is the same in the sense that they function by inhibiting neuronal circuits at some specific location in the central nervous system. While they may indeed decrease seizure frequency and/or intensity, the drugs are highly dangerous because they throw other important regulatory and homeostatic systems in the body entirely out sequence.
CBD on the other hand, functions very differently on a molecular level. Rather than targeting and inhibiting a molecular pathway at one specific location, it interacts with endocannabinoid receptors in all parts of the body and brain to help regulate homeostasis. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), in fact, has gone so far as to call the endocannabinoid system “…the [single] most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health.”
CBD for Epilepsy (Charlotte Figi Story)
Back in 2013, CNN did a nationwide news story about a young girl named Charlotte Figi, who at just 3 months old, began suffering intense seizures which doctors could not find any treatment or any underlying cause for. She had no brain abnormalities, and every blood test, MRI, EEG, and imaging scan that was done came back perfectly normal.
Even though Charlotte seemed to be developing for the first several months of her life at a relatively normal rate, her seizures persisted and became increasingly severe. Her parents took her to some of the country’s leading neurologists and epilepsy specialists, but none of them could seem to find an effective treatment. She was prescribed heavy medications like barbiturates and benzodiazepines (even though they were hardly effective), which began taking a toll on both her body and her cognitive development.
Finally, after nearly two years, Charlotte tested positive for the SCN1A gene mutation which marks a rare and debilitating form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome. Doctors told her parents the disorder was untreatable, and after months of hospital stays and dozens of emergency trips to the ICU, essentially told them there was nothing more they could do for the young girl. At just 2 ½ years old, Charlotte was suffering over 300 seizures per week, some of which would last two and three hours apeice. She became immobile and unable to speak or eat, and had to be resuscitated by EMT’s more than once after her heart stopped during especially severe convulsions.
Then, one day, while her father was on an overseas job (he was an ex-Green Beret that worked as a military contractor), he came upon a video of another young child with Dravet syndrome that responded positively to a unique strain of cannabis that was higher in CBD than it was in THC. The Figi’s had always whole-heartedly opposed marijuana, and coming from Colorado, had voted against state legislation that called for its legalization. Like many Americans, they considered the drug nothing more than a means for stoners and potheads to get high.
However, on the verge of losing their young girl and with dozens and dozens of doctors telling them there was nothing left to do, they decided to give it the natural medication a try in a last-ditch effort.
The results were unbelievable, and nearly instantaneous. Within an hour, Charlotte’s seizures subsided – for the first time in nearly three years, the young girl went several hours without a convulsion.
And then she went an entire week without one.
At first her parents were filled with an overwhelming joy – their daughter had literally been brought back to life, and cannabis was directly to thank.
Soon, though, a slight anger began to settle in. They wondered, how had doctors not known about this treatment? Her father, especially, was filled with questions: “Why were we the ones that had to go out and find this cure? This natural cure? How come a doctor didn’t know about this? How come they didn’t make me aware of this?”
Nowadays, Charlotte is healthy and blossoming, and after years of severe physical and cognitive damage, is able to play, ride a bike, talk, and feed herself. She still suffers the odd seizure, maybe 2-3 per month, but they occur almost entirely in her sleep and are far less severe than the ones that used to rap her body two, three, or four times each hour.
CBD for epilepsy: Treatment options and other studies
The studies that came out earlier this year essentially served to prove that Charlotte Figi’s case was not an isolated incidence. We know now, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that CBD is a highly effective epilepsy treatment in the majority of individuals, with virtually zero side effects.
In the study carried out by the American Epilepsy Society, 262 subjects were studied that suffered either from Dravet Syndrome (DS) or Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome (LGS), both of which are treatment-resistant epilepsies (TRE) that do not respond to other forms of medication.
The subjects received CBD treatment for 3 months, with observations and data collection occurring at 4, 8, and 12 weeks. Results showed that overall seizure frequency reduction occurred in 62.7% of DS patients, and 71.1% of LGS patients. Likewise, 47% of all patients showed at least a 50% reduction in seizures, while 13% of DS patients were entirely seizure free after the 12 week period.
It’s hard to really put into context the magnitude of the data that these studies presented; these were individuals that had previously suffered intensely debilitating daily seizures, to the point that they were in no way able to carry out a normal life. Now, the majority of them are able to function and live a relatively comfortable and productive day to day life.
CBD oil for Epilepsy: The Bottom Line
Most of the questions that people have regarding CBD for epilepsy revolve around what kind of specific product to use, and what specific dosage they need to administer.
As far as products, CBD oil has by far proven to be the most effective form of treatment, though it can be very tough to find a reputable brand that manufactures a pure and reliable tincture. The FDA has actually issued official warnings to several brands in the past three years for advertising their products as “pure CBD,” when in fact they contained virtually none of the active cannabinoid. For ease of mind, we’ve listed several of the most well-reviewed and reputable CBD manufacturers below.
As far as administering the oil, you can certainly incorporate it into food and ingest it that way, but the most direct and effective method is to use the dropper bottle and place drops under the tongue, holding for about 60 seconds before swallowing.
In regard to dosing, it’s most often recommended that patients start out with a low dosage and increase marginally until an effective result is achieved. Most people will find more than enough relief with anywhere from 2-5 mg of CBD per kg of body weight (1 kg = 2.2 lbs), though it’s generally not recommended to take more than 25 mg per kg of weight.
That being said, it’s always important to do your own research and understand that CBD for epilepsy does not produce the same results in every single individual. Some, in fact, may not experience any improvement at all. Always speak with a healthcare professional whenever possible before administering a new treatment, and make sure to increase dosages slowly until an effect result is achieved.