The History of Cannabis and Epilepsy

While epilepsy was first described as far back as 4,000 years ago, it appears that for nearly as long, some forward-thinking physicians in ancient Persia had a hunch that cannabis and epilepsy might have a role to play together.

What is epilepsy, and how might cannabis help control this puzzling family of seizures? In today’s article, we’ll lay out the basics about epilepsy and epilepsy symptoms, as well as sharing the finding of cutting-edge research that points to cannabis as a source of relief.

Cannabis and Epilepsy: What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is characterized by seizures in which patients exhibit abnormal behaviors. Epilepsy symptoms include loss of motor function and sometimes loss of consciousness. As such, epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder, currently affecting around three million adults and half a million children in the United States.

Fortunately for most epileptics, most seizures can be brought under control by medications. What’s more, many pediatric epileptics “grow out of” the disorder as they reach puberty. But on average, roughly a quarter to a third of epilepsy patients are diagnosed with refractory—or uncontrolled—epilepsy. 

As we mentioned above, epilepsy was first recognized thousands of years ago. And as early as the 5th century BCE, the Greek physician Hippocrates theorized that epilepsy was a brain disorder. At the time, it was a revolutionary and forward-thinking theory and one that sadly wouldn’t gain legitimacy until the last couple of centuries. 

Many treatments have been used to try and control the electrochemical discharges that are the root cause of epilepsy symptoms. The problem was that many early epilepsy drugs—such as phenobarbitone—induced unsustainable side effects such as dizziness or drowsiness.

Now, a new line of inquiry into epilepsy has suggested itself: Medical cannabis. As we pointed out, cannabis and epilepsy have a long history together, but the cannabis plant’s prohibition over the last century has made it difficult to conduct authoritative research on their interaction. 

Still, in 2018, the FDA approved Epidiolex—the first medication based on the cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant—to treat certain types of seizures in patients as young as one year old. Could cannabis have a larger role to play in controlling epilepsy? Here’s what the current science says.

Cannabis and Epilepsy: Hope for Sustainable Relief

As we pointed out earlier, the notion of treating epilepsy with cannabis has a long history. And modern-day clinical studies have come to much the same conclusion. In 2018, a published review of the then-current literature on cannabis and epilepsy found that most clinical trials demonstrated measurable success in controlling seizures with cannabis, particularly with CBD. Since then, further studies have underlined CBD’s effectiveness in treating several types of seizures.

As you may already know, CBD is the second most-prevalent cannabinoid in cannabis. And unlike the most common one, THC, CBD doesn’t cause intoxication. This is one of the major reasons cannabis-based epilepsy medications are so appealing, for pediatric use in particular. 

The use of cannabis for epilepsy received a major boost in the story of Charlotte Figi, a young girl with an especially difficult-to-treat form of seizure called Dravet syndrome. The use of a cannabis strain created and named for her—the now-famous “Charlotte’s Web”—allowed her to enjoy a vastly improved quality of life.

Cannabis and Epilepsy: Practical Usage

As with all aspects of cannabis medicine, there are no “one-size-fits-all” solutions when it comes to using cannabis for epilepsy. But as the 2019 study we referenced above suggests, successful treatments typically rely on larger doses of high-CBD cannabis medicine than would be used for conditions such as anxiety.

When it comes to routes of administration, many cannabis patients have settled upon CBD oils taken orally as an effective format. For one thing, swallowing a liquid medication is familiar and intuitive for most of us. What’s more, the medicine tends to last longer than with vaporized or otherwise inhaled cannabis. Of course, in all such cases—especially when it comes to pediatric epilepsy—we suggest you consult closely with a clinician experienced in the use of cannabis for epilepsy.

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