“The National Parkinson Foundation said there is not enough research on cannabis,” my mother replied, painfully shuffling around her house in fear of falling.
I had asked her about using cannabis for her Parkinson's after learning the herb’s incredible benefits both as a journalist and a medical cannabis patient myself.
Trusting this plant with my own life, I naturally wondered if it could help my suffering mother. Knowing her tendency to trust her doctors and the government, I revisited the issue with her after the election when it became more broadly legalized, and after reading more about the relief it seemed to offer.
Currently, there is no known cure for the chronic condition. And my mother is just one of at least ten million people with the disorder in the world – a disorder that only gets worse over time.
Mama Can’t Dance: The Symptoms of Parkinson's
My mother was a fabulous dancer. She dated my dad in the big band Copa Cabana days in New York City. For five decades, they were reliable for floor-clearing performances at family gatherings.
But now, her brain tells her legs to move, and they don’t always listen. She even has trouble walking steadily and getting up from her chair. Her feet feel glued to the floor.
It’s not just her legs, either. Her hands struggle to write, grasp silverware, and open jars.
Our family and friends worry about her, and she, well she worries about everything! Excessive worrying is one of the mental effects of this dreadful disease.
With Parkinson’s, biochemical changes in the brain can create ongoing anxiety or sudden panic attacks. Those who suffer often feel sad, overwhelmed, angry, and irritable.
According to Psychiatric Times, about 40% of those with PD are depressed, and half of these people meet criteria for major depression.
The inability to express emotions is also a symptom, which only aggravates the frustration from stiff muscles, persistent pain, spasms, and tremors that make even simple hobbies and chores a challenge.
Many of those affected lack a desire to socialize, and express apathy about activities they formerly enjoyed. Anything from dancing to taking a stroll around the block.
Endocannabinoids to the Rescue
Our body’s endocannabinoid system regulates many functions with which Parkinson’s patients struggle, including pain, appetite, sleep, and memory.
In addition, cannabis can also imbue patients with a sense of peace, increased excitement, euphoria and relaxation – all very important for Parkinson’s patients.
Although there is a serious lack of research due to the harsh U.S. government scheduling of cannabis, limited studies have shown significant improvement with tremors, sleep and pain scores.
Equally important, cannabinoids have been found to contain antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and protective properties. They can impact brain chemicals, including dopamine-producing cells, which deteriorate with PD.
CBD for example treats symptoms of neurological diseases according to the National Institute for Health. And the NIH has published studies that show “cannabinoids are promising medicines to slow down disease progression in neurodegenerative disorders including Parkinson's disease.”
What’s more, scientists at the Complutense University of Madrid agreed that cannabis could slow down the disease. In their studies, CBD prevented brain cell death and repairing damaged brain cells.
Word on the Web: Testimonials
Since the legalization of medical cannabis in several states, personal testimonies have exploded in number. With so many strains, consumption options, and dosage possibilities, users have begun to share reviews online to assist their partners in pain.
One Leafly reviewer in Dallas, Texas wrote “Took my sister who has Parkinson's to the pot shop in Oakland, CA…long story short, two sprays under her tongue of the combination THC/CBD oil calmed her whole body in two minutes.”
“It feels like you're wrapped in a blanket of pain relief. It does wonders for my mobility and fine motor skill issues caused by Parkinson's,” reported a fan of the Romulan strain.
One woman wrote, “WOW!!! My husband made this into a tea for me to help combat insomnia. Not only was it the best sleep I've had in years, but it relieved my muscle soreness/stiffness as well…Truly amazing!” She was speaking of the Purple Rhino Hybrid strain.
Although different strains and products work for different people, these anecdotal responses simply cannot be ignored.
Colorado-funded Cannabis Studies
Maureen Leehey, MD decided to push for needed research after hearing from Parkinson’s patients who were self-medicating and reporting a reduction in tremors and anxiety.
In addition, a survey conducted by her colleague found that users felt cannabis “moderately or greatly relieved their pain,” at least as effectively as NSAIDs, narcotics or nerve-targeted medications.
Thanks to her willingness to fight a two-year uphill battle, Dr. Leehey is currently conducting a clinical trial with a liquid CO2 extract of a CBD-rich cannabis flower through the Medical Marijuana Research Grant Program.
Her research is funded by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, with some of the receipts from the cannabis trade state tax grant that totaled $1,028,981.
She had to overcome a lot of legal hurdles to obtain a license to import the schedule I substance. Despite legalization of medical cannabis in Colorado in 2000 and studies showing medical benefit, the DEA maintained its position in August that the plant is a dangerous substance with no medicinal use.
After finally navigating all the red tape, however, these Colorado researchers are now able to study the flower’s psychoactive effects on mood and cognitive functions in addition to the physical aspects of Parkinson’s disease.
We Still Have A Lot of Work to Do
With cannabis and Parkinson’s, there are still many unknowns and specifications that need to be considered, such as method of intake, CBD/THC ratios, dosage, and each strain's effect on the various symptoms the condition presents.
Effective strains, ratios and dosing is imperative for dopamine levels and to assist with sleep without feeling drugged or overly sedated. Many Parkinson patients are already challenged with cognitive function, hallucination, unsteady gaits, and fatigue.
After viewing a video on YouTube where a Parkinson’s patient successfully doses himself with cannabis, Dr. Sunil Kumar Aggarwal said, “I wish I knew what the composition was!”
And by composition, Aggarwal was referring the exact type of cannabis the patient had used.
The distinguished doctor watched the video a second time, pointing out how the patient “clearly shows improvements in pill-rolling tremor, masked facies, and micrographia reducing tremors.”
Aggarwal keeps a constant eye on all the latest cannabis studies and incoming data. He recalls a controlled trial that suggested up to 300 mg per day of the CBD portion of the cannabis plant, which is convenient because the extracts from the hemp plant without THC are sold legally across state lines and internationally.
Unfortunately, tinctures from the hemp plant are often less effective than products from cannabis.
Hope for the Future
For a lot of Parkinson’s patients, the prognosis can seem pretty grim.
Instead of cannabis research, the medical world spends money, time and energy on harsh pharmaceutical drugs and experimenting with dangerous procedures that have minimal effectiveness.
Some of these procedures include risky surgeries or even electrical currents to destroy the area of the brain that causes involuntary movements.
Scientists have also tried implanting animal tissue and electronic pacemakers in the human brain to reduce tremors.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Research is finally taking place, testimonials are circulating, and Parkinson’s patients are starting to feel some relief and hope.
As for my mom, and each person considering their health and treatment options, it is a personal decision. Let’s hope for some continued progress, and imminent, safe choices for all who suffer.
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