If there’s one thing to know about Parkinson’s Disease (PD), it’s this: no one knows much about Parkinson’s Disease. Though the cause of this disease remains a mystery, cannabis is pioneering new areas of research. Studies show that may find some tremor relief in the endocannabinoid system. Even more miraculous, some research is showing that medical marijuana may even slow the progression of the disease. So does cannabis help Parkinson’s Disease?
What is Parkinson’s Disease?
Before we get started, we’ve got to lay out some background about the disease. Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a degenerative disorder that causes dopamine-factories deep in your brain to die. Dopamine is a chemical that helps you smoothly move your muscles. For unknown reasons, dopamine-producing brain cells shut down and deteriorate.
Without dopamine, some pretty crazy things begin to happen to your body. Primary symptoms include:
- Tremors and shaking of the hands and limbs
- Rigid muscles that are difficult to move
- Muscle spasms
- Sleep issues
- Loss of balance
- Loss of cognitive function as the condition progresses
- Memory loss and dementia
Basically, Parkinson’s patients have lost the cells their brain’s need to tell their limbs and body how to move. In the beginning, most PD sufferers are still able to move. The first signs of the disease are often as subtle as an unexplained finger twitch.
Yet over time, patients find that they have less and less control over their bodily movement. Muscles often lock into painful rigid positions, tremor, or act spastically on their own.
Let’s face it. This disease stinks
Actor and advocate Michael J. Fox has lived with Parkinson’s Disease for over 20 years. During an interview with CNN’s Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Fox explains:
It’s that stuff that fires to tell you to pick up a glass. It’s firing to tell me that something is required of me, and my mind can’t tell my brain what it is. -Fox
If Michael Fox were to sit completely still, he could keep his tremors and symptoms at bay. But as soon as he begins to talk or reach for a glass, his whole body moves involuntarily in response to the stimulus. (Watch the video. It’s amazing.)
Unfortunately, by the time symptoms arrive, much of the damage has already been done. As Fox explains:
By the time my pinky started twitching, 80% of the dopamine cells were already dead. -Fox
Since the exact cause of Parkinson’s is unknown, the treatments available merely control the symptoms. In many instances, patients can even develop tolerances to medication. As time passes, Parkinson’s medications may lose efficacy and symptoms return.
None of this bodes well for PD patients. Fortunately, cannabis research might have some great news.
Does cannabis help Parkinson’s Disease?
It may sound surprising, but using marijuana to ease tremors been done before. Two centuries ago.
That’s right. Doctors prescribed Cannabis Indica tincture to Parkinson’s patients in the 19th century. Long before scientists knew about dopamine and its effect on motor function, cannabis tinctures were given to patients to ease constant trembling. Though tinctures were once the norm, many patients now find that smoking the herb effectively calms tremors. The beautiful video above is a perfect example of this.
Modern day observational studies confirm the intuition of the 19th-century doctors and PD patients alike. In 2014, researchers at Tel Aviv University attempted to clear the air over some conflicting Parkinson’s research. So, they treated 22 patients at a motor disorder clinic with smoked cannabis in an observational study. They tested them prior to smoking to get a sense of their baseline performance. They then tested them again 30 minutes after cannabis treatment.
The team measured results in accordance with something called the Unified Parkinson Disease Rating Scale. The scale takes a wide variety of factors into consideration, including:
- Evaluation of behavior, mood, and mental activities
- Evaluation of speech, handwriting, dressing, hygiene, and other daily activities
- Motor skills
- Severity of Parkinson’s
- Therapy complications
Pain and sleep quality were also evaluated. After cannabis use, patients improved significantly in their motor abilities. Tremor, rigidity, and bradykinesia (slow movement) were all improved. Patients also reported improvements in sleep and pain scales.
Parkinson’s and the endocannabinoid system
Observational studies only get you so much credit in the science world. While cannabis appears to improve Parkinson’s symptoms, how does the herb actually work? It’s a tough question and one that we’re only just beginning to understand. But, there is good evidence that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) may play a part in the development of PD. The ECS is the largest cell receptor system in our bodies.
The ECS is an incredibly large cell receptor system. When you consume cannabis, compounds called cannabinoids engage this network. This causes a cascade of effects. The endocannabinoid system regulates everything from our immune system and mobility, to our appetite, sleep, and memory. That’s a lot of ground to cover!
In a 2010 review of Parkinson’s studies, researchers confirmed that the ECS was affected as dopamine cells died. Dopamine is manufactured deep near the center of the brain. Surprisingly, there is a large concentration of endocannabinoid receptors in the basal ganglia. The basa ganglia is a region of the brain responsible for mobility, and it’s implicated in Parkinson’s Disease.
The CB1 receptor is most abundant in this region. The CB1 receptor is where marijuana’s psychoactive THC binds in the brain. Our bodies also produce natural chemicals that bind to these receptors. These chemicals are called endocannabinoids. As early as 2000, researchers found that levels of these chemicals skyrocket in those without the ability to move muscles.
These findings present strong evidence that a potential treatment for Parkinson’s might like somewhere in the endocannabinoid system.
This idea is supported by a 2011 study published by Spanish scientists at the Complutense University of Madrid. The authors tested the effects of THC on rats and mice affected with Parkinson’s-like motor diseases. The results were promising.
Cannabis may limit the progression of the disease
THC not only inhibited the death of brain cells in rodents but eased Parkinson’s symptoms as well. But that’s only the beginning.
Research from 1998 found that both THC and non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) are neuroprotective. They are strong antioxidants, protecting neurons from damage and revitalizing aging and damaged brain cells. These neuroprotective properties mean that cannabinoids may be able to slow the progression of the disease.
A study published last year found that these nifty little plant chemicals improve a cell’s ability to get rid of toxins and waste products. This is crucial for Parkinson’s, in which neurotoxin buildup is thought to contribute to the condition. Cannabinoids help keep cells healthy via improved mitochondrial function. Mitochondria are the powerhouses and project managers inside your cells. Additional studies in animal models have found that cannabis reduces oxidative stress in brain cells, protecting them from damage and slowing neurodegeneration.
The neuroprotective properties of cannabis are even thought to help those with traumatic brain injuries. In a 2014 study, California researchers examined the mortality rates of those who had experienced a brain injury. They compared patients who had used cannabis after their injury to patients who had not. THC was associated with a greater likelihood of survival.
What if I don’t want to become intoxicated?
Research on psychoactive THC is compelling, but the mind-altering nature of the compound might be a turn-off for some patients. Fortunately, there’s another option.
A handful of studies have examined THC’s effect on Parkinson’s, but many researchers believe the chemical’s non-psychoactive sibling holds the key to safe and effective treatment. Scientists at the Complutense University of Madrid think that CBD is a great prospect for slowing down the disease. Like THC, CBD seems to put a damper on neurodegeneration.
Research from 2009 found that CBD can be helpful in treating psychosis associated with Parkinson’s. A more recent study published in December of 2015 found that CBD eliminated a neurotoxin thought to be a primary contributor in PD. The researchers also found that CBD prevented brain cell death and increased neuritogenesis. Neuritogenesis is the process of repairing damaged brain cells.
Regardless, CBD has been proven to improve the quality of life in Parkinson’s patients. Both THC and CBD are helpful at eliminating the pain and mental health issues faced by targets of this maddening disease. Yet, if you’re hoping to avoid the psychoactive nature of the plant, it looks like CBD is fairly potent on its own.
What if I don’t want to smoke?
The nice thing about medical cannabis? The herb now comes in a variety of forms. For those adverse to smoking or inhaling cannabis vapor, concentrated oil is a great option. Cannabis oils are the method of choice for parents giving pediatric cannabis to children. They are easy to consume, and you can simply put a dollop of oil in a capsule, under your tongue, or mixed into some food.
Cannabis oil was the method of choice for now-famous activist Rick Simpson, who applied the oil topically to rid himself of skin cancer. Amazed by the success of the oil, he was inspired to create the film Run From The Cure about his experience. Since that time, dozens of people with extreme medical conditions have Rick Simpson to thank for overhauling their health.
You can find both high-CBD and high-THC varieties of cannabis oil.
Parkinson’s treatment options
To successfully treat his Parkinson’s, Michael J. Fox has learned to very precisely manage his medications based on how he’s feeling. From the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to bed, he assesses the exact amount of what medication he needs to take at any given moment. He does this based on how his brain is working for him that day.
Another thing to note about Fox: He had brain surgery. He was also awake the whole time.
Yes, you read that right. The man was conscious and talking to his doctor while his doctor was operating on his head. This procedure is called Deep Brain Stimulation. During this surgery, a neurosurgeon inserts a pacemaker (electrode) into a specific part of the brain.
The pacemaker sends electrical signals that stimulate the parts of your brain affected by PD. Deep brain stimulation is known to soothe tremors in patients for up to 5 years. But, the implants are far from a cure for the disease. If you’re interested in this procedure, expect up to 3-6 hours of awake surgery time.
This is far from an affordable option for many people. Pharmaceutical medications, too, can be quite costly. This leaves many patients stuck between a rock and a hard place. Traditional medications also come with painful side effects, including kidney damage, nausea, and intense sedation.
Coping with symptoms
In some ways, current Parkinson’s treatments are more advanced than ever. In others, they seem oddly archaic. The catheters, small electroshocks to the brain, and surgeries eerily seem a little too “mad scientist” or Frankenstein-esque. Much of the difficulty in treating Parkinson’s Disease stems from how little we actually know about it in the first place.
We know what causes the onset of tremors: dying dopamine factories. Yet, there’s virtually no understanding of what causes those vital cells to die off. Because of this sad fact, PD patients are faced with treatment options that often involve a combination of invasive medical procedures and powerful psychotropic drugs.
Many Parkinson’s patients, like David Esparza, use medical marijuana to help cope with tremors and side effects from the medication. Esparza tells,
The shaking got so bad, I had to start taking a pill called Carbidopa / Levodopa. I could only take that so much because if I over medicate, I’ll have hallucinations. In order to relax more during the periods that I can’t take it, I medicate with marijuana. Pot gets rid of nausea; the throwing-up feeling. And I’m able to handle those medicines, too. I think it helps me. It gives me a better attitude. I don’t feel like a victim. -Esparza
Let’s talk about Taylor
Taylor, the subject of the video above, has an advanced form of PD. He uses a wheelchair with little ability to move his body due to stiff and rigid muscles. In his PD state, he has also lost his ability to talk.
At the beginning of the clip, videographer Mike Polous explains Taylor’s condition best:
He has limited use of his legs and arms, making him totally dependent on [his caretaker] to get in and out of the car, go to the bathroom, go to bed, eat, and so on. -Polous
The scene cuts and the film picks up again after Taylor’s used a medicinal dose of a “nutritional vegetable extract”. AKA: Cannabis.
The result? Taylor, once nearly catatonic from muscle paralysis, can walk. Even more unfathomable, he can talk and raise his arms. The real whopper? He confidently, if a little wobbly, gets into his car and drives away.
“We created this video to show how important this treatment is for Parkinson’s patients. To actually give them back a normal life. -Polous
In another anecdotal example, Elyse Del Francia tells about the time she slipped her husband some cannabutter on his pancakes. Her husband had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was self-treating his tremors with alcohol. According to La Francia,
Within 45 minutes of eating a pancake with marijuana on it, he stopped shaking. That was my lightbulb moment. That’s when I knew that I was onto something that would relieve his pain and suffering, because it’s horrible, horrible, to have Parkinson’s Disease and not have any relief. I feel that this is something that helps so many people in so many ways with pain and suffering. -La Francia
When it comes to treating Parkinson’s, patients don’t have a lot of options. There’s evidence that marijuana may be able to help, but scientists really aren’t sure exactly how or why. It’s up to you to decide which option works best for you.
Treatment for Parkinson’s is different for everyone. For some, procedures like Deep Brain Stimulation are the best options. Others may prefer a “nutritious vegetable extract.” What we do know is that marijuana shows some very promising signs in the world of PD medications. To close with some final words of wisdom from Mr. Fox, Parkinson’s:
…is a gift that keeps on taking, but it’s a gift. It’s really opened me up to being a more compassionate, curious, and risk-taking person.” After all, “whatever we have in our lives, we find ways to deal and move forward. -Fox
We can help those with the disease by making sure patients are informed of their options. We encourage you to send this article to someone who would appreciate this article.
Do you or someone you know suffer from PD? Have you tried medical marijuana? Share your story with us on social media or in the comments below.