Epilepsy, a neurological disorder characterized by seizures, affects about 3.4 million people in the United States. While family history and brain injury may cause epilepsy, the origin is often unknown. Epilepsy can influence a person’s health, safety, relationships, ability to work, and more.
Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder and affects people of all ages. Many patients search for a treatment for the unpredictable seizures that epilepsy causes.
What Treatments Are Available for Epilepsy?
Medication is the initial line of treatment, and the majority of patients respond to the first or second seizure medications they try. Other methods include:
- Complementary therapy
- Dietary therapy
- Clinical trials
- Neurostimulation devices
Cannabidiol, or CBD, has shown the ability to treat epilepsy. It is one of the hundreds of components found in marijuana and hemp plants. CBD does not cause the “high” produced by THC, another compound found in marijuana. Cannabidiol is available in several forms, including CBD gummies or tinctures for oral use, topical creams and other edible products. The FDA originally approved the use of a drug called Epidiolex, a plant-based formation of CBD, to treat types of rare seizures in patients 2 years and older. In 2020, the FDA approved the drug for patients 1 year and older.
How Does CBD Work?
CBD acts on the endocannabinoid system, or ECS. It is a system present in many cells throughout the body and brain. The ECS affects many functions, including sleep, mood, the immune system, motor control, memory and appetite. It works in the body even if you do not use CBD.
The three main components of the endocannabinoid system are:
- Endocannabinoids: molecules produced by the body as needed to keep functions running well
- Receptors: endocannabinoids bind to these to tell the body the ECS needs to take action
- Enzymes: break down endocannabinoids once they’ve done their job
Scientists are still learning exactly how CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system. While THC binds to receptors and causes a “high” feeling, CBD works differently. Many researchers believe it prevents the breakdown of endocannabinoids, enabling them to have a more significant effect on the body. Some believe it works on a receptor that has yet to be discovered.
How Does CBD Help People with Epilepsy?
Research on how CBD affects patients with epilepsy has been limited so far. Restricted access to cannabidiol, federal regulations, time constraints and financial considerations have all played a factor. However, studies in recent years have shown that CBD has benefited certain epilepsy patients who do not respond to conventional treatments.
The strongest evidence of CBD’s effectiveness in treating epilepsy has been its effect on two kinds of childhood epilepsy, Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. Symptoms in these patients don’t typically respond to antiseizure medications. Many studies show cannabidiol’s ability to slow or even stop seizures in patients with Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. Epidiolex is sometimes prescribed for these patients. “Gold standard” clinical trials proved its effectiveness, meaning the trials were randomized, double-blind and placebo-controlled.
In 2020, Epidiolex was also approved to treat another rare seizure condition known as tuberous sclerosis complex.
Epidiolex can be expensive, and not all health insurance policies cover it. Some patients decide to use artisanal CBD products as an alternative. It’s imperative to speak to a doctor before trying to self-dose, as scientists do not yet know exactly how much CBD is effective in treating seizures. The amount of CBD in artisanal products can vary.
What Should You Look for in a CBD Product?
If you opt for an artisanal CBD product, be sure to read the label. It should list the amount of CBD in the product. It should also have analysis from third-party labs and make the reports, also known as certificates of analysis, available to consumers. Ask your doctor any questions about the product you’d like to try.
The ability of CBD to treat epilepsy is promising, and many patients have already had success through Epidiolex. Researchers continue to study the effects of CBD on epilepsy in hopes to gain new information for the future.