Does CBD Help With Epilepsy? Clearing Up the Confusion
CBD’s anti-seizure benefits are well documented. A breakthrough in cannabis research led to the creation of Epidiolex, the first CBD prescription drug.
CBD changed the lives of so many children with severe epilepsy, moving them from a state of bedridden cognitive impairment to living markedly better lives.
This is all great to hear, but there’s one problem. Many reputable sites list “epilepsy” or “seizures” as one of the symptoms treatable with CBD. However, what we need to clear up is where those therapeutic effects end.
Cannabidiol may help with severe childhood epilepsy, but this led to the assumption that CBD helps will all forms of epilepsy. Just like many conditions, epilepsy comes in several forms with different causes and symptoms.
Consequently, people with all kinds of epilepsy may be mislead into thinking CBD can help them too. So if you have epilepsy or know someone who hopes CBD will help with their seizures, take a moment to look at what science says.
What is Epilepsy?
In short, epilepsy is a neurological disorder defined by reoccurring seizures. Seizures can occur in isolated cases for reasons other than epilepsy, so “reoccurring” is the detail that matters.
The frequency, severity, and types of episodes vary from one person to another.
Similarly, there are common seizure triggers, but in many cases, those triggers can be unique to each patient. Some triggers include:
- Rapidly-flashing lights (uncommon, contrary to popular belief)
- Lack of sleep
- Extreme emotion
- Low blood sugar
A huge problem with epilepsy is that no two cases are identical. There are so many combinations of seizures and causes – like injuries or a chemical imbalance – that make treatment difficult.
Sometimes, people don’t respond well to antiepileptic drugs (AEDs). This is the case for the small percentage of patients using CBD for epilepsy.
When Does CBD Help With Epilepsy?
Again, CBD helps with epilepsy, but experts and organizations like the Epilepsy Foundation, say “In recent years, a number of studies have shown the benefit of specific plant-based CBD product in treating specific groups of people with epilepsy who have not responded to traditional therapies.”
There’s no doubt that CBD helps control seizures in “specific groups of people,” but only to a limited extent. Currently, CBD therapy is effective against two specific seizure disorders.
Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome (LGS) is a rare form of epilepsy that usually affects children between the ages of two and seven years.
The condition can manifest itself in several ways. Short and long-term health consequences vary depending on the frequency, severity, and type of seizure.
Unfortunately, this condition rarely responds to traditional AEDs. In many cases, children can suffer from things like mobility problems and brain damage.
Another rare and severe form of epilepsy, Dravet Syndrome also responds poorly to AEDs. But perhaps the most disturbing detail is the condition’s onset. While LGS can start at age two, Dravet Syndrome manifests itself in infancy.
Naturally, the effects of these seizures at such an early age can be catastrophic to development. Babies with Dravet Syndrome can inevitably experience a variety of problems, including behavioral difficulties, speech delays, motor issues, impaired coordination, and more.
Unlike most epilepsy cases, 80% of Dravet Syndrome patients carry a genetic mutation that triggers the disorder.
How Well Does CBD Work Against Seizures?
Research on CBD for LGS and Dravet Syndrome was promising enough for the FDA to approve it. But to what extent does it help? Let’s look at that next.
When tested on children with Dravet Syndrome, researchers noticed remarkable results.
A 2017 study in the New England Journal of Medicine provided CBD to several children with Dravet Syndrome and compared the results to placebo. They found a clear distinction between seizure reduction in the CBD patients compared to the placebo group.
For example, median monthly seizure frequency dropped from 12.4 to 5.9. Out of the CBD group, 43% saw a 50% reduction monthly episodes, with a noticeably reduction in all convulsive seizures.
Most surprisingly, however, a lucky 5% of CBD recipients became completely seizure-free. But given how limiting Dravet Syndrome can be, any change is a huge milestone.
LGS was also studied, using similar methods as the Dravet Syndrome research.
2018 findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine saw the same promising results. In this study, the median monthly seizure frequency was 85 – substantially higher than the Dravet Syndrome patients.
Nonetheless, the results speak for themselves. The study used three groups. One was given 10 mg/kg, another received 20 mg/kg, and the third group was placebo.
The study noted significant seizure improvements with CBD compared to placebo. The 10 mg group saw an average reduction of 37.2%, while those receiving 20 mg saw marginally higher success at 41.9%. The placebo patients, meanwhile, only saw a 17.2% seizure reduction..
What are We Missing?
So it’s prettly clear that Dravet Syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome respond well to CBD treatment. But again, our problem is that CBD is considered beneficial to all types of epilepsy.
Unlike the two conditions we discussed, there’s little evidence to support CBD’s use in other, more common epilepsy cases.
Even the 2017 study on Dravet Syndrome mentioned above noticed something crucial, explaining that “The frequency of total seizures of all types was significantly reduced with cannabidiol (P=0.03), but there was no significant reduction in nonconvulsive seizures.”
In other words, patients who don’t experience convulsions – such as with absence seizures – saw no improvement.
A 2020 publication from Frontiers in Neurology summarized the findings of the LGS and Dravet studies, ultimately explaining that “…CBD is effective as an adjunctive therapy in the treatment of drug-resistant childhood-onset epilepsy. Nevertheless, current evidence is restricted to rare and severe epileptic syndromes [emphasis added].”
Jumping the Gun
Now we see how the results of selected research spread like wildfire. But while we can’t fault the general public for not scrutinizing every study, it’s important for educators to set realistic expectations.
Epilepsy is a mysterious condition (most of the time), but it’s not one to take lightly. You should never try CBD or alter your treatment without a doctor’s input. Unless you have LGS or Dravet Syndrome, it’s likely a medical professional won’t approve – and for good reason.
Hopefully, one day we’ll find a way to expand CBD’s benefits to other forms of epilepsy. But for now, we recommend you avoid this to treat other seizure disorders – at least until more evidence is available.
- Epilepsy is a condition marked by recurring seizures
- Epilepsy is not a universal condition, but rather a broad category
- No two epilepsy cases are alike
- Current CBD research and efficacy appears to focus on severe, untreatable epilepsy and on-convulsive seizures
- There isn’t enough evidence to recommend other epilepsy patients to try CBD
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