By Nurse Janna Champagne, RN, BSN, Holistic Nurse and ASD Mom Warrior
In the autism parenting community, word is spreading FAST. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve surely heard stories of seemingly miraculous results from a parent who discovered cannabis for their ASD child. I am one such parent and can personally attest to the overwhelmingly positive potential of this highly controversial herb. *Disclaimer: Legally Accessible and Administered* As a holistic nurse focused on natural alternatives to the pharmacy, residing in a state where cannabis is legal, learning how to best apply medical cannabis therapy was a decision logical to me. Cannabis quickly became a major passion in life, as this amazing plant was integral to rescuing my own ASD teenage daughter from placement outside the home. I thought about doing what many consider unthinkable (foster care), due to safety issues when my daughter suffered a major puberty crisis, with high profile behaviors including self-harm, aggressive rages and destruction of property. I can vouch for it: there is nothing more helpless than watching your child suffer to the point of hurting themselves and others in blind rage.
The trauma of the puberty crisis is experienced by approximately 50% of autistic families, and is therefore an extremely common presentation during the transition to adulthood for many children (1). Having been there myself, I completely sympathize and offer hope for resolution when connecting with related ASD parents. After recovering my own daughter from her ASD puberty crisis, my resulting passion turned our trauma into purpose; to help other families.
Since then, I have personally guided many ASD parents through the optimal application of cannabis therapy. For most, it provided safe and effective relief and eased their family crisis. As a bonus, many cannabis users have successfully weaned off mentally-harming pharmaceutical drugs, some of which have lifelong side effects (google extrapyramidal symptoms, not a good script). * Disclaimer: I strongly recommend medical supervision for drug withdrawal. *The only shame in this process is the number of parents who do not consider cannabis therapy until all other options for managing their ASD child are completely exhausted. No judgment either. It is the lack of education about cannabis that prevents considering this safe and effective option. Now that word is spreading, many parents are using cannabis as a strategy to prevent seizures (sometimes well before puberty) and the adage of biomedical ASD treatment “the sooner the better” certainly seems to apply.
I want to clarify that the goal of using medical cannabis for ASD is not for parents to get their children “high” to appease them. Instead, the goal is to improve internal balance and optimize function, through individualized micro-dosing and experimentation to find the “sweet spot” titration. The process of experimentation is necessary because individual cannabinoid needs vary widely. With successful titration of medicinal cannabis, even with the use of psychotropic components such as THC, a “high” is rarely noticeable.
Now for the science behind cannabis therapy for autism. First and foremost: endocannabinoid deficiency predisposes to autism (2). Read it several times and let it sink in for a minute. For those new to the endocannabinoid system (ECS), think of it as the motherboard that manages the interactions within and between our body’s organ systems. The role of the endocannabinoid system is homeostasis or maintaining balance in the rest of the body. In response to an imbalance, the ECS will intelligently rebalance what is not out of balance. This includes some important areas for treating ASD, such as neurotransmitter balance, immune modulation, and inflammation alleviation (3). In fact, one of the causes of ASD is genetic mutations in endocannabinoid system receptors that lead to ECS deficiency (4). The cannabis plant has the most prolific source of phytocannabinoids available to supplement what is lacking in the ECS of people with ASD. This explains why cannabis can have such a profoundly positive impact as an intervention for autism.
So how exactly does cannabis benefit someone with autism? Well, let’s start with symptom management. Cannabis is very effective in minimizing or completely stopping extreme autistic behaviors before, during or after puberty. The anxiolytic (5), analgesic (6) and anti-inflammatory (7) effects of cannabis appear to be particularly helpful in managing autistic behaviors. Additionally, cannabis is considered very safe with much milder side effects compared to its pharmaceutical alternatives (8). Hence, the symptom management piece that is renowned for easing difficult situations in ASD families, even when they are at or near their breaking point.
In addition to its effectiveness in managing symptoms, cannabis also helps balance some of the underlying issues that cause autism…hence my fondness for calling it potentially “curative.” ASD Biomedical 101: Autism is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental impacts that lead to widespread imbalances, primarily in the gut, brain, and immune systems (9). When cannabis activates the endocannabinoid system, the effect includes balancing these three major organ systems missing in ASD. Cannabis is an immunomodulator (10), a balancing/neuroprotective neurotransmitter (11), as well as an anti-inflammatory for the gut and brain (12), to name just a few of the profound healing effects. Cannabis itself was certainly one of the “big hitters” in the recovery of my own ASD daughter, who made more progress between the ages of 11 and 14 (after cannabis) than in the previous biomedical decade. .
If you have an autistic child who you think could benefit from cannabis, but don’t know where to start, I highly recommend connecting with Mother’s Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA). I urge you to seriously consider this safe and effective therapy if you have a child with autism. In the next article, I will review the optimal starting formulations and the components of cannabis that are particularly useful for individualizing cannabis therapy. I hope this information will be useful for those new to cannabis for autism, to understand the powerful potential of this amazing plant to improve what is often considered incurable by mainstream medicine.
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- Ballaban-Gil, K. et al (1996). Longitudinal examination of behavioral, linguistic and social changes in a population of adolescents and young adults with autistic disorders. Pediatric Neurology, 15(3):217–223
- Chakrabarti, B., Persico, A. and Battista, N. (2015). Endocannabinoid signaling in autism. Neurotherapeutics, 12(4): 837–847.
- De Petrocellis, L., Cascio, MG and Di Marzo, V. (2004) The endocannabinoid system: overview and latest additions. British Journal of Pharmacology 141, 765–774.
- Dilja, D., Krueger, N. (2013) Evidence for a common endocannabinoid-related disease mechanism in autism spectrum disorders. Neuron: 78(3):408–410.
- Blessing, E., Steenkamp, M., Manzanares, J., Marmar, C., (2015). Cannabidiol as a potential treatment for anxiety disorders. Neurotherapeutic: 12(4):825-36.
- Russo, EB (2008). Cannabinoids in the management of difficult to treat pain. Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management, 4(1), 245–259.
- Nagarkatti, P., Pandey, R., Rieder, SA, Hegde, VL and Nagarkatti, M. (2009). Cannabinoids as new anti-inflammatories. Future Medicinal Chemistry, 1(7), 1333–1349.
- Medical Marijuana vs Traditional Pharmaceuticals (2016). Medicinal Marijuana Association, accessed online at: http://www.medicinalmarijuanaassociation.com/medical-marijuanablog/infographic-medical-marijuana-vs.-traditional-pharmaceuticals
- Caroline, G., Lopes, S., Silva, P., et al (2011). Pathways underlying the gut-brain connection in autism spectrum disorders as future targets for disease management. European Journal of Pharmacology, 668: S70–S80.
- Thomas, W., Klein, L., Newton, C., Larsen, K., et al (2003). The cannabinoid system and immune modulation. Journal of Leukocyte Biology. 74(4): 486-496
- Hampson, J., Grimald, M., Axelrod, J., Wink, D, (1998). Cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol are neuroprotective antioxidants. National Academy of Medical Sciences, vol. 95, p. 8268–8273.
- Storr, M., Sharkey, A. (2007). The endocannabinoid system and gut-brain signaling. Current Opinion in Pharmacology, 7(6) 575-582.
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