Derived from the part of the cannabis plant that doesn't get you “high” like THC, cannabidiol (CBD) is typically used for health reasons instead of for recreational purposes, and has been found to be especially useful for treating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. A challenging neurodegenerative disorder, Parkinson’s causes a combination of motor and non-motor symptoms — such as tremors, weakness, stiffness, dizziness, anxiety and sleeplessness — that affect daily life. CBD, typically taken in oil form, has the potential to relieve these symptoms, improving sleep, reducing inflammation and more, which can profoundly help the more than 10 million people across the world suffering.
Through surveys, anecdotal reports and several studies, it has been shown that the cannabis plant and its components, THC and CBD, may help manage both motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved medical marijuana for any use, numerous states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana for certain conditions like Parkinson's disease.
How Does It Work?
Our bodies naturally make cannabinoids, which control sleep, appetite, mood and other processes by binding to receptors throughout the body and brain. These receptors are found in high numbers in the basal ganglia, a part of brain cells that regulates movement and is affected by Parkinson's. Since the cannabinoids in marijuana bind to the receptors in our body and brain, researchers have explored whether they could bind to basal ganglia and other receptors to relieve symptoms of this disease and others.
Improves Quality of Life
Parkinson’s disease can take a toll on a person’s quality of life, including emotional and psychological issues in addition to motor challenges like tremors, balance issues and slowness of movement. In a 6-week study of 21 Parkinson’s disease patients who were given either CBD or placebo, those taking CBD reported improved “quality of life.”
Reduces Pain and Stiffness
When people think of Parkinson’s they often think of the uncontrollable tremors, or shaking, that affect about 70 percent of people with the disorder. But rigidity, or stiffness, is also a hallmark of the disease, which prevents muscles from stretching or relaxing as they should. Studies have shown that CBD oil significantly reduced rigidity, as well as pain and irritability.
In a study of CBD’s effect on sleep in Parkinson’s disease patients at the University of Colorado Hospital, doctors found that taking CBD oil greatly improved patients’ sleep. One participant, Gary Griffin, states, “I never had a sleepless night because I couldn’t relax my muscle groups.” Dr. Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan, told Yahoo that CBD is a popular treatment for the insomnia that arises with the disorder because it promotes refreshing REM sleep.
CBD hemp extracts are rich in antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory effects on joints, helping to reduce the pain and stiffness that may arise with Parkinson’s disease. In a 2011 study of rats, researchers found that CBD helped to reduce inflammatory pain by affecting the way that pain receptors responded to stimuli.
Decreases Psychotic Symptoms
About 20 percent of all people with Parkinson’s disease will experience some form of hallucinations, illusions, paranoia or delusions — what doctors refer to as psychosis. This number increases the longer people live with the disease. Parkinson’s is a disorder caused by low levels of dopamine and medications given to increase dopamine often trigger psychotic episodes. But in a study of Parkinson’s disease patients with psychosis for at least three months, CBD was shown to significantly decrease symptoms of psychosis.
Delays Disease Progression
In a study of the neuroprotective properties of CBD on Parkinson’s disease, researchers found that CBD’s antioxidant qualities can help to delay disease progression. The study also found that CBD can improve parkinsonian symptoms, like slowness of movement.
As more evidence emerges on the positive effects of using CBD oil for Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, the suppliers have amped up their game to make the product as accessible as possible. It is estimated that the CBD market will grow to a $2.1 billion market in consumer sales by 2020, a whopping since 2016.
If you’re thinking of using CBD oil for Parkinson’s disease, the American Parkinson’s Disease Association recommends discussing the decision with your physician. Go over your individual symptoms to weigh whether or not cannabis may be suitable for your treatment. Also discuss whether you’re taking any medications that could interact with CBD oil and whether you might experience adverse side effects. And always keep an eye out for emerging clinical trials to help assess how CBD is proving its usefulness in treating Parkinson’s disease symptoms.
Erica Garza is an author and essayist. Her work has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, The Telegraph and VICE. She lives in Los Angeles.