Cannabis was readily available for millennia. The first documented use of cannabis-based medicine was from 2737 BC by Chinese emperor Sheng Nung, who used cannabis-infused tea to treat memory, malaria, rheumatism, and gout. An Irish physician named William B. O’Shaughnessy conducted a study on cannabis’ therapeutic effects in 1839, which was quite controversial at the time. It wasn’t until 1940 that an individual cannabinoid was discovered by a chemist named Robert S. Cahn, and it took two years for Dr. Roger Adams to successfully isolate the first cannabinoid, known as cannabidiol (CBD). Dr. Adams’ research has also been lauded as the first step towards the discovery of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Comparatively, THC was isolated in its purest form and had its structure explained shortly after 1963 by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam.
What Is + Legality
CBD is the second most prevalent of the active ingredients in Cannabis plants. It’s derived directly from the hemp plant, not the marijuana plant. Legally speaking, marijuana plants are prohibited by the Food and Drug Administration. Scientifically speaking, hemp and marijuana belong to the same genus but are of a different species. The most important difference between the two is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content. THC is the foremost active ingredient in marijuana and is the compound responsible for the altered state of consciousness (aka getting high). By comparison, hemp plants contain no more than 0.3% (by dry weight) of THC, meaning that you won’t be able to get high off hemp plants. Any cannabis plant with over 0.3% THC content will produce a high and is illegal on the federal level. Any cannabis plant with under 0.3% THC content is a hemp plant, will not produce a high, and is not illegal on the federal level. Due to the complexity of marijuana law on a federal and state level, please refer to the Marijuana Policy Project’s state policy map, as well as NORML’s law database.
It’s important to note that the 2018 Farm Bill removed legal restrictions on CBD if it’s derived from hemp plants. Previously, all cannabis plants were considered the same, and thus, banned entirely. The hemp provisions removed hemp from the definition of marijuana, and even though THC is a Schedule I controlled substance, an exception was created specifically for THC in hemp. What remains to be seen is how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will regulate CBD moving forward. On June 16th, the FDA released a document stating that adding CBD to a food or labeling CBD as a dietary supplement is currently illegal under federal law. Despite the confusion of the legality of the plants, people very much want access to CBD for medical and therapeutic reasons.
CBD To Treat Autism?
Using CBD to treat autism has been gaining steam within many social circles. Since CBD is generally better tolerated and is significantly cheaper than prescription drugs, there has been a growing chorus of those willing to, at the very least, investigate what CBD may offer those living with autism. A study published in Gastroenterology & Hepatology stated that the most prominent motives for using medical marijuana were ineffectiveness of current therapies, fewer side effects, and a sense of gaining control over the disorder. Using CBD to treat specific symptoms appears to be an increasingly effective course of action, as CBD has been shown to address issues involving the microbiome, mental health, sleeplessness, and many other areas.
CBD + Microbiome
Recent evidence has strongly tied autism symptoms to gut microbiomes. Look no further than fecal transplants greatly reducing autism symptoms and a dietary and prebiotic intervention resulting in improvements in antisocial behavior as proof that this is a burgeoning field of research. CBD has been shown to have protective effects on the digestive system in several ways. When studied in rats, CBD was used to treat severe colitis and “greatly reduced parameters of colitis, including inflammatory damage and diarrhea”. Most studies focus primarily on mice, simply because the ethics (and legality, due to cannabis being a Schedule 1 drug) are too dicey to place before an ethics review. According to a review of data published in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, CBD has been associated with improved blood vessel lining (endothelial integrity), and may be a novel approach to addressing issues within the gut microbiota. This is important, as it aligns with research published in Nature Reviews Endocrinology that strongly associates the endocannabinoid system and related lipids with a number of processes, such as inflammation, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Gut microorganisms and the endocannabinoid system are intertwined, meaning that any intervention that would utilize the endocannabinoid system as CBD would have an opportunity to make meaningful progress in treating these conditions. Understanding the relationship between human endocannabinoid systems and how it can be targeted to address these illnesses will be critical moving forward.
CBD + Symptom Reduction
The science regarding CBD’s effects on mental health paint a rather clear picture. CBD increases levels of endocannabinoid called anandamide, creating anti-inflammatory effects. CBD also increases serotonin signaling and has been associated with decreasing anxiety and an improved ability to protect brain cells from death. CBD has been shown to protect the brain from oxidative stress, which has been associated with symptoms of autism. Oxidative stress is increased in those with autism, and oxidative stress decreases the levels of antioxidant serum proteins. These proteins are associated with acquired language skills, further highlighting the possibilities for CBD-based interventions to combat decreasing social skills.
Researchers at the University of California San Diego are conducted a clinical trial involving 30 children, each diagnosed with autism and severe symptoms. The intent of this study is to better understand how CBD interacts with or alters neural activity, as well as measuring if CBD effectively and safely alleviates some of the more problematic symptoms of ASD, such as aggressive behaviors, self-injurious behaviors, hyperactivity, and social/communicative deficits. Research published in Scientific Reports found that cannabis oil containing 30% CBD led to improvements in specific symptoms. 89% of those studied showed decreased frequency of restlessness and rage attacks. In fact, 20% of patients had their sleep problems disappear entirely. The following symptoms were decreased at rates above 80%: agitation, anxiety, seizures, tics, and depression. Quality of life assessments were conducted, and the amount of those who reported “good quality of life” doubled from 31.3% of patients prior to treatment to 66.8% six months after treatment. The study further goes on to indicate that many patients were taking medications, and that nearly 25% of those taking antipsychotics either decreased their dosage or stopped taking this medication altogether. Ultimately, these researchers found that CBD in autism spectrum disorder patients (ASD) “appears to be well tolerated, safe, and an effective option to relieve symptoms associated with ASD.”
The study of CBD has a long way to go before it becomes the standard or even an acceptable alternative. Dosages and the form in which cannabis is provided makes a world’s difference. Cannabis appears to be the most bioavailable when inhaled but burning cannabis in a wrap comes with a host of issues that could negate the positives of the cannabis. As a result, it is recommended that CBD is vaporized, which cuts out the harmful effects of smoke, nicotine, and tobacco. More research needs to be done on a host of issues, and the research needs to be pointed. It is important to have research to explore the long-term effects of cannabis use, best delivery system, impact on glutamate concentrations in the brain, as well as glutathione in the blood, and the establishment of generally safe dosages for various age groups and conditions.
Autism rates are rising nationwide, possibly due to better surveillance systems, environmental agents, or other factors. Nevertheless, it’s in our society’s best interest that we do the absolute best we can for those living with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Though the rise in prevalence of ASD is a new phenomenon, we might want to explore some very age-old, traditional remedies, to add to our toolbox of possible interventions.