My family has dealt with muscular dystrophy for the past half century. I lost one brother to the disease, and a sister also has it, so this is personal for me. The idea that an herbal compound might slow the progress of the disease is attractive, but given the fact that that nothing has been developed in the past 50 years to treat the disease, I find it hard to get my hopes up. But I recently came across some research on the subject, and I want to explore the idea.
The most recent study was done on mice. You can read a summary of it here. This study found that CBD (the non-psychoactive component in some strains of cannabis) “promoted myotube formation” and “prevented the loss of locomotor activity, reduced inflammation and restored autophagy.” So what does that mean?
Myotubes are very small structures inside a muscle cell. These myotubes are needed for the muscle to do what it does – contract and relax. One of the central markers of muscular dystrophy are the degradation and loss of myotubes. So any treatment that increases the number of myotubes in dystrophic mice or humans seems like it is on the right track.
Likewise, preventing the loss of locomotor activity is a good thing. Dystrophy means the muscles don’t work as well, and dystrophic individuals move around less. So again, an indication that the treatment helps (at least in mice).
Inflammation is believed to be a part of the process by which muscle is destroyed in the dystrophies. There is still a lot we don’t understand when it comes to the disease, but it seems that if inflammation in the muscle cells is decreased, that could be a good thing.
Autophagy is a process that goes on inside of cells. It literally means ‘self eating’ – old, damaged cells or structures inside cells are digested, and (hopefully) this is balanced by the production of new cells and subcellular machinery.
So it appears that CBD is doing good stuff. In mice. That may translate into results for people, or it may not. Biologists use what we call a ‘mouse model’ of muscular dystrophy. We think this model is kinda the same thing as what is happening in people, but it isn’t exactly the same thing. Animal models let us do research faster and at lower cost – but only the preliminary research. Test 100 compounds on mice, identify one or two that seem to work, then test it for real in humans. These results are promising, but no one has proven that there is real value yet.
It may take another 10 or 50 years to develop a good therapy for muscular dystrophy. The people who currently have some form of MD are not motivated by the same things that scientists are. Instead of waiting until we are 99.9999% sure that an idea is true, some might want to try an unproven therapy provided that there is a reasonable chance it will help, and no indication that it will be harmful. This ‘right to try’ isn’t science or medicine – it is an attempt to survive until science can deliver something that is proven to the nth degree.
In a similar situation, I would like to talk about Cathy Jordan, who I recently met at a meeting in Sarasota, Florida. She has lived amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gerhig’s disease) longer than any other person. She believes that a key factor to her remarkable survival is the use of cannabis. Can we say that is scientifically proven? Not yet, that will take years of medical research – if someone can get the money needed for such studies. But it would be hard to argue that cannabis has hurt her in any way, and it may be slowing the disease.
Here are 3 key things we know about the cannabis molecule cannabidiol (CBD):
- It is not psychoactive (in the sense that it won’t cause euphoria or intoxication).
- It is not addictive.
- It has a very low toxicity.
CBD is psychoactive in the sense that it reduces anxiety, and has been used for PTSD, OCD, epilepsy, insomnia, and other conditions where the nerves fire too fast. But it lacks the effects seen for THC, the molecule in marijuana that gets people high.
While mice and men who are addicted to opiates or cocaine will furiously press a bar in their cage to keep the drug flowing, that has not been seen with CBD. The medical community considers cannabidiol to lack habit forming potential.
Studies to date on people have not revealed toxicity at normal doses, or even at much higher doses than is normally consumed. A typical dose for humans might be 5 to 50 milligrams a day, while some studies have given people 600 milligrams or more per day with no apparent negative effects.
In theory, there might be an interaction between CBD and some prescription drug. There might some people with genetic sensitivity to CBD (people with celiac’s disease cannot handle wheat, though wheat is otherwise a good food for 98% of us). But from what we know, CBD is not a major cause for concern.
CBD is most commonly taken orally, as an oil or tincture. It is also possible to take it as a transdermal patch, and to vape or smoke it. In the case of muscular dystrophy, smoking does not seem advised. People with MD have an increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, and the particulates and tars from any smoke are not going to improve lung function.
CBD is not cheap, but is not incredibly expensive – if bought in bulk, current prices are around 10 cents per milligram. If a person is taking 25 milligrams a day, that would be around $2.50 per day, or $75 per month – about the same as 2 co-pays for many people.
Unfortunately, lab analyses have shown that some CBD products contain far less of the active ingredient than is claimed. I am not going to shill for any company out there, but I do know that there are some quality brands.
I will be doing more research and writing on this topic. Until then, if you are interested in CBD as a possible response to muscular dystrophy, I suggest that you visit a website called ProjectCBD.org. That website is from a solid organization devoted to honestly educating people about what we know (and don’t know) about CBD.