A Better Understanding of How Cannabis Can Benefit Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Children diagnosed with Autism have an imbalanced endocannabinoid system and suffer from inflammation in the gut and brain. CBD in Marijuana can help.

The marijuana plant is one of the most fascinating, complicated, and misunderstood plants in our environment. When the word “marijuana” is used, it immediately evokes both positive reactions and stigmas. Over the past 10 years, between cancer research and the legalization of the plant in many states, we’ve come to see benefits beyond its hallucinogenic purposes.

Understanding this plant is the first step to recognizing its benefits for reducing inflammation and boosting the immune system. There are direct benefits for people with autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders, cancer, anxiety, and autism. 

Recreational vs. Medicinal Labels

The difference between recreational marijuana and medical marijuana is the level of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, present. THC is the psychoactive part of the plant; the more THC in the plant, the “higher” a person will feel. Medicinal marijuana, on the other hand, mainly refers to the part of the plant called cannabidiol, or CBD, which is the non-psychoactive part. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the marijuana plant contains more than 500 natural compounds. CBD and low levels of THC seem to be the compounds with the most medicinal properties. In many states, low levels of THC are considered to be at or below .03 percent, indicating that the product is non-psychoactive.

The cannabinoid side of the plant has three parts: phytocannabinoids, with phyto meaning “of the plant” and “cannabinoids” referring to the CBD and THC molecules; terpenoids, called terpenes, which give the plant its color and smell and work synergistically with phytocannabinoids to provide therapeutic effects; and flavonoids, which give the plant pigmentation and contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. The phytocannabinoids’ effects on the body include muscle spasm relaxation, anti-inflammatory assistance, and nausea cessation. Phytocannabinoids have been proven to have anti-tumor effects as well. They also function as a protectant for the neurological system and help reduce anxiety and counter negative thoughts, resulting in benefits for both the body and mind. THC, on the other hand, functions almost like a sedative. Its relaxing qualities reduce pain, induce sleep, and lighten intraocular eye pressure. Like phytocannabinoids, THC also stops nausea, lowers anxiety, and has anti-tumor effects. An antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, its main difference is that it’s a psychoactive drug.

There are two compounds associated with THC: sativa and indica. Initially, sativa is considered uplifting to the brain. Indica is considered calming and is associated with sleep. With the hybridization of the plant over the past 30 years, however, many experts say this classification no longer applies. The most accurate way to determine a plant’s effect is to evaluate the content by calculating the ratio of CBD to THC and looking at the dominant terpenoids through a clinical test. A good supplier will always have its product tested and be able to provide this information to consumers. 

What About Hemp?

Hemp is another part of the plant — likely the part that has had the most false advertising applied to it, creating confusion. Hemp is the fiber and oil of the plant; the resin in the plant determines the amount of CBD. These can be grown as low-resin plants; they would, therefore, contain a low level of CBD — or none at all — and be classified as hemp. A high-resin plant contains all the properties that have been identified as beneficial for medicinal purposes. This isn’t to say that hemp doesn’t serve medicinal purposes — however, when talking about autism, autoimmune diseases, and cancer, hemp-based plants (low-resin) won’t help these patients as much as a plant containing high levels of CBD (high-resin). Hemp products, such as hemp oil, seeds, milk, and powder provide protein, as well as omega-3 and omega-6.

Using the term “hemp-derived CBD” and placing hemp and CBD on the same label has confused many who think they’re getting medicinal-grade CBD. Many times, parents of autistic children will say, “I ordered CBD from Amazon, and it didn’t do anything for my child.” That’s because the product didn’t contain enough CBD. A product containing enough wouldn’t be available through Amazon but through private suppliers. One other note about hemp-based products is that they can often be constructed from the waste material of a crop, leading them to contain higher levels of toxins.

The Endocannabinoid System

The endocannabinoid system is the reason we’re researching and using cannabis as a medicine. Italian researcher Vincenzo Di Marzo, Ph.D., labeled the endocannabinoid system as essential to life, affecting how we relax, eat, sleep, forget, and protect. Scientists tell us the endocannabinoid system switches on when we need protection in certain chronic disease states. We have four endocannabinoid receptors in the body: two in the brain and two in the gut. When chronic disease states are present, such as in cancer, the endocannabinoid system isn’t working properly. Cannabis causes the endocannabinoid receptors to activate, creating balance within the system.

For example, in more than 60 whitepapers written on the use of CBD for cancer patients, the consistent finding was that no matter the stage or type of cancer, the patients receiving CBD improved more than the patients who did not. All of the improved patients had increases in their immune function and a reduction in overall inflammation in their bodies. Therefore, the primary purpose of the endocannabinoid system appears to be maintaining homeostasis in the body. Science tells us that the endocannabinoid system’s purpose is to regulate the flow of signals being sent between cells, and this flow is what creates balance. This flow also makes each person’s system slightly different from the next. That’s why the response to cannabis can vary in each individual. Those with a normally functioning endocannabinoid system will react completely differently than someone who has an autoimmune disease and an imbalanced endocannabinoid system.  

CDB’s Connection to Autism

Children living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have an endocannabinoid system that’s imbalanced. They often suffer from inflammation in the gut and brain. Because of this inflammatory response, they can experience pain and exhibit behaviors associated with their pain response. Their nervous systems are in a state of constant fight-or-flight, producing anxiety-like symptoms. They experience issues with being able to fall asleep or stay asleep, and CBD can be helpful in easing these symptoms. Choosing the right formulation and strain of marijuana is key for helping these children, as well as people struggling with disease states. It has been my experience that using a full plant extract works best with severe populations displaying aggressive behaviors. A full plant extract is more concentrated than a tincture; it requires less to be given at one time, making it more cost-effective and the most potent. Tinctures are less concentrated because they’re an extraction cut with olive oil or coconut oil. They have a greater impact on less severe populations.

The strain of the plant is very important as well, determining the CBD-to-THC ratio. I’ve found children with ASD who have no seizure activity do best with a 20-to-1 ratio of CBD to THC. In my experience, THC often has an adverse effect on children with ASD. CBD is often the most calming for them; however, this is not true when a child with ASD has seizures. In these cases, a low level of THC is helpful. For children with ASD and no seizure activity, I’ve found Ringo’s Gift and God’s Gift are the most helpful strains. Haleigh’s Hope and Charlotte’s Web Everyday Advanced have shown good results with children with ASD and seizure activity. 

Cannabis is a fascinating plant with incredible healing properties. With a better understanding of the plant, we can determine the best strain and best formulation for each individual. However, there’s enough research to know it’s beneficial, particularly for children with autism. 

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