Can CBD help with the symptoms of autism?

June 11, 2021

According to the National Autistic Society, more than 1 in 100 people in the UK is on the autistic spectrum. Although this number is just an estimation, they believe that there are around 700,000 people in the UK with autism, spread across all races, cultures and backgrounds – although, statistically, there are more men who are autistic than women.

Autism – sometimes referred to as ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) is a disability that affects how people see and interact with the world. It can affect not only how autistic people communicate their feelings with others, but also how they understand other people. Autism is a condition that exists on a spectrum – with some people experiencing mild symptoms whilst others have more severe symptoms.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition, which usually appears during childhood, involves repetitive and compulsive behaviour, and in the most severe cases can be life debilitating, severely hindering communication and in some cases, making speech difficult or even impossible.

‘Treating’ autism

Scientists are still unsure exactly what causes autism. It is believed that it could be a mixture of environmental and genetic factors, and the treatment that people with autism receive can vary. As there is no way that an autistic person can be ‘cured’ of ASD, the only help that is available is through help in managing the symptoms.

Most of the treatment that is offered to people with ASD involves behavioural therapies. Occasionally, some medication can be given to help people deal with the symptoms of their ASD, but there is nothing that can be given to actually treat the condition itself.

CBD and autism

CBD stands for cannabidiol. It is one of many chemicals that occur naturally in cannabis and hemp plants called cannabinoids. When consumed CBD and other cannabinoids interact with a system of receptors in the body called the endocannabinoid system, or ECS. The ECS is a network of receptors that are present on the outer membranes of many types of cells throughout the body. The ECS acts as a ‘warden’ between the nervous system and the immune system. The nervous system is in charge of thoughts, movement and emotions (to some degree), and the immune system protects the body from harm from bacteria, viruses and more. These systems affect each other deeply and this is largely due to the fantastic communication skills of the ECS, which mediates messages between the two. The ECS also plays a role in appetite, memory and metabolism.

The human body produces its own cannabinoids naturally, these are known as endocannabinoids. Studies have shown that children with ASD have lower levels of these endocannabinoids, hence why studies are beginning to show the benefits of supplementing with plant produced cannabinoids to reduce some of the symptoms of autism.

CBD doesn’t make consumers high, unlike THC – another cannabinoid that is found in cannabis. Compared to many other drugs, CBD is considered to be very safe, which again makes it a potentially excellent way of reducing some of the symptoms in autism.

CBD and anxiety

One of the key benefits of CBD is its anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effects. In recent years, there have been a number of studies showing that CBD can reduce anxiety in both animals and humans. Anxiety can be a key part of the life of someone living with autism, and controlling it can help improve the quality of living.

Within the endocannabinoid system, there are CB1 receptors, which have an effect on serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in regulating mood, so by interacting with the CB1 receptors, CBD can help people who are living with anxiety and other mental health challenges.

CBD and epilepsy

Scientists have found that there is a significant link between epilepsy and autism, with 32% of people with epilepsy also being on the autistic spectrum, and 20-30% of children on the autistic spectrum developing epilepsy.

Scientists have also carried out research about how CBD can help people with epilepsy. Epilepsy is a neurologic condition that can lead to seizures when the nerves in the brain abnormally fire, giving uncontrollable effects. There are over 40 different types of seizure and they can occur at any time of the day, whether the sufferer is asleep or awake.

Epilepsy can also range from mild to severe, and for some, seizures can be life-threatening. Some people can experience over 100 seizures per day, not only making a ‘normal’ life impossible but also potentially putting them at risk.

CBD can inhibit the breakdown and reuptake of Anandamide – one of the body’s natural anti-depressants. It also helps to raise the endocannabinoid tone, and this is thought to be able to protect parts of the brain and help to reduce the number of seizures for those who suffer from epilepsy.

CBD can also affect the hippocampus – the part of the brain which exchanges information. It is thought that when exchanges are disrupted, epilepsy can occur. When CBD is taken, scientists believe that it can stimulate the growth of neurons in the hippocampus, helping to deal with the management of anxiety and having ‘anti-epileptic effects’.

Anecdotal evidence that CBD helps with the symptoms of autism

Although there is mounting scientific research about how CBD can help people to deal with specific symptoms of ASD, such as depression, seizures and nausea, research is still being carried out to understand how CBD can help specifically with ASD itself.

There is, however, plenty of anecdotal evidence from those who have ASD, especially from the parents of children who live with the condition.

It was in Israel where scientists first discovered the endocannabinoid system, and they are still leading the way in cannabis research. A study by Ben Gurion University and Soroka Medical Centre in Beersheba, shows that CBD proved to be very effective in helping people to treat a number of ASD-related symptoms, such as restlessness, depression, seizures, and tics in under 18’s.

The study involved giving 188 children who have ASD, CBD oil (30% CBD and 1.5% THC) for 6 months. They found that 30% of the patients reported a significant improvement in their condition, 53.7% reported a moderate change, and 15% reported no change or a slight change.

This is significant, and although the understanding of exactly how CBD works for people with ASD is still being worked on, there is significant evidence to show that it certainly helps some people. Whether it is dealing with depression, soothing nausea or reducing the number of seizures in people with ASD, CBD is offering a lot of hope to people and their families.

Most of the medications which are given to people with autism are to treat these same symptoms. However, they are not natural and although they might treat one symptom, they can also present new issues.

If you are thinking about taking CBD for ASD or epilepsy, it is crucial that you speak to your doctor before trying it. CBD can affect the way that some medications work, and it is not recommended to stop taking medication before talking it through with your doctor first.

Life can be very tough for those who live with ASD but with the help of CBD and other cannabinoids, the future is looking bright. As scientists get a better understanding of how these compounds can affect us – especially in the brain, the hope is that we can start to make the lives of people with ASD easier.

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