Degenerative brain diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s have been the focus of intense study in recent decades as humanity races to care for an aging generation. Though there are some pharmaceutical treatments for the anxiety and depression that these diseases can cause in patients, these drugs can’t do very much to actually improve brain function. Medical researchers are still searching for ways to help brain disease or brain trauma patients, and they’ve recently moved on to studying plant-based medicines.
The very newest medical research studies focus on a specific plant: cannabis. The chemicals created by this plant (and by our own bodies) are called cannabinoids, and scientists have been eagerly studying how these natural chemicals work in our bodies and our brains. Cannabinoids have been shown to have anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory effects, but the newest research focuses on the brain and how cannabinoids can help Alzheimer’s patients.
Cannabinoids & Alzheimer’s Disease
These newly discovered chemicals in cannabis called cannabinoids can help reduce neural degeneration and protect our brains from diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. To explore how that works, first let’s define what cannabinoids are and how they interact with our bodies.
What are the major cannabinoids?
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one of over 400 chemicals in the cannabis plant. It, along with cannabidiol (CBD), is one of the most prevalent chemicals and has proven to have major health benefits. THC is responsible for the “high” effect that one experiences when ingesting marijuana products. It quickly pairs with our body’s CB1 receptors in our endocannabinoid system. These receptors are primarily found in the brain. CBD, another major player in the chemical makeup of marijuana, is the perfect compliment to THC. CBD makes the THC inside cannabis better by staving off some of the negative qualities of THC, such as the potential for paranoia or increased anxiety, while letting THC do its work in our bodies.
Cannabinoids have many positive health benefits, such as reducing inflammation, relieving pain, regulating diabetes, helping depression and anxiety, and even fighting cancer. Cannabis even has the potential to slow down the symptoms of aging and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by responding to the beta amyloids in the brain.
Beta Amyloids & Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s is a complicated disease that researchers are still trying to figure out. What we do know is that Alzheimer’s disease disrupts the proper communication between neurons, which leads to a loss of function and cell death. Healthy neurons have three parts:
- The cell body. The cell body is where the nucleus lives. The nucleus contains the genetic code of the cell and regulates the cell’s activities.
- Dendrites. These are long branch-like structures that stretch from the cell body to get information from other neurons.
- Axons. These are cable-like structures at the other end of the cells to transfer messages to other neurons.
These three parts all function together to keep the neurons firing, talking with other neurons, and generally functioning normally.
In Alzheimer’s disease, many neurons stop functioning or connecting with other neurons, and eventually die. The disease interrupts the neurons by letting proteins build up on the dendrites and axons, slowing down communication and eventually causing cell death. In the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease, the disease destroys just neurons and their connections in the memory portion of our brain. However, as the disease progresses, other areas of the brain are damaged.
What role do beta-amyloid proteins play?
Beta-amyloid proteins are formed when amyloid precursor proteins are broken down, so they’re basically waste products of normal brain function. Usually our brains get rid of them, but Alzheimer’s disease prevents that from happening. Then these beta-amyloid proteins build up around neurons, clumping together to form plaques. These protein plaques collect between the neurons and eventually hurt proper cell function.
Cannabinoids for Alzheimer’s
Cannabis can do two things for Alzheimer’s disease. First, it can help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s by slowing the production of beta-amyloid proteins. Second, it can help treat Alzheimer’s disease by alleviating the symptoms.
Let’s start with preventing dementia. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, meaning it starts small and gets worse over time. Preventing the disease starts with counteracting the issues arising in the body that contribute to the disease. Those issues are the production of beta-amyloid proteins. Studies have shown that the combination of CBD and THC given to mice showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s improves learning. These mice also have fewer beta-amyloid clumps in their bodies. Cannabinoids work on both sides of the problem. They not only decrease the beta-amyloids in the nerve cells, but they also counteract the inflammation associated with these proteins.
Almost more important than prevention is being able to alleviate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s disease has a lot of symptoms, but two of the major symptoms come in the form of anxiety/depression and a withdrawal from social activities. These two symptoms can cause a loss of quality of life for Alzheimer’s sufferers. Cannabis has an anxiolytic effect on the body, meaning the right strains can reduce anxiety and depression in Alzheimer’s sufferers. The other major quality of life symptom with Alzheimer’s is the withdrawal from social activities. Because of the nature of the disease, the sufferer can forget how to do their favorite things or forget their friends and loved ones, causing them to withdraw from social situations. The underlying cause of this behavior change goes back to anxiety and depression.
Supplementing with Cannabinoids
If Alzheimer’s disease runs in your family, then including cannabinoids in your diet can be a good idea. The combination of THC and CBD in marijuana can do wonderful things for the body because of the anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective qualities. This combination, along with very few side effects, makes cannabis ideal. Cannabis can be ingested in several different ways from smoking it to vaporizing it to consuming it through edibles. The side effects of cannabis include psychoactive effects, red eyes, and dry mouth. Some people also experience nausea from the THC in cannabis.
If you are affected by the side effects of THC, then isolated cannabidiol or CBD could be a better option. Cannabidiol is an isolated cannabinoid that can be extracted from either cannabis or hemp, and it’s legal in almost all of the United States. While the most common way to ingest CBD is by oil or by tincture, CBD can also be consumed in pill form, as gummies, or even vaporized.