CBD Products May Help People with Epilepsy Better Tolerate Anti-Seizure Medications
Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers have shown that CBD may reduce the adverse effects associated with anti-seizure medications, and seems to improve other aspects of health and quality of life for patients with epilepsy. Credit: Public domain image
Artisanal (non-pharmaceutical) cannabidiol (CBD) products have become popular in recent years for their apparent therapeutic effects. CBD — a naturally occurring compound of the cannabis plant legally derived from hemp — is used widely as a naturopathic remedy for a number of health conditions, including epilepsy and seizure disorders. Now, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers, in collaboration with the Realm of Caring Foundation and other institutions, have conducted an observational study with participant-reported data to better understand the impact these products may have on people with epilepsy.
They found that CBD may reduce the adverse effects associated with anti-seizure medications, and seems to improve other aspects of health and quality of life for patients.
“The potential of CBD products for the treatment of seizure disorders goes beyond seizure control alone,” says Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “In our study, we saw clinically significant improvements in anxiety, depression and sleep when patients with epilepsy initiated therapeutic use of artisanal CBD products.”
Epilepsy, one of the most common nervous system disorders affecting people of all ages, is a neurological condition characterized by recurrent seizures. Treatment for epilepsy includes anti-seizure medications and diet therapy, such as forms of the ketogenic diet. Surgery may be an alternative treatment, especially when medications or diet fail to control seizures, or if drug side effects — including dizziness, nausea, headache, fatigue, vertigo and blurred vision — are too difficult for a patient to tolerate.
Epidiolex, a pharmaceutical formulation of CBD is approved by the FDA to treat three types of rare seizure disorders (Dravet syndrome, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and tuberous sclerosis complex), but is not approved for the many other types of epilepsy. As a result, patients with other forms of epilepsy often seek alternative forms of CBD, including those evaluated in the new study.
For their evaluation, the researchers analyzed data gathered between April 2016 and July 2020 from 418 participants — 230 women and 188 men — with 205 (49%) at least age 18 and 213 (51%) age 18 or younger. The participants included 71 adults with epilepsy who used artisanal CBD products for medicinal purposes and 209 who were caregivers of children or dependent adults to whom artisanal CBD products were given. The control group consisted of 29 adults with epilepsy who were considering the use of CBD products and 109 caregivers who were considering it for a dependent child or adult patient.
Participants completed a web-based survey that included questions regarding quality of life, anxiety and depression, and sleep. They were prompted via email to complete follow-up surveys at three-month intervals for 14 months.
Compared with the control group, artisanal CBD users reported lower epilepsy medication-related adverse effects (13% lower) and had greater psychological health satisfaction (21% greater) at the beginning of the study. They also reported lower anxiety (19% lower) and depression (17% lower).
Both adult and youth (18 years or younger) CBD users reported better quality sleep, compared with their peers in the control groups.
Caregivers of patients currently using CBD products reported significantly less burden and stress, compared with caregivers in the control group (13% less).
Importantly, 27 patients in the control group at the start of the study started using artisanal CBD products later in the study. After starting CBD, these patients reported significant improvements in physical and psychological health, as well as reductions in anxiety and depression.
Participants also were asked about possible adverse effects related to their CBD use. Among the 280 users, the majority (79%) did not report any adverse effects. The remaining reported negative factors such as drowsiness (11%), high or prohibitive product cost (4%), worsening of epilepsy symptoms (4%), concerns about legal issues (3%) and worries about problematic drug interactions (1%).
Vandrey says further research is needed to understand how these findings can best be applied to helping people with epilepsy. In the interim, he says, patients should consult with their physician before trying CBD products.
“Our hope is to do controlled clinical trials to better inform clinical decision making and identify specific formulations that are most beneficial to patients,” he says.
CBD and other medications: Proceed with caution
Products containing cannabidiol (CBD) seem to be all the rage these days, promising relief from a wide range of maladies, from insomnia and hot flashes to chronic pain and seizures. Some of these claims have merit to them, while some of them are just hype. But it won’t hurt to try, right? Well, not so fast. CBD is a biologically active compound, and as such, it may also have unintended consequences. These include known side effects of CBD, but also unintended interactions with supplements, herbal products, and over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications.
Doubling up on side effects
While generally considered safe, CBD may cause drowsiness, lightheadedness, nausea, diarrhea, dry mouth, and, in rare instances, damage to the liver. Taking CBD with other medications that have similar side effects may increase the risk of unwanted symptoms or toxicity. In other words, taking CBD at the same time with OTC or prescription medications and substances that cause sleepiness, such as opioids, benzodiazepines (such as Xanax or Ativan), antipsychotics, antidepressants, antihistamines (such as Benadryl), or alcohol may lead to increased sleepiness, fatigue, and possibly accidental falls and accidents when driving. Increased sedation and tiredness may also happen when using certain herbal supplements, such as kava, melatonin, and St. John’s wort. Taking CBD with stimulants (such as Adderall) may lead to decreased appetite, while taking it with the diabetes drug metformin or certain heartburn drugs (such as Prilosec) may increase the risk of diarrhea.
CBD can alter the effects of other drugs
Many drugs are broken down by enzymes in the liver, and CBD may compete for or interfere with these enzymes, leading to too much or not enough of the drug in the body, called altered concentration. The altered concentration, in turn, may lead to the medication not working, or an increased risk of side effects. Such drug interactions are usually hard to predict but can cause unpleasant and sometimes serious problems.
Researchers from Penn State College of Medicine evaluated existing information on five prescription CBD and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) cannabinoid medications: antinausea medications used during cancer treatment (Marinol, Syndros, Cesamet); a medication used primarily for muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis (Sativex, which is not currently available in the US, but available in other countries); and an antiseizure medication (Epidiolex). Overall, the researchers identified 139 medications that may be affected by cannabinoids. This list was further narrowed to 57 medications, for which altered concentration can be dangerous. The list contains a variety of drugs from heart medications to antibiotics, although not all the drugs on the list may be affected by CBD-only products (some are only affected by THC). Potentially serious drug interactions with CBD included
- a common blood thinner, warfarin
- a heart rhythm medication, amiodarone
- a thyroid medication, levothyroxine
- several medications for seizure, including clobazam, lamotrigine, and valproate.
The researchers further warned that while the list may be used as a starting point to identify potential drug interactions with marijuana or CBD oil, plant-derived cannabinoid products may deliver highly variable cannabinoid concentrations (unlike the FDA-regulated prescription cannabinoid medications previously mentioned), and may contain many other compounds that can increase the risk of unintended drug interactions.
Does the form of CBD matter?
Absolutely. Inhaled CBD gets into the blood the fastest, reaching high concentration within 30 minutes and increasing the risk of acute side effects. Edibles require longer time to absorb and are less likely to produce a high concentration peak, although they may eventually reach high enough levels to cause an issue or interact with other medications. Topical formulations, such as creams and lotions, may not absorb and get into the blood in sufficient amount to interact with other medications, although there is very little information on how much of CBD gets into the blood eventually. All of this is further complicated by the fact that none of these products are regulated or checked for purity, concentration, or safety.
The bottom line: Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if using or considering CBD
CBD has the potential to interact with many other products, including over-the-counter medications, herbal products, and prescription medications. Some medications should never be taken with CBD; the use of other medications may need to be modified or reduced to prevent serious issues. The consequences of drug interactions also depend on many other factors, including the dose of CBD, the dose of another medication, and a person’s underlying health condition. Older adults are more susceptible to drug interactions because they often take multiple medications, and because of age-related physiological changes that affect how our bodies process medications.
People considering or taking CBD products should always mention their use to their doctor, particularly if they are taking other medications or have underlying medical conditions, such as liver disease, kidney disease, epilepsy, heart issues, a weakened immune system, or are on medications that can weaken the immune system (such as cancer medications). A pharmacist is a great resource to help you learn about a potential interaction with a supplement, an herbal product (many of which have their own drug interactions), or an over-the-counter or prescription medication. Don’t assume that just because something is natural, it is safe and trying it won’t hurt. It very well might.