Your Broken Brain on Cannabis: A Guide to Neuroinflammation
Your Broken Brain on Cannabis: A Guide to Neuroinflammation
When you get stung by a bee or step on a lego, nociceptors (pain receptors) tell you in a fraction of a second that something doesn’t feel right.
Your brain translates this neurologic zing as: PAIN.
When your appendix is about to burst like an internal water balloon, or the back of your throat feels like it is being massaged with sandpaper, the discomfort cues you to seek medical attention muy pronto. Your brain is really good at recognizing threats all around the body so that you can take action to minimize injury or death.
Strangely, your brain is not so good at self-care. Scientifically speaking your brain has no mechanical, chemical, or thermal receptors. Therefore, your noggin is the last to know when it is inflamed, or hurt because quite literally:
The Brain can’t feel its own Pain
Once a neurosurgeon is inside your head, no anesthesia is necessary for the neural tissues that get poked and prodded. The brain translates, records and transmits information about every aspect of you, just not about itself.
This makes brain injuries more insidious, not only for people with concussions, but also for chronic problems like, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
In the case of a bee sting or an agitated appendix, the body responds by dispatching a slew of chemicals and cells to kill and repair the damage. This is called an immune response.
Neuroinflammation is an immune response of the Central Nervous System (CNS) which includes the brain and spinal cord. It has been scientifically proven that all forms of inflammation whether in the body or brain benefit from cannabis.
Given marijuana’s great potential, let us explore the basics of neuroinflammation, and see how Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) may benefit from this herb’s medicine. Of course there are many other neurologically based disorders like autism, depression/anxiety, epilepsy, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), insomnia, ALS and Bells Palsy, but we can cover that in other articles.
First of all, not all inflammation is bad. Inflammation is your bodies SOS response to any sort of stress or attack. The problems arise when the body over responds or doesn’t shut off the response at all. The key players in neuroinflammation are nerve cells, microglia, astrocytes and the blood brain barrier.
Nerves also called neurons, are cells that pass information throughout the body, and brain. Similarly to a simple electric circuit, the messages are transmitted electrochemically. Chemicals (also known as neurotransmitters) change the electrical charge of a nerve cell. This “depolarization” sends the message down the body of the nerve (axon) until it reaches the next nerve cell.
Nerves send and receive messages all day and night about every bodily function, movement, thought and emotion. They are like the electrical wires in our house, only much more complex
Microglia are the brain’s specialized immune cells. Their function includes ringing the alarm bell when intruders arrive, as well as eliminating dead cells. Upon activation, microglia unleash a chemical storm (cytokines) that excite the nerves. Too much excitement can lead to nerve death (apoptosis).
Astrocytes are special star-shaped cells that hug the blood vessels in the brain. If a neuron were a superhero, the an astrocyte would be its side-kick. Alternatively, if the Devil Wears Prada, then astrocytes are like a highly skilled personal assistant. These special cells have many functions some of which are are to hold the neurons in place, provide oxygen to the brain and to help with repair.
The Blood Brain Barrier (BBB) is a protective boundary around most parts of your brain. The body likes to seal itself off from outside invaders like bacteria, viruses, parasites and a host of natural and man-made chemical toxins. Like a moat around a Medieval castle, the blood brain barrier guards who and what goes in and out of the central nervous system.
Basically the BBB is a cluster of tiny blood vessels called capillaries. But unlike the capillaries in your finger, the capillaries in your brain are more like overlapping scales that are highly selective about what can pass through. Astrocytes (see definition above) wrap around these tightly fitting capillaries, and together they are known as the BBB
Photo Credit – christopherreeve.org
In the case of neuroinflammation, this blood brain barrier is usually disrupted. This allows things to cross the brain’s protective moat, disrupting the neuron’s normal function. This neuronal disruption can make you feel angry, ill, tired, unable to move, think or be happy. Doctors call these conditions depression, epilepsy, Parkinsons, Alzheimers, multiple sclerosis or autism
But What Causes Neuroinflammation?
Acute neuroinflammation is a sudden blow to the head. The sudden bump unleashes an immune response to protect and repair the damaged cells. Chronic neuroinflammation is usually a combination of various factors: your genetics, environment, and lifestyle. Dr. Shade, of Quicksilver Scientific, has been hunting down brain assailants for decades. According to his research, some of the most infamous brain attackers are: mercury, glyphosate, mold toxins, gut toxins, lyme disease and electromagnetic forces (EMFs.)
Human mercury research was limited for many years, because it is still a controversial topic in the dental field. Most dentist give their patients an option for the cheaper silver amalgam fillings which are covered by insurance. Fifty percent of these metal fillings contain mercury. Mercury is a neurotoxin.
Due to its unstable chemical properties, mercury leeches or evaporates into your mouth and lungs when you drink hot beverages, chew or get the old fillings drilled out. Many western countries have already phased out mercury in dental fillings, but they are not banned in the USA.
The American Dental Association (ADA) as well as the conspiring insurance companies turn a blind eye to recognizing this substance as a neurotoxin. Ironically for the ADA, there is an increased toxic risk for dentists, and people who work in contaminated dental offices. Mercury increases neuroinflammation, and its associated diseases.
You may find other sources of mercury, parading around as seafood on your dinner plate. Tuna, swordfish and king mackerel are some of the most contaminated fish. Pregnant women are warned about certain types of fish consumption. Pescatarians near and far, be aware.
Some other places that mercury is lurking include make-up, certain corn syrup production, coal burning, and medicines. The complete list is rather long. For those 40 years and older, your first exposure may have come from playing with the captivating silver balls that rolled around your hand and floor after someone broke an old school thermometer. The greatest risk from playing with this liquid mercury is inhaling the vapors, which go straight into your blood and head
Although it depends on your exposure and overall health, removing mercury from your body can be tricky and even dangerous if not done correctly. Dr. Shade specializes in both accurate testing and safe elimination. The science is here, and we can no longer deny that mercury degrades the blood brain barrier, contributes to oxidative stress, and contributes to neuroinflammation.
Glyphosate also known as the weed killer: Roundup®
Weeding vs. dousing unwanted plants with chemicals, may be a question of time and cost, but where does this stand in relationship to our health? When chemical exposures don’t create immediate health effects, it becomes easier to ignore their long term impact. Sure, live in the moment, but don’t throw your common sense out with the bathwater.
Anthony Samsel is probably not a very popular man at Monsanto headquarters, as his 2015 study clearly shows how Roundup® disrupts neural pathways linked with autism, Alzheimer’s disease (AD), depression, anxiety syndrome and Parkinson’s disease (PD).
Even if you have tossed your personal stash of Roundup® and its generic counterparts in the landfill, pesticides and insecticides are all around us. They are used unflinchingly in conventional farming (80-95% of our conventional corn and soybeans are exposed), and local gardeners are still using glyphosate to kill weeds around parks, offices, playgrounds and your neighborhood.
Mold, Gut and Lyme Disease Toxins
Toxins come in many shapes and sizes. Some of these nasty toxin include mold (mycotoxins), toxins from leaky gut (dysbiosis), and toxins from nasty little ticks in the form of lyme disease.
When mold poses a threat in your environment, CBD is a proven neuroprotectant. Please do not ignore that musky biting odor wafting out of dark, moist and poorly ventilated places. And please avoid consuming moldy marijuana
“Mold toxic people, are everything toxic,” remarks Dr. Shade, as mold blocks your ability to detoxify everything. There are even studies that show an increased risk of disorders like Parkinson’s disease, autism, cerebral palsy, and schizophrenia in babies exposed to mold. Mold makes some of the nastiest toxins on earth, and yet chronic exposure is often swept under the rug. The symptoms are ambiguous or in medical terms “a difficult differential diagnosis.”
This can create a goose chase for medical practitioners to figure out what is actually the cause for certain neurological symptoms. Dr. Mary Ackerley’s journey is worth exploring if mold is on your mind or in your house. Note that cannabis may be one of your best options in detoxifying your mold-congested body. Weed upregulates the Nrf2 pathway to make more antioxidant proteins, the exact pathway that mold disrupts.
Leaky gut has gotten a fair share of limelight in the last years. Extra wide gaps in the intestinal walls allow toxins to leak into the blood. Once in the blood the toxins can disrupt the gut-brain axis. The bacteria in your gut may help digestion, but they are not intended to travel to the brain. For this reason, leaky-gut has been linked with depression and a host of psychiatric disorders, all linked to neuroinflammation. Acidic diets, stress, alcohol and food chemicals are some things that contribute to leaky gut syndrome.
Lyme disease comes from a tick bite. While most cases occur in the Northeastern part of the USA, and Europe, there are reports of it in 80+ countries around the world. Not everyone who gets a tick bite automatically gets lyme disease, and of the people who get lyme disease, not everyone has the same severity.
If you are one of the “unlucky” ones, acute neurological symptoms include everything from Bells Palsy (facial paralysis) to symptoms similar to Multiple Sclerosis. Lyme disease is complex, but if you or a loved one are suffering from neurological symptoms, CBD may reduce the inflammation that is happening in your brain.
Electromagnetic radiation (EMF)
Electromagnetic radiation is lurking all around us. The most obvious sources are your phone, and headphones, your laptop, wifi signals, space heaters, wearable devices like the apple watch, flying at high altitudes, x-rays, power lines, cozy electric blankets, smart meters, and baby monitors. The list is as long as the things that you plug into your house and more.
If you have a little time, the European Science and Health Commission has graciously put forward a 230 page guide to everything you did and didn’t want to know on this subject.
The electric and magnetic fields that these devices radiate disrupt cell membranes, break DNA strands, suppress your immune system, and rupture our dear friend, the blood brain barrier. Once the BBB is broken, all kinds of invaders can get into our brain. These attackers trip the immune cascade called neuroinflammation.
We are highly electrical beings. I wonder how much brain leakage I’ve already created by writing this article on my laptop?
A Fictional Entertaining Interlude (A Neuroinflammatory NIghtmare)
Imagine you are on a trail ride, when your horse spooks, bucking you to the ground. Unfortunately you hit your head on a rock hidden under the long in the grass. A lyme-diseased tick crawls up your pants and latches on.
You go home only to find that your pipes have burst causing a huge flood. The mold flourishes in the warm dog days of summer. You lay in bed with a mild concussion, too dizzy to check for ticks, inhaling mold toxins because the restoration company is too busy to come by for another week. You are bored, entertaining yourself binge watching Netflix and texting your friends all day long.
EMFs are zinging all around you. In hopes of cheering you up, your neighbor comes by with a whole weeks worth of mercury-laced tuna casserole, and somehow the gardener found an old bottle of herbicide, and decides that today is the day to kill the weeds right outside of your bedroom window.
What could you do to in this worst case scenario?
Hit the pipe and suck some CBD sour worms. Remove the tick, fire the gardener, dump the food, and stay in a hotel until your house is clear of mold. Find some good medical attention because your brain is in the middle of a fiery neuroinflammatory nightmare.
Ganja enthusiasts take note, while pot does offer medicinal support in the face of neuroinflammation, smoking weed or eating cannabutter toast all day long is not going to do anything about actually eliminating the source of inflammation. Find the tick, toxin or electronic trinket that is causing your troubles.
General Role of Cannabis in Neuroinflammation
Once there in an inflammatory trigger like those mentioned above, the brain’s immune system responds. The chemicals secreted by the microglia irritate the brain’s neurons. In return, the neurons secrete chemicals that reactivate the microglia creating a vicious cycle.
Round and around, the punches get passed back and forth. Some toxins like mercury and glyphosate directly insult the nerves. Furthermore, EMFs contribute to the mess by opening up the gates of the BBB, allowing mold, and gastro-intestinal toxins to pass to the brain.
Research shows that non-psychoactive CBD stops this inflammatory merry-go-around between microglia and nerve cells by suppressing the release of inflammatory cytokines. Phew! Marijuana is also known for calming the receptors that shoot out damaging free radicals.
Yes, this is a slight over simplification of the complex chemistry that happens, but what is clear is that cannabis is like a white truce flag stopping the inflammatory war that rages on inside the brain on various fronts. For a deeper understanding on this topic, watch this video.
Dr. Christopher Shade is one of the CBD-neuroinflammation gurus today. According to him, neuroinflammation is a systemic problem since toxins float all around the body. Detoxifying the gallbladder, liver, kidney and GI tract are equally important as offering neuroprotection to the brain in the form of cannabis. For his full spiel on neuroinflammation, Dr. Shade has various youtube videos for you to enjoy.
Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Recognizing that a loved one is sinking into oblivion is devastating. In addition to the daily challenges of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is the helplessness of knowing that there is no cure or a way to stop the slow progression. It feels like watching a slowly sinking ship, with your loved one on board.
The medical community has made advances in various detection methods, and there are drugs as well as alternative therapies that help relieve symptoms, but cannabis may bring about a new level of care.
No one is entirely sure what causes Alzheimer’s disease. It seems that there is a build-up of two types of lesions: amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. These plaques and tangles disrupt communication between neurons and block nutrient transport into the nerves.
This can lead to memory loss and cell death which leads to loss of various bodily functions. To visualize what is happening inside the brain, please watch this simple yet informative 4 min video. You will see neuroinflammation in action.
The video discusses the role of astrocytes, microglia and neurons with respect to Alzheimer’s. Yes, neuroinflammation is a key suspect in the origin of Alzheimer’s and its lesser severe cousin, dementia. The neurons degrade for years or even decades until symptoms appear.
Neuroinflammation is silent but deadly.
Photo Credit – http://n.neurology.org
Cannabis may be a beacon of hope in the bleak skies of amnesia.
In 2016 the prestigious Nature magazine published an article showing that activation of cannabinoid receptors block the clumping of amyloid plaques. Cannabinoids such as tetrahydrocannabinol (TCH) can even stimulate the removal of amyloid plaques, and block the inflammatory response.
While it is worth noting that the Nature.org study was conducted on cell lines, not in humans, the potential is exciting. Furthermore, studies suggest that if a 160 lbs person takes 7 grams of CBD for 7 days, that there is a detectable reduction in amyloid induced inflammation. Recent research on mice provides the first evidence that CBD may have potential as a preventative treatment for Alzheimer’s.
All this indicates that cannabinoids play both preventive and supportive roles in neuroinflammatory induced dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Parkinson’s Disease (PD)
Parkinson’s Disease is the second most prevalent chronic neurological disorder after Alzheimer’s. The distinctive shaking and hand tremors mostly point to the loss of brain cells that make dopamine. Though PD is more than just a dopamine problem, much of the research and treatment options focus on this pathway.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter best known for regulating the feelings of pleasure and reward, but dopamine is also responsible for motor control. Loss of motor control translates to jittery, stiff and slowly moving limbs.
Similarly to Alzheimer’s, and other neuroinflammatory diseases, the symptoms appear only when around 80 percent of the dopamine producing cells are already destroyed. There are no proven neuroprotective therapies that slow or reverse disease progression PD to date.
What throws a wrench in the dopamine mechanism? Oxidative stress, proteolytic stress, and inflammation kill the cells that produce dopamine. What causes all this stress? Environmental toxins are at the top of the list. Pesticides top the toxin list. Recall glyphosate’s (round-up®) role in neuroinflammation. Lesser known toxins include paraquat and rotanone.
It may not surprise you to know that farmers are 2.5x more prone to getting Parkinson’s than the general population. Scientists have found biologic evidence to back this up. Could decades of eating chemically contaminated foods contribute to neurological diseases?
While it is incredibly difficult to pinpoint just one cause, our toxic exposure starts in-utero and is never far away as we journey through life. Recall what Dr. Shade’s research suggests, neuroinflammation is a systemic phenomena that often starts with the toxins in our environment, through the things we eat, the air we breathe, the clothes we wear, the make-up we beautiful ourselves with, and the electronics that we surround ourselves with.
How does cannabis fit into the PD picture? Generally we know that cannabinoids quench neuroinflammation by calming excessive astrocytes and microglia activity. More specifically, research shows that the endocannabinoid system directly targets activity in the basal ganglia, the place where motor activity is regulated.
Unique among other neurological diseases which seem to benefit from the entourage of all cannabinoids, Parkinson’s prefers cannabinoids that lack CB1 receptor activity, as the activation of CB1 could actually make PD symptoms worse.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): Insight from Ricky Williams
Photo: Ricky Williams
Every year, millions of people in the U.S. suffer brain injuries. Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) happen when a bump, blow or jolt causes damage to the brain. More than half of these impacts require medical attention caused mostly by motor vehicle accidents, but military personal, athletes and daredevil toddlers are also well represented.
A concussion is one form of a TBI. Symptoms like dizziness and nausea often don’t appear until days or weeks following the injury. Recall that the brain is slow to know its own pain. Monitoring the pressure (and sometimes surgically relieving it) is the primary medical “treatment plan” for bruised brains, other than rest.
Once upon an injury, the brain initiates that immune cascade. The initial damage takes at least 3 weeks to repair. That said, this can be prolonged for months or years. Extended healing times are required if there are other underlying health issues (like toxins) or the brain is injured again during the healing process.
Even a minor re-injury can lead to nerve cell death, neurodegeneration, and long-lasting neurological impairments.
Who would be foolish enough to re-injure an already bruised head? Many people underestimate the repair process. As ex-NFL, now holistic healer, Ricky Williams explains, “because their livelihood is on the field, there is a lot of pressure to get back into the game.” This is one of the reasons that football has come under increasing medical scrutiny.
TBIs are not just about those big blows, but the “synergistic affect” of multiple smaller impacts. Performance pressure and re-injury may be more likely among professional athletes, but even non-athletes loath taking a month or two off for a little head injury. Loitering symptoms like low grade headaches or sudden sharp stabbing pains means that brains aren’t getting the rest, or support they need.
In terms of cannabis’ role on TBIs, a study in the magazine of Frontiers in Pharmacology sums it up best: Endocannabinoids: A Promising Impact for Traumatic Brain Injury. As an antidote to the immune response, cannabis may not only decrease symptoms, but even help speed up recovery after a head injury.
Any injury or disease is not just a physical phenomena, because “there is really no body-mind-spirit separation,” explains Ricky, “cannabis works on all levels.” While most medical research centers around the physical and mental uses of cannabis, ganja when used consciously has the potential of opening us up spiritually. When all aspects of our human self align, we are in our flow.
Flow is where healing happens.
With this in mind Ricky spent the last decade studying ayurvedic herbs and traditional chinese medicine to create various forms of CBD, THC or CBD+THC products that embody the term Real Wellness. The herb infused tinctures and vapes work synergistically with cannabis, but there are other ways we can support our damaged brains. Ricky’s #1 advice for TBIs is Cranial Sacral Therapy (CST) and acupuncture.
According to massage magazine, CST uses a certain kind of light-touch technique to relieve cell stress, which also balances the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord. This method increases the flow of spinal fluids which helps to eliminate harmful substances such as toxins.
Not surprisingly, all of these mechanisms lessen the effects of neuroinflammation, both chronic and acute. The Ricky William’s Foundation funded a pilot study that showed statistically significant lower pain, and improvements of memory, reaction time and sleep after a 3 months sacral cranial intervention. The study participants were 11 retired NLF and Canadian Football League players.
“If you have a high school age player, and resources allow it, seek out a sacral cranial therapist once a week,” suggests Ricky, “to be successful, you need to stimulate the bodies natural healing process.”
The Triple Whammy
The medical term for having multiple diseases all at once is comorbidity. In the world of neuroinflammation a triple whammy is having a TBI, which raises the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease (as well as other neurological disorders). While the initial head trauma may be unavoidable, the degree of ensuing neuroinflammation and how well you heal is yours to determine.
In Summary: Neuroinflammation and Cannabis at a Glance
- Neuroinflammation is an immune response in the brain and spinal cord
- Neuroinflammation is silent but deadly, symptoms often appear years or decades later
- There are various origins of neuroinflammation.
- Acute: head injury like motor vehicle accident or sports
- Chronic: toxins and EMFs
- Neuroinflammation appears in the head, but often starts with toxins in the body
- Neuroinflammation is the basis of many diseases including but not limited to:
- Traumatic Brain Injuries, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Autism, ALS, Bells Palsy etc.
- The immune response creates a self propagating cycle (vicious cycle)
- Cannabis quenches the immune response by calming microglia and nerve activity
- Sacral Cranial Therapy can help in alleviating immune stressed cells
- Cannabis can support the healing process holistically, body-mind-spirit
About the author:
Elli Ho MPH, a late-flowering cannabis convert, is dismantling the 420 stigma. As a researcher/nutritionist, mother and digital nomad, she explores the world, food and consciousness with humor, love and gratitude. See where in the world she is taking her next breath of fresh air @elliAloha or elliho.com