According to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation (UMDF), between 1000 and 4000 children in the United States are born with the disease annually. The disease results from the failure of mitochondria, which are specialized structures in the blood stream that functions to process oxygen and convert nutrients to energy that the body can utilize to sustain life and support growth. Mitochondrial disease is a chronic genetic disorder and there are many forms of the disease, with varying symptoms that tends to affect each sufferer differently. The handful of studies that evaluate the effect that marijuana has on mitochondrial disease, largely focuses on its efficacy at helping patients manage the symptoms associated with the disease, including seizure control and pain reduction. While the data is primarily anecdotal, published research suggests that the cannabis compound cannabidiol (CBD), can potentially serve as a therapeutic treatment for the disease in reducing particular symptoms.
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)
When cells throughout the body are destroyed by mitochondrial disease, the brain, kidney, heart, liver, skeletal muscles, and the respiratory and endocrine systems become highly susceptible to damage and can fail in performing their function. The damage or system failure can result in symptoms such as loss of motor control, muscle pain and muscle weakness, gastrointestinal disorders, cardiac disease and liver disease, diabetes, developmental delays and poor growth, and seizures, among others. The function of the mitochondria is controlled by the endocannabinoid system (cellular and physiological regulatory system) that activates cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. The ECS is known in part, for its role in controlling energy balance, and the activation of cannabinoid receptors have proven effective in nutrient oxidation and energy production.
In a German animal study that focused on the endocannabinoid system’s role in mitochondrial health, it was found that cannabis enabled improvement in the mitochondrial function in rodents. The study led researchers to suggest that cannabis acts as a trigger, releasing antioxidants that cleans the ECS by removing damaged cells, thereby, improving the efficiency of mitochondria. In essence, cannabinoids in cannabis act as regulators of mitochondrial activity, anti-oxidants, and cleaning mechanism, which supports a healthy system. Therefore, cannabis has been shown to have the capability to be effective at increasing mitochondrial activity. Still, this animal model is only a preliminary study and no direct conclusions could be made about how it could translate into a human model. Human models could provide more answers about how cannabinoids such as CBD may potentially aid in directly treating mitochondrial disease and not just its symptoms.
Cannabidiol (CBD), Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and Tetrahydrocannabinolic Acid (TCHa)
While studies are lacking that proves that CBD is beneficial in treating mitochondrial disease directly, there is strong evidence to support its possible efficacy in treating the symptoms of the disease, particularly seizures. In one study completed by 137 patients suffering from varying forms of severe epileptic seizures, they were administered a liquid form of CBD on a daily basis for 12 weeks to evaluate the efficacy of cannabis therapy; there was a 54% decrease in the number of seizures, with a 53% decline in patients with convulsive seizures, and a 55% decline in “atonic” seizures (results in sudden loss of muscle tone).
The therapeutic benefits of the psychoactive chemical compound THC is supported by solid research, and is believed to be effective as a nausea suppressant, muscle relaxant, appetite stimulant, and pain reliever. However, tetrahydrocannabinolic acid or THCa, a non-psychoactive compound (precursor to THC) derived from raw and live cannabis, is showing promise as a therapeutic agent with anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic (subdue muscle spasms) benefits. Despite these perceived benefits, both THC and THCa are in the infancy stage of research, and as such, their direct benefit, if any, as a therapeutic treatment for mitochondrial disease is unknown. Still, what evidence do exists points to both as being useful in treating some of the symptoms often connected to the disease.
In order to explore the benefits of different cannabis compounds in treating mitochondrial disease and its symptoms more human research is necessary. In the United States, Georgia is the only state that has authorized medical marijuana explicitly for treatment of mitochondrial disease. Several other states have approved prescribed medical marijuana to treat particular symptoms (pain and seizures) of mitochondrial disease. The case for further studies into the efficacy of CBD, THC and THCa in treating mitochondrial disease is a valid one. Interest in cannabis and its medical benefits is only increasing, and perhaps future changes in the laws that currently place restrictions on cannabis could possibly lead to life changing cannabis treatments.