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The Essential Guide to CBD for Autism and ADHD

The Essential Guide to CBD for Autism and ADHD

When all of the hoopla with CBD oil began, I remember vowing to myself, “I will NOT give my child marijuana.” Fast forward eighteen long months and a whole lot of trial and error with improving our son’s behavior, and I found myself holding our first tiny bottle of full-spectrum hemp oil.

It took a lot of self-education on my part (and a little convincing from my hubby) but I’ve gone from being a complete skeptic to a huge proponent of using CBD oil for Autism and other behavioral disorders in kids.

I’ve since learned that CBD and marijuana aren’t necessarily the same thing, although they do belong to the same family. Kind of like that uncle you swear is only a distant relative, these two plants have similar DNA but are two different species.

Despite limited research here in North America, parents of kids with Autism and ADHD that have tried cannabidiol (CBD) claim to have had some pretty amazing success. Nonverbal kids have started speaking full sentences, hyperactive kids are now able to sit still and concentrate, and behaviors like aggression and anxiety have been greatly improved.

Still not convinced? I don’t blame you! I wasn’t either! But the “proof is in the pudding” as they say! Keep reading to find out more about what CBD is, the nitty gritty on legality, and some in-depth info on different terpenes to look for.

What CBD Is (And What It Isn’t)

CBD for Kids with Autism and ADHD

There’s a lot of misinformation when it comes to cannabis. Let me start off by restating that CBD and medicinal marijuana are not the same thing. Both come from the cannabis plant, but the difference lies in the active compounds called cannabinoids.

Cannabis is a flowering plant that has three well-known varieties – Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. For thousands of years, this plant has been used for a wide range of medicinal and industrial purposes. Cannabis contains over 80 chemicals called cannabinoids that each have unique properties.

Two of the most abundant cannabinoids are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). THC is known for its psychoactive properties and is what gives people a “high.” CBD is non-psychoactive and is known for its calming and healing properties.

Over time, people began cultivating certain strains of cannabis with higher concentrations of THC for recreational purposes. Marijuana plants are high in THC with smaller amounts of CBD.

You may have heard the term “hemp oil” and wondered what hemp has to do with CBD. Cannabidiol comes from hemp plants that contain higher levels of this cannabinoid. In many cases, “hemp oil” is synonymous with CBD oil, but hemp oil can also refer to a plant-based oil used for cooking and as a vegetarian source of omega-3 fatty acids.

Is CBD Legal?

CBD for Kids with Autism and ADHD

Thanks to the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD containing less than 0.3% THC is now legal in the United States. Keep in mind that certain states and counties may have their own laws that prohibit the sale of hemp products despite Federal legalization.

CBD that comes from marijuana or contains higher amounts of THC may not be legal in all 50 states, and in many cases requires a prescription from a doctor for conditions like Autism. Thankfully, most of the benefits people find with treating behavioral conditions in children are from CBD, not THC.

Despite the Farm Bill, using cannabis medicinally remains a widely debated topic. A lot of the confusion stems from how this plant was vilified over the last century. The cannabis plant used to be considered part of our pharmacopeia, having been used by physicians and natural healers since antiquity.

Typical of most plant-based medicines, as pharmaceuticals grew in popularity, a select group began spewing negative propaganda around the cannabis plant until it was eventually removed from the US Dispensatory in 1942.

By the 1970s, the federal government had classified marijuana as a Schedule I illegal substance with no medicinal value. Even scientists were limited in their ability to study the cannabis plant and conduct research because it was considered a classified substance. Other than illegal recreational use, the hemp plant was almost forgotten.

Then, in the 1980s, scientists made an interesting discovery that brought hemp back into the spotlight. Up until then, CBD was believed to be a natural precursor to THC. Now, they uncovered the truth – that CBD and THC are two entirely separate cannabinoids.

In 1996, California became the first state to legalize the medical use of cannabis, paving the way for many other states that soon followed. The passing of the 2018 Farm Bill also opened the door for greater research and knowledge about what this plant can actually do.

How Does CBD Work?

CBD for Kids with Autism and ADHD

In the early 90s, scientists made another amazing discovery that relates to CBD – they found an entire biological system in the body known as the endocannabinoid system. Without this system, cannabis wouldn’t have any therapeutic benefits in the body!

This complex system is found throughout the brain and nervous system and plays an important role in many bodily functions. Research is still uncovering all that this system does, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that it helps to bring about homeostasis – or balance – in the body and may even prevent many diseases.

The endocannabinoid system also helps to regulate things like sleep, mood, reproduction, metabolism, and growth thanks to its influence on the endocrine system. Our bodies can even produce our own endogenous (internal) cannabinoids when it needs them.

There are three main elements that make up the endocannabinoid system and all three are required for it to function properly.

The first is endocannabinoids, which could be external like cannabis, or internal such as the ones our own body makes. One endocannabinoid produced in the body is called anandamine, and it binds to the same CB1 receptor in the brain that THC does. Rather than producing a “high,” anandamine has a calming effect.

The second is receptor sites, which are found on the outside of cells and provide a place for cannabinoids to bind to. CB1 receptors are found within the central nervous system, and CB2 receptors are in the peripheral nervous system (places like the immune system and digestive system).

Finally, there are metabolic enzymes, which actually destroy endocannabinoids after the body has used them.

Cannabidiol binds to CB1 and CB2 receptors, improving their function. For example, CBD has been shown to stop the breakdown of anandamide so it can have an even greater calming effect (1).

Plenty of research has found that CBD stimulates our own healing process, reducing inflammation, lessening pain, and even treating chronic conditions. I won’t delve into all that CBD can do since this post is targeted at behavioral disorders like Autism and ADHD, but if you’re curious you can go look up some of the other uses and you’ll be amazed!

This chart is from the research paper: Role of Endocannabinoids on Neuroinflammation in Autism Spectrum Disorder Prevention. The authors believe that regulating the endocannabinoid system in ASD could be an effective tool to prevent or delay the progression of the disease.

CBD for Autism & ADHD

CBD for Kids with Autism and ADHD

People are turning to CBD for improving conditions like chronic pain, epilepsy, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and more. What many of these have in common with Autism (ASD) and ADHD is their connection to brain health.

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that relay information throughout the body and brain. Endocannabinoids work by attaching to receptors on neurons and controlling what messages they send. They can help regulate things like mood, anxiety, hunger, focus, pain, sleep and so much more.

Children with Autism and ADHD have imbalances in neurotransmitter function within the brain (2, 3). Animal studies on Autism have discovered dysfunctional signaling of the endocannabinoid system, and they believe this is likely to be true in humans with Autism too (4).

One study of 93 children with Autism and 93 neurotypical children found that kids with ASD had lower circulating levels of the main endocannabinoids including anandamide. Another study of kids with and without Autism found that children with ASD had lower circulating levels of anandamide.

Two of the neurotransmitters that the endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating are GABA and glutamate (5, 6).

GABA is the most abundant inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, responsible for inhibition of behavior. Glutamate, on the other hand, is the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. The balance between these two neurotransmitters is essential for healthy brain development and functioning.

Up to 80% of children with Autism also have ADHD and between 20-50% of those with ADHD also have Autism (7). Why do these two neurodevelopmental disorders frequently co-occur? Scientists believe it has to do with a genetic link that causes a glutamate–GABA imbalance in the brain, resulting in many of the behaviors typical of these two disorders (8).

Not enough research has been done to know exactly how CBD regulates mood and behavior in kids with Autism and ADHD, but researchers believe it may possibly involve GABA and glutamate transmission regulation (9).

Other possible benefits may be related to oxytocin and vasopressin, neurotransmitters that play an important role in social behavior (10). You may have heard of oxytocin being referred to as “the love hormone” because it promotes parental and societal bonding.

When oxytocin is given to kids with Autism, it has been shown to improve social behaviors, strengthen interactions, increase eye contact, improve emotional regulation, and minimize repetitive behaviors (11). Research has discovered that CBD can enhance oxytocin and vasopressin release during activities that involve social interaction (12).

CBD for Kids with Autism and ADHD

Oxytocin promotes the release of our internal cannabinoid, anandamide, and this activates CB1 receptors which are necessary to experience social interactions as rewarding. While this research is still in its infancy, it is promising for conditions like Autism and ADHD that involve poor social interactions and bonding.

So far, there haven’t been many research studies on the use of CBD in children with Autism and ADHD. Some studies are planned here in the US, but for now, the best data we have comes from countries like Chile and Israel.

The Israeli government is much more progressive when it comes to research on cannabis, and they recently undertook a study involving 60 children with Autism (13). The kids were treated using a combination of CBD/THC in a 20:1 ratio at a dose titrated up to 10mg/kg/day. Children were treated for at least 7 months, and the results were astounding:

  • Behavioral outbreaks were improved in 61% of patients
  • Communication problems improved in 47% of patients
  • Anxiety was reduced in 39% of patients
  • Stress was reduced in 33% of patients
  • Disruptive behavior was reduced in 33% of the patients

Another recent Israeli study analyzed the data from 188 patients with Autism (3.7% also had a diagnosis of ADHD) who were treated with CBD/THC at a 30:1.5 ratio between 2015 and 2017 (14). At the six-month mark, over half of the patients had moderate improvements in their symptoms with minimal side effects. The authors concluded that:

“Cannabis in ASD patients appears to be well tolerated, safe and effective option to relieve symptoms associated with ASD.” –2019 Scientific Reports

A Chilean study involving 21 children with Autism used a combination of CBD/THC and found that most cases improved in at least one of the core symptoms, including communication, language, and repetitive behaviors (15). Sensory issues, food challenges, sleep disorders, and seizures also improved. In this small sample, the researchers found that oral cannabis was more effective than conventional medications.

Some of the most challenging symptoms we’ve faced with our son who has ASD are anxiety, aggression, and hyperactivity. CBD shows a lot of promise in treating many of these symptoms too. Another study involving 53 Autistic children who were treated with CBD found that self-injury and rage attacks improved in 67.6%, hyperactivity symptoms improved in 68.4%, sleep problems improved in 71.4%, and anxiety improved in 47.1% (16).

If you’re the parent of a child with Autism or ADHD, you may already be convinced that CBD is worth a try based on all of these amazing results. It’s important to know that while symptoms improved in many patients, they did get worse in a small number in each of these studies. Some of the differences in why certain kids improve and others get worse may be to the terpene levels in different types of CBD.

Terpenes

CBD for Kids with Autism and ADHD

What are terpenes? If you’ve ever used lavender to help you fall asleep or tea tree oil to clear up a breakout on your face, then you’ve already experienced the healing properties of terpenes. These organic, aromatic compounds are found in plants and are what enable essential oils to provide us with some many amazing benefits.

While there’s been a lot of buzz about cannabinoids and their effect on the body, terpenes are just as important. Scientists have now discovered that these two compounds work together synergistically, creating something called the “entourage effect.” Basically, this means that the whole plant works better together than when we try to isolate just a single compound.

Around 20,000 different terpenes have been discovered, and 100 of those are from the cannabis plant. Terpenes can either intensify or reduce the effects of cannabinoids. Have you ever wondered why one strain of CBD has you wired and another practically causes you to pass out? The reason is in the various types of terpenes found in different strains of the cannabis plant.

Some of the properties of terpenes include:

  • anti-inflammatory
  • relaxing
  • stimulating
  • regulating mood
  • promoting sleep
  • pain-relieving
  • soothing muscles

For example, Myrcene is a terpene in CBD that is also found in thyme, lemongrass, and mangos. It is known for its calming properties and the ability to help promote sleep. On the other hand, Terpinolene is a fruity terpene also found in lilacs, nutmeg, and cumin. This terpene is known to be energizing, providing an uplifting effect.

If you’re a parent of a child with Autism or ADHD and are trying to target certain symptoms, knowing the terpene profile of the CBD you’re using is especially important. The last thing you want it to give your child a dose before bed to help them sleep, only to have them bouncing off the walls at midnight (been there, done that).

Most companies list their terpene profile, but if you can’t find it on the bottle or their website, reach out to their customer service department and ask. If they aren’t able to provide this for you, they probably aren’t a reputable CBD company.

Adding essential oils is one way to boost certain terpene levels (for example, lavender contains Linalool), but some companies now specialize in selling individual bottles of terpenes that you can add to your CBD for an even greater effect.

If you’re interested in adding in terpenes with specific properties, check out these four-packs by a company called Elevation. This pack is their “Relaxation” kit and contains Beta Caryophyllene, Linalool, Myrcene, and Terpinolene. If you’re looking for something more energizing and uplifting, this pack contains D-Limonene, Humulene, Alpha-Pinene, and Orange-Oil Valencene.

Is CBD Safe in Kids?

CBD for Kids with Autism and ADHD

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of long-term studies to show us the safety of using CBD in kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a systematic review in 2017, looking at all of the research up to that point that had been done on the use of medical cannabinoids in children.

While they concluded that additional research is needed, of all of the studies they reviewed, the greatest side effects came from THC. The most common side effects for CBD were sleepiness, diarrhea, and decreased appetite.

There are some questions about potential drug interactions, especially with anti-seizure medications and psychiatric medications.

The important thing to remember before starting CBD or any other new supplement with your child is to speak with your child’s trusted medical provider. Doctors are not trained on CBD in medical school, so they may not be fully aware of the latest research. Many integrative medicine practitioners and biomedical doctors are educating themselves on the benefits of CBD so that they can help guide patients and their families in making these decisions.

Here are some resources to help you find a medical practitioner to guide you in your journey:

MAPS Directory: These practitioners have taken extra training in treated children with special needs using a functional medicine approach.

IFM Directory: The Institute for Functional Medicine has a directory of practitioners who practice using a holistic body and mind approach.

The Society of Cannabis Clinicians: This is a directory of clinicians who cannabis experts and support its medical use.

Finding the Right Dose

CBD for Kids with Autism and ADHD

I wish I could tell you the exact formula that will work for your child (I wish I knew for mine too), but the truth is – there isn’t one (and I’m not legally allowed to give “medical advice”). CBD works differently in each person depending on a multitude of factors like the various cannabinoids, the child’s endocannabinoid system, liver function, and more.

Another interesting fact about CBD is that at lower doses, it is stimulating and at higher doses, it is calming. The first few times we gave our son CBD, he was bouncing off the walls. He couldn’t sleep, his behavior seemed worse, and we actually second-guessed our decision.

If you currently use stimulating medications or have a non-verbal/low-functioning child, a lower dose may work. But if you are looking to tame behavior or improve things like sleep and hyperactivity, a higher dose will be necessary. The various terpenes will also make a difference since some are calming and others are stimulating.

So what’s considered a low or a high dose? In most of the studies that I listed above, the dose was titrated up to 10/mg/kg/day. In the review of 188 children treated in Israel between 2015-2017, a combination of CBD with THC was the most effective and an additional evening dose of 3% THC oil was given for patients with insomnia.

I belong to several groups on Facebook for parents who use CBD for their child, and there are a lot of different recommendations when it comes to dosing. Most agree that when they started their child at a lower dose, the symptoms worsened. When the dose was increased, they improved.

If you have questions about dosage, I recommend speaking with your pediatrician or a doctor who is trained in using cannabis with children.

How to Give CBD to Kids

CBD for Kids with Autism and ADHD

You’ve ordered the CBD, you figured out the right dose for your child…now how do you give it? There are many different forms of cannabis. There are gummies, pills, tinctures, oils, lotions, and vapes. One of the fastest forms for absorption is vaping, but not every parent feels comfortable doing this with their child (I personally don’t but there are many parents who do).

Edible CBD in the form of gummies or baking made with cannabis can be a great way to disguise the taste, but it does lower absorption and takes longer to become effective. With edibles, you’ll usually notice an effect between 30 minutes and 2 hours depending on how much food is in the stomach, etc.

Placing drops of oil or tincture under the tongue is another quick method for absorption through the oral mucosa. If you choose an oil form and have a child who is capable of holding the oil under their tongue for between 30-60 seconds, this would be the ideal choice.

CBD doesn’t have the best taste, especially if it has THC in it too. To overcome this, many brands offer flavoring which can be VERY HELPFUL for kids.

When in doubt, placing the oil in juice or another preferred beverage usually does the trick.

Which CBD Brand is Best?

CBD for Kids with Autism and ADHD

With the growing popularity of CBD, there are many companies to choose from. Here’s a list of what I look for:

  • Full-spectrum oil: This means it has all of the cannabinoids, terpenes, and botanical compounds to take advantage of the “entourage” effect.
  • Third-party testing: Having published results that verify the company has tested their oil through an independent tester for things like potency, purity, no additives or other harmful chemicals.
  • Organically grown: Just like other plants, it is important that the hemp was grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides.
  • High potency: When it comes to dosing kids, high potency can be a lifesaver. When the concentration is higher (meaning there are more mg/mL), you require less oil to get a higher dose.
  • Transparency: Some companies go out of their way to demonstrate the high quality of their products. You can find or request things like terpene profile, where and how the hemp was grown, the extraction method, and more.

I’ll be honest. Sometimes it can take a little trial and error to figure out the best brand for your child. I know some families who have one child taking a certain brand and another child taking a different brand. Playing around with adding in terpenes is another way to enhance the calming or stimulating properties.

That being said, I know you still are wondering which brands I recommend. We are still trying out different brands to see which ones work best for our son, but here are a few we feel good about recommending.

  1. Lazarus Naturals – They offer a full-spectrum oil that is also high-potency (50mg/mL). You can find info on their site about the contents of their oil and testing showing it is free from harmful substances including heavy metals. Their chocolate-mint is a flavorful, kid-friendly choice.
  2. Charlotte’s Web – This is another company that is loved for its purity and transparency. If you have a child who absolutely will not take oral CBD, their hemp-infused balm contains 300 mg per oz. and is free from harmful substances.
  3. Sativa Organics – This water-soluble concentrate has 30 mg/serving and is 10x more bioavailable than oil-based CBD. Water-soluble means it is readily absorbed and starts working faster too. This extract is organically grown and cultivated.
  4. Hemp Bridge – These CBD gummies contain 125 mg per gummy and are another kid-friendly option. The ingredients are non-GMO, organic, and vegan. They are made from American grown hemp and undergo third-party testing.

Some Final Thoughts

If you have been skeptical about using CBD for your child, I can totally relate. I was dead-set against it until I took the time to research how it works. Now, I am blown away by the research about why children with behavioral disorders like Autism and ADHD often improve with CBD.

If you’re still not convinced that it’s right for your child, speak with your pediatrician or another health care professional who is educated on the benefits of CBD.

If you are anything like me, there are moments when you feel like you have reached your breaking point. Moments when you feel like you’ve tried everything and nothing is working to help your child. If that’s you, CBD may be the hope you need. I can’t promise it will work, but it’s worth a try!

Have you used CBD for your child? What was your experience like? Leave me a comment below and let me know!

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