Post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety condition afflicting more than 7 million people in the United States. It was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980 after a large number of Vietnam War veterans returned to the United States with debilitating symptoms of this severe and often untreatable condition. While war veterans are likely candidates to develop PTSD, any person who experiences a highly stressful, traumatic, life-threatening or otherwise catastrophic event may develop this psychologically crippling condition. Up to 20 percent of military men and women returning from combat in Iraq or Afghanistan are estimated to be suffering from PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD are characterized in three classes: re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyper arousal (also described as flashbacks, social isolation, and insomnia). Another incredibly tragic trait often associated with PTSD sufferers is suicidal thoughts. Sadly, a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014 stated that an average of 22 American veterans are taking their own lives every day after returning home from service. The report states that nearly all of these veterans suffer from PTSD or have traumatic brain injuries.
The human body contains systems that are filled with neuromodulators (receptors) and these sophisticated receptors help regulate a variety of physiological processes including movement, mood, memory, appetite and pain. In much the same manner that the human body’s endocrine system receptors respond to opiates – the root compounds of many pain relieving medications like morphine, codeine and hydrocodone (Vicodin) – the body’s endocannabinoid system receptors respond to the compounds present in cannabis called cannabinoids.
Anxiety is regulated by the endocannabinoid receptors that line the human brain, and while it is natural for a person to experience symptoms of anxiety, the severity of symptoms should dissolve over time. When the body does not produce enough anandamide, the endocannabinoid responsible for controlling anxiety, PTSD is more likely to develop. A patient may be diagnosed as suffering from PTSD if anxiety symptoms such as flashbacks, depression, social withdrawal, insomnia or night terrors, interfere with daily life or last longer than five weeks. Cannabinoids bind to the same regulatory receptors in the brain as the anxiety regulator, anandamide. It is believed that people diagnosed with PTSD exhibit lower natural levels of anandamide when compared to non-PTSD sufferers. An expert that has studied PTSD as part of Project CBD states that “anandamide triggers the same (endocannabinoid) receptors that are activated by THC and other components of the marijuana plant.” A clear connection as to why medical cannabis can be effective in alleviating the symptoms of PTSD.
Although the regular use of medical cannabis may not cure PTSD, researchers in New Mexico, the first state to authorize the use of medical cannabis in the treatment of PTSD, revealed in a 2014 study that PTSD symptoms can be reduced by up to 75 percent with the use of cannabis. A 2014 study conducted in Israel at the University of Haifa and published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that THC and CBD help to block or inhibit the painful memory of the traumatic event – effectively, these cannabinoids work to allow the subject to naturally and beneficially suppress the memories of traumatic or frightening events. “The findings of our study suggest that the connectivity within the brain’s fear circuit changes following trauma, and the administration of cannabinoids prevents this change from happening.”
Despite the lack of clinical research and human trials, anecdotal information is abundant. Many PTSD sufferers report that cannabis helps keep their symptoms at bay better than any pharmaceutical counterpart. Amy Rising, the veteran of the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan known for bravely sharing her story with the Washington Post in November of 2014 in an effort to raise awareness for the need for medical cannabis treatment options for veterans suffering from PTSD, pointed out that the only thing that kept her symptoms under control while allowing her to remain in control was the regular use of medical cannabis.
Trauma neurosurgeon and CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, focused on the use of medical cannabis in the treatment of PTSD in the “Weed 3 The Marijuana Revolution” special that aired on April 20, 2015. In the special, Dr. Gupta along with famed PTSD treatment specialist Dr. Sue Sisley analyze the anecdotal evidence and scientific research available and support the use of cannabis by PTSD sufferers, especially when compared to the more commonly prescribed pharmaceutical medications.
A PTSD patient who is a health care professional and had significant reservations about using cannabis stated, “I wanted to feel better, to be myself again, and to be the person I was before the PTSD. I smoked the pot. Immediately I felt relaxed and calm. I smiled and laughed. I finally felt at peace for the first time in two years. I slept my first night in three years without the sleep medication.”
Cannabis species and cannabinoid concentration preference among sleep-disturbed medicinal cannabis users.
Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol alone and combined with cannabidiol mitigate fear memory through reconsolidation disruption.
Elevated brain cannabinoid CB1 receptor availability in post-traumatic stress disorder: a positron emission tomography study.
Cannabis use among military veterans after residential treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder.
While research has shown cannabis to be effective in providing palliative and therapeutic effects for some patients, always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before starting any new treatment utilizing medical cannabis or discontinuing an existing treatment. The content on this site is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.