How Cannabis can Help with PTSD
Most people have experienced a situation at some time in their lives that has triggered their ingrained “flight or flight” response which is an ancient and instinctual means of dealing with a perceived threat. However, serving as a survival mechanism, every time a person experiences this response, their brain stores the memory of the experience and the emotional state that accompanies it.
But, although some people manage to relegate the memory to their subconscious, others experience flashbacks which then reawaken the emotional response associated with their traumatic experience due to the fact that the human brain is hard-wired in such a way that it prioritizes emotional responses over rational thought. Fortunately, some studies have shown that cannabis can help alleviate the overwhelming fear associated with traumatic events.
What is PTSD?
PTSD or, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is defined as a psychiatric disorder which is characterized by a person reliving emotional responses caused by a traumatic event or, series of events. Consequently, although PTSD is most often thought of a condition associated with soldiers who have seen combat, it can also be caused by witnessing or experiencing a violent act such as a sexual assault, a horrific traffic accident, a natural disaster or, even the death of a loved one. Consequently, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is characterized by certain common symptoms. For instance:
- Reliving a traumatic event – This symptom can range from nightmares in which the human brain transforms the event or events into a surreal series of images and associated emotions to, overreaction to certain stimuli to, flashbacks and, even reliving the entire event to the point where the memory obscures reality.
- Hypersensitivity – This symptom is characterized by heightened anxiety and hypertension which can make a person unable to relax and can also cause insomnia, difficulty concentrating, and hypersensitivity to everyday life as well as exhibiting aggressive or, even destructive, behavior.
- Avoidance – This symptom is characterized by an emotional withdrawal which often leads to a person losing interest the events of everyday life, the people that they associate with and, severe depression as well an unwillingness to discuss the traumatic event that is the cause of their avoidance.
In addition, each of these symptoms can be experienced either individually or simultaneously and they commonly begin shortly after experiencing a traumatic event and the duration of the symptoms can range from several years to the lifetime of the patient.
Consequently, recovering from PTSD can require an extensive regimen of psychiatric therapy involving Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) which helps to reprogram a person’s brain to acknowledge that they are no longer in immediate danger combined with pharmaceutical medications such as antidepressants and anxiolytics.
However, while some patients find that therapy does alleviate their symptoms, others find it difficult to achieve long-term relief and this type of PTSD is classified as “treatment-resistant”. Therefore, people suffering from treatment-resistant PTSD are more likely to seek out alternative treatments such as cannabis.
Because people suffering from PTSD tend to have a significantly higher rate of substance abuse and addiction than those who don’t suffer from PTSD, until recently, most of the research done on cannabis use associated with PTSD has been done to investigate substance abuse issue. However, in recent years, several studies have been conducted to explore how cannabis can serve to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD.
In fact, one of the largest studies on the use of cannabis to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD was published in 2015 by the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program. However, the study lacked a control group in which participants were given a placebo. Nonetheless, researchers collected the psychiatric evaluations 80 PTSD patients who used cannabis alleviate their symptoms and found that 75% of the patients who participated in the study reported that cannabis did reduce or alleviate their symptoms.
In addition, because Canada has one of the highest rates of PTSD of any country in the world (one study found that 9.2% of Canadians suffer from PTSD at least once in their lives), a study conducted by Canadian Forces Health Services Operational Trauma and Stress Support Center focused on the effect of Nabilone (a synthetic form of THC) on 47 former soldiers and concluded that 72% of the patients reported an improvement in sleep quality as well as a significant reduction in daytime flashbacks.
Furthermore, researchers at the Brazilian Federal University of Santa Catarina conducted a study in which they fist subjected lab rats to a mild electric shock in their feet in order to engender a Pavlovian response which would be activated whenever they were placed in a similar situation.
This study concluded that CBD (the second most prominent cannabinoid found in cannabis) is able to disrupt fear memories ranging from 1 to 7 days old when administered in doses of 10 mg/kg.
Best Cannabis Strains for Alleviating PTSD
Regardless of what you might read to the contrary, you should be aware that cannabis affects different people differently and thus, a stain that works well for the majority of people may not work well for you. Therefore, you should pay close attention to how both cannabinoids and terpenes interact with the Endocannabinoid System.
In addition, you should also be aware that the two most abundant cannabinoids contained in cannabis are THC and CBD and that THC, when ingested in high doses, can induce both paranoia and anxiety which can be detrimental to patients suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
However, when taken in lower doses, studies have shown that THC can alleviate PTSD symptoms. But, you should also be aware that CBD tends to moderate, and can even counteract, the psychoactive effects of THC. Thus, people who suffer from PTSD should probably choose strains that have a 1 to 1 ratio of THC to CBD. That way, they can be reasonably certain that they will not become paranoid and thus, worsen their condition.
Last but not least, you should be aware that cannabis also contains molecules called Terpenes which cause each cannabis strain to emit a distinct scent. However, contrary to the popular belief that terpenes only affect the smell of individual cannabis strains, when combined with other cannabinoids, terpenes produce a variety of effects.
For instance, Myrcene is a terpene that is commonly found in “Landrace” Indica strains and commonly makes users feel sedated while Limonene, which is commonly found in landrace Sativa stains, makes them feel euphoric and energized. Thus, by better understanding terpenes and how they interact with THC and CBD as well as how both THC and CBD affect the human body and the human psyche, you can choose cannabis stains that will enable you to tailor your cannabis experience in a manner that is pleasing to you.
So, the answer to the question of whether or not cannabis can help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD is apparently “yes, it can” and numerous studies have provided evidence to support this conclusion. However, it is important that patients who decide to use cannabis to alleviate the symptoms of their PTSD choose their strain with care by noting and comparing the level of THC to CBD in order to achieve the desired the effect. But, once the preferred strain is determined, cannabis can be a highly effective, non-pharmaceutical, treatment for the symptoms of PTSD. Always be sure to talk openly with your doctors, therapists, and psychiatrists when considering an alternative form of medication. We are not medical doctors and cannot offer medical advice but we do love to share and discuss studies and information that is currently available.