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Cannabis and PTSD: What the Research Says

Cannabis and PTSD: What the Research Says

Cannabis users have long claimed that this natural botanical can offer a wide range of health benefits. And emerging studies show that several cannabis compounds, including the cannabinoid known as CBD, can have profound benefits for users' mental health.

Emerging research shows a renewed interest in cannabis and PTSD — and the findings may usher in a seachange for how the debilitating disorder is treated.

In short, a growing body of research now supports what some PTSD sufferers have long argued, even through criminalization and social stigma: cannabis to treat PTSD may be a key tool for living with this life-altering disorder.

Living With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a potentially debilitating disorder that may surface after individuals experience physical, emotional, or other forms of trauma. The disorder can manifest in many different ways, making PTSD difficult to live with and treat.

Several of the most common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Flashbacks of past traumatic events

  • Regular, severe nightmares

  • Uncontrollable surges of emotion

  • Panic attacks

  • Depression

  • Detachment from loved ones

  • Hypervigilance and feelings of being constantly on guard

  • Alcohol and substance abuse

  • Self-harm, including suicide

While it disproportionately affects military veterans, individuals from all walks of life can suffer from PTSD.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD affects approximately 3.5 percent of US adults every year, and as many as one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime.

Traditional PTSD Treatments Have Failed, But Many Have Found Success With Medical Cannabis

Many traditional treatments for PTSD exist.

These can include styles of therapy such as Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

Other treatment methods rely on prescription drugs, most often including SSRIs or other antidepressants alongside anti-anxiety medications.

But despite these varied treatments, PTSD is notoriously difficult to treat. While a particular treatment regimen may work for certain individuals and types of trauma, there are no generally accepted treatment options that are effective for most PTSD sufferers.

Cannabis and PTSD

Despite struggles with traditional treatment methods, many PTSD patients have claimed success with a long-stigmatized treatment: cannabis.

Even as medical and recreational cannabis gain greater acceptance throughout the US, the treatment remains controversial. In some jurisdictions, cannabis use is still harshly punished, and marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Cannabis use is undeniably on the rise, however, and there are even signs that the federal government may deschedule marijuana, effectively making cannabis-based treatments far more widely available than before.

For those who have found success using cannabis to treat PTSD, that's extraordinary news. And coupled with emerging research that supports more liberal use of cannabis-based products for this difficult to treat disorder, the future of PTSD treatment may just be set for a revolutionary improvement.

Research Into Cannabis Based Treatment Options for PTSD

Mounting research supports the use of cannabis for treating certain symptoms of PTSD. The focus of such studies has been broad, but two recent studies in particular help shine light on the how and why of cannabis's interaction with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Cannabis and the Amygdala Response

A 2020 study from Wayne State University looked into the way that cannabis affects the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain believed to be responsible for associating external stimuli with emotional responses.

When the mind senses an external threat, the amygdala responds by triggering a flight or fight response, which is sometimes referred to as "amygdala hijack".

This releases two stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, into the bloodstream. These hormones can have a powerful effect on behavior, including:

  • Raised heart rate

  • Aggression

  • Anxiety and hyper-alertness

When triggered in response to a legitimate and immediate threat, amygdala hijack can help avoid harm or even escape from a life-threatening scenario.

But for people living with PTSD, amygdala hijack can occur in response to everyday occurrences that pose a perceived but not actual threat. In such situations, the release of stress hormones can lead to misunderstanding, unnecessary conflict, and lingering embarrassment and social anxiety.

The Wayne State study found that THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid found in marijuana, significantly lowered subjects' amygdala response to deliberately stressful stimuli. In other words, THC helped reduce the fight-or-flight response from exterior stimuli, even when a legitimate exterior threat was perceived.

Tellingly, this study tested both subjects with PTSD and trauma-exposed subjects without PTSD symptoms.

These findings are strong evidence in support of cannabis-based treatment for PTSD. By reducing the impact of amygdala hijack, cannabis treatments may enable people with PTSD to more easily navigate daily life, reduce hypervigilance and anxiety resulting from the disorder, and otherwise better cope with the stressors that PTSD imposes upon them.

Cannabis and "Extinction Learning": Overwriting Traumatic Memories

Another 2020 study examined the impact of cannabis compounds on the way that the brain stores traumatic memories, focusing particularly on memories of trauma experienced by PTSD patients.

Even for those who do not suffer from PTSD, traumatic events can have a lasting impact by causing amygdala responses in situations similar to the event that caused the initial trauma. Over time, however, the amygdala response is lessened as new memories help to diminish the impact of the traumatic memory.

This important process is referred to as "extinction learning", as new associations gradually render the original traumatic stimulus "extinct."

In patients with PTSD, however, extinction learning has a dramatically reduced impact. Many PTSD patients find that memories of the initial trauma persist through years, even through many new instances that would otherwise contribute to the extinction learning effect.

The 2020 study, carried out by researchers at Brazil's Federal University of Parana, performed a review of existing research on cannabinoids' impact on extinction learning.

The results were telling and lend powerful support for the idea that THC and CBD, two of cannabis's primary cannabinoids, can assist extinction learning and reduce the impact of traumatic memories.

Researchers concluded that, "At low doses, THC can enhance the extinction rate and reduce anxiety responses." Further, CBD in conjunction with THC treatments could "attenuate anxiety while minimizing the potential psychotic or anxiogenic effect produced by high doses of THC" and that use of THC could "suppress anxiety and aversive memory expression without producing significant adverse effects if used in low doses or when associated with CBD" (emphasis added).

In short, the research is a resounding call for greater acceptance of and research into the use of cannabis compounds to treat resilient traumatic memories that trigger the harshest symptoms of PTSD.

Cannabis and PTSD, In Closing

Emerging research into cannabis and PTSD may offer new, effective treatment methods for those living with this difficult to treat disorder. In fact, recent studies confirm what many have long argued: that cannabis-based treatments can offer a powerful, natural tool for improving the lives of those struggling with trauma.

But as with all things cannabis, more research is needed before concrete conclusions can be drawn.

When it comes to dosage, regular use, and the role of cannabis in a treatment regimen, only a medical professional can adequately guide those living with PTSD.

Before pursuing a cannabis-based treatment for PTSD symptoms, be sure to consult your physician about your symptoms and treatment goals.

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