Shell Shock. Battle Fatigue. Soldier's Heart. While cannabis may be a great alternative for some anxiety-related symptoms, is it enough to combat PTSD?
We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.
For as long as trauma has existed, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has closely followed. During most of the twentieth century, it was a staple in a soldier's post-war life, albeit under several different aliases. Though it wasn't properly diagnosed until 1980, its symptoms, however, have never changed.
Now, PTSD affects eight million people in a given year, and its treatment has evolved as many times as its own identity. Cannabis is now considered a viable treatment for symptoms like anxiety, depression, and insomnia. PTSD, on the other hand, is not simply a sum of its parts, and neither is its treatment.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a trauma-induced mental health condition that can develop after experiencing a single or repeated exposure to a traumatic event. The development of PTSD is not restricted to any kind of psychological vulnerability, gender or demographic; one in thirteen people will develop it at some point in their life.
Common symptoms of PTSD include insomnia, nightmares, cognitive impairments (such as re-living the event), and agitation. Long-term effects can include emotional numbness, avoidance behavior (like alcohol/drug dependence) and increased aggression.
Each case of PTSD differs in terms of severity and symptoms, and the triggers which may cause PTSD can vary from person to person. Additionally, around forty-two percent of PTSD patients are likely to have other conditions like anxiety, depression and substance abuse. This means that its treatment needs to be tailored on a case-by-case basis.
Treatment usually includes a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), cognitive processing therapy, mindfulness activities, exercise, and anti-depressant medication.
Anti-depressants are used to help regulate and raise serotonin levels in the brain while also aiding sleep and increase relaxation. While medication is beneficial for alleviating depressive and anxiety-related symptoms, there's a risk of developing an addiction and tolerance to the medication – which again, is more likely among those suffering from PTSD. Additionally, depending on the person, anti-depressants also come packaged with side effects of nausea, drowsiness and even increase the likelihood of insomnia.
Cannabis has become a viable treatment alternative in conditions where conventional medicine has otherwise failed. It has a bank of anecdotal evidence in support of its therapeutic properties that help aid pain-relief, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. The plant can work its magic and interact with our brain's neurotransmitters to help assist in how we think and feel.
This is process starts and ends with our endocannabinoid system (ECS).
Can Cannabis cure PTSD?
PTSD is highly focused on threat detection, mental processing, and emotional regulation. This means that when this is out of balance, the ECS needs a bit of boost to get things back to homeostasis. Cannabis naturally, can be the perfect fit to help with this.
The overall consensus for using medicinal cannabis in PTSD patients is mixed. This is likely due to a lack of clinical trials, small sample sizes and incorrect administration and dosage of cannabis. Despite this, there is a large bank of anecdotal support for cannabis use for anxiety-related symptoms. Amongst others, cannabis has also proven to help aid insomnia, cancer-related pain, and epilepsy.
Clinical research is becoming more encouraged as medicinal marijuana is growing in demand. Meanwhile, PTSD has become the focus of several trials to investigate the benefits of the plant. This is due to ongoing research into the ECS and the CB1 and CB2 receptors. Focusing on their influence and interaction with neurotransmitters responsible for day-to-day functioning.
When the cannabinoids of the cannabis plant, namely, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabinol (CBD) interact with our ECS, they release its CB1 and CB2 receptors. Each receptor is responsible for a task: CB1 takes responsibility for the regulation of emotions, pleasurable feelings and how we process pain. The CB2 receptor focuses on the central and nervous systems while also being linked to reducing inflammation in the brain.
Notably, in PTSD patients, CB1 receptors can reduce stress, depressive symptoms, and threat perception. The CB2 receptors, on the other hand, can reduce inflammation in the brain associated with PTSD symptoms. It's a simple process with a highly effective outcome.
In 2019, a trial for cannabis oil for Australian military veterans was launched for those who were suffering from PTSD symptoms. Veterans who have had unsuccessful attempts in a successful recovery via conventional medications were encouraged to join the trial in to test the CBD-oil over 12 months.
Similarly, according to Canadian research reports, reimbursements for medicinal cannabis use among military veterans have consistently increased since 2011. PTSD is listed as a common reason for seeking prescriptions.
Further reports reveal that many PTSD patients admit to self-medicating with cannabis to help aid help its symptoms and get a good night's sleep.
On the other hand, some studies suggest that the administration of THC has little to no effect on the symptoms of PTSD. Other researchers note that this might be due to its co-morbid symptoms like depression and anxiety, creating an uncertainty if the benefits are helping PTSD directly or just the comorbid symptoms.
Despite the ongoing research supporting its benefits, as previously mentioned, the co-morbidity of PTSD can risk the effectiveness of cannabis use. While cannabis can help aid insomnia, depending on the strain, it can also heighten anxiety. And if cannabis helps with insomnia and anxiety, it then also poses a moral dilemma for those who have pre-existing substance abuse problems.
Using cannabis as a treatment option should first and foremost start with a conversation with a health-care professional. The medicinal benefits of the plant can be administered through many avenues, choosing the right one for you requires time and research.
No Strain, No Gain
Without understanding the plant there is little chance of finding the right strain to help with your specific circumstance. Cannabis can have a lot of benefits, but it can also do some damage (or not have any effect at all) if it's not right and tailored to what you need.
PTSD is a complex disorder and its treatment requires planning. It's important to reiterate that cannabis (if deemed viable by a health professional) should be included in your existing treatment plan and should not be used as a replacement for therapy.
As cannabis is becoming more accepted and legalised in the medical community, the information available about different strains is becoming more well-known. While there is an abundance of strains available to help with PTSD, here are a few examples:
Harlequin: a CBD-rich strain with enough THC to aid those sleepless nights. While CBD is known for its array of wellness benefits and is a great mood regulator, its THC content has been reported to fend off nightmares.
Girl Scout Cookies (GSC): a cross between the Sativa dominant Durban Poison and Indica dominant OG Kush. Durban Poison releases an energising high, its OG Kush makes you feel well-balanced and relaxed. The result: great for inflammation and mood.
Cherry Pie: A hybrid strain that is known for its cerebral stimulation whilst also promoting relaxation and is considered a favourite for stress and use in PTSD patients.
There's no quick fix
PTSD is a complex, consuming disorder. There's no quick fix. Cannabis, however, is a viable treatment option to be considered to help combat PTSD by reducing perceived threats and help regulate cognitive processing.
Anecdotally, PTSD patients have praised the effects of the plant in aiding the symptoms of PTSD. It's also been considered an influential factor in the recovery process. This has increased research to substantiate these claims, subsequently raising awareness and understanding of the plant.
Research is building in favour of medicinal cannabis for PTSD patients. However, it's important to understand that different strains and forms of administration can affect people differently. One strain will benefit one patient and have an adversely different effect on the next. If cannabis is a potential option for treatment, it's important to seek advice from a health-care professional.
PTSD recovery is an extensive process that requires a combination of treatment therapies. Cannabis is certainly not the be-all-and-end-all of treatments, but it may help ease the process.
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