New Research Reveals How Cannabis Combats PTSD


According to the journal Pharmacy & Therapeutics, as many as 500,000 U.S. troops who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been diagnosed with PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Panic attacks
  • Nightmares
  • Being hyper alert 
  • Severe emotional swings
  • Detachment from society 

Most troubling, PTSD can lead to veterans committing suicide. According to a United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) report, an average of 20 veterans die from suicide per day.

Standard treatment for PTSD, according to the Mayo Clinic, includes different modalities of psychotherapy and medications. Pharmaceutical remedies for the condition include antidepressants, anti-anxiety and the drug, Prazosin. These PTSD medications, however, may come with side effects. 

Many veterans use cannabis sativa to naturally relieve PTSD symptoms. Cannabis sativa is the family of plants that includes marijuana and hemp. 

Although VA doctors may discuss marijuana use with veterans, because marijuana is a Schedule I drug, VA health care providers may not recommend it or write a prescription for veterans to obtain it. However, CBD, the non-psychoactive component (users don’t feel high) of marijuana, and the most prevalent chemical compound in hemp, is legal in all 50 states, so long as the CBD is extracted from hemp and not marijuana, and does not exceed 0.3% THC (the chemical in pot that makes users feel high). 

New Studies Shed Light On How Cannabis Can Ease PTSD Symptoms

Two recent studies show how cannabis (both THC and CBD) may help veterans with PTSD. 

Forbes reports that one study suggests cannabis reduces activity in the part of the brain associated with fear responses to threats (the amygdala). Veterans who took low doses of THC showed measurable signs of reduced fear and anxiety in situations designed to trigger fear.

The other study, which was conducted in Brazil suggests cannabis has the potential to “overwrite” traumatic memories with new memories in a process called ‘extinction learning.’  Phytocannabinoids, or plants that possess cannabinoids, such as hemp extract, may then play a role in extinguishing traumatic memories. 

Cannabis interacts with the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a network of receptors throughout the body. When activated, the receptors play an integral part of many bodily systems. With PTSD, it’s believed that the ECS undergoes alterations. The ECS, among its many functions, regulates brain cell (neurons) function and the stress response. There are two main ECS receptors: CB1 and CB2. 

THC and CB1 

CB1 receptors are abundant in the brain. These neuroregulators play a part in decision making, emotions, cognition, learning, memory, anxiety, fear, pain, reward, and addiction, among other functions. 

Cannabis, by activating CB1 receptors, may help reignite the learning extinction process. This would thereby help a veteran with PTSD in, say, travelling across a bridge without triggering the fear associated with a previous combat experience of a bridge blowing up. 

The memory of the explosion would still be there, but the fear and anxiety triggered by travelling over a bridge in the present may be mitigated by cannabis. 

What To Do About THC-Triggered Anxiety

Besides the legal complexity of marijuana, there is another problem associated with the drug. In some users, THC use can itself trigger anxiety. While the findings from the study are good news from PTSD sufferers, if THC can contribute to anxiety, what’s a veteran to do? Interestingly, CBD, the second most abundant molecule in marijuana and the first in hemp extract, counteracts THC. 

Therefore, if a veteran with PTSD chooses to use marijuana, he or she can choose a low THC product. Or, a veteran can use a higher-THC strain and separately use CBD oil to dampen the psychoactive effects. This provided that a veteran lives in a state that has legally approved either medicinal or recreational marijuana. VA benefits, however, do not include marijuana or CBD oil for therapeutic use. 

Other Psychoactive Drugs For PTSD

Psychoactive drugs such as hallucinogenic mushrooms and ecstasy have also been shown to improve PTSD symptoms. However, this treatment should be conducted under the supervision of a psychologist or other qualified professional.

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