Medical marijuana is used to treat a number of mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety disorders. As the research on medical marijuana grows, it’s becoming clear that cannabis can treat PTSD patients, too.
A lot of the available research on cannabis and PTSD is about PTSD patients – especially military veterans – who become dependent on cannabis. While some people do use marijuana as an unhealthy coping mechanism, cannabis can treat PTSD patients in a way that improves their overall quality of life. Here’s how.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a disorder that occurs in people who have experienced a traumatic event. These traumatic events can include military combat, abuse, sexual violence, natural disasters, and assaults, to mention a few examples.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), about 3.5 percent of U.S. adults suffer from PTSD, and it’s estimated that in 11 people will experience PTSD in their lifetime.
The symptoms of PTSD include:
- Intrusive memories and thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares about the traumatic event
- Avoiding anything that reminds the patient of the event, including people, places, and objects
- Hyperarousal including being easily irritated, struggling to concentrate or sleep, being easily startled, and having outbursts of anger. This might include participating in self-destructive behavior.
- Feeling guilty or ashamed, having a low sense of self-worth, feeling distrustful of others, and constantly feeling anxious or unsafe.
Many sufferers of PTSD are also affected by other mental illnesses, including depression, other anxiety disorders, and personality disorders.
PTSD and the endocannabinoid system
Humans have an endocannabinoid system, which is affected by cannabinoids – the active chemicals in cannabis. This system naturally releases a number of different chemicals, some of which can affect our mood.
Clinical trials have shown that PTSD patients experience a change in endocannabinoid activity. Notably, they have lower levels of anandamide. Anandamide, also known as the ‘bliss molecule’, is a mood-lifting chemical which is released when we exercise. This research has led researchers to suggest that the endocannabinoid system should be targeted by PTSD treatments.
THC and anandamide stimulate the same receptors in our endocannabinoid system. When we use cannabis, that THC replaces anandamide, thus ‘correcting’ a deficiency. A small study conducted in Israel showed that orally-administered THC significantly improved the PTSD symptoms of the participants. Unfortunately, the study only involved ten PTSD patients, which means the sample size was way too small to provide definite evidence. That said, it will hopefully lead to further research and the development of more effective THC-based treatments for PTSD patients.
Research on how cannabis can treat PTSD symptoms
While there needs to be more research on cannabis and PTSD, many studies have suggested that medical marijuana can bring relief to patients.
A 2015 study looked at the experiences of 80 psychiatric patients suffering from PTSD. The patients’ PTSD symptoms improved significantly after they used medical marijuana. While a placebo-controlled study would be necessary to confirm that cannabis is an effective treatment for PTSD, these results are promising.
One symptom that cannabis can really improve is a lack of quality sleep. Many PTSD patients struggle to sleep due to insomnia, hyperarousal or constant nightmares. Having an irregular sleeping pattern can worsen one’s mood, creating a cycle of negative feelings. Cannabis can ease this problem by being a sleep aid.
Many cannabis users note that certain strains prevent them from dreaming. This can be a lifeline for PTSD patients if they tend to suffer from nightmares. Because of this, many PTSD patients use cannabis to improve their sleep. A 2009 study showed that nabilone, a synthetic cannabinoid, helps PTSD patients improve their quality of sleep. The patients were suffering from nightmares despite the use of anti-depressants and other treatments. About 72% of the participants said that their nightmares stopped or felt less intense.
Marijuana can also reduce feelings of anxiety. PTSD is classified as an anxiety disorder, and many patients often feel hypervigilant and tense. Cannabis can treat PTSD-fuelled tension, bringing patients a feeling of relaxation.
Of course, not all strains are suitable for all PTSD patients. Strains high in THC, for example, might make some users paranoid and anxious. This could aggravate a lot of symptoms in PTSD patients. The key is to experiment and research strains that work well for others.
PTSD and access to medical marijuana
Medical marijuana has brought many PTSD patients relief. Unfortunately, it isn’t available everywhere. Even in regions where medical marijuana is legal, not every PTSD patient has access to healthcare services. For this reason, advocacy groups like Veterans for Compassionate Care are campaigning for access to medical marijuana to those who suffer from PTSD and other illnesses and disorders.
There is good news, though. Earlier this year, a cannabis trial for veterans with PTSD was finally approved by the FDA. According to Tonic, the FDA has taken seven years to give researchers the green-light. Researchers believe this ground-breaking study will shed more light on the ways in which cannabis can treat PTSD patients.
Hopefully, this study will lead to the creation of better policies and more effective treatments for all PTSD patients.