Cannabis Treats PTSD: What’s the Science Behind It?
Does cannabis treat PTSD? According to the VA National Center for PTSD, 8 million people — or 7 - 8% of the population — will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Given the epidemic of addiction and overdose deaths from prescription drugs including opioids and benzodiazepines, the field of emotional trauma is currently at a crossroads.
Research continues to show that when used appropriately, cannabis, and its active constituents, are a much safer therapeutic option to treat persons suffering from PTSD than many commonly prescribed medications or other substances used to “self-medicate,” such as alcohol or illicit drugs.
What is PTSD?
PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening or traumatic event. Some of the common events people are exposed to include:
- Natural or Man-Made
- Car Accident
- Sexual Assault
What Are The Symptoms?
While there are numerous possible PTSD symptoms, they can be categorized as one of the following:
- Reliving or Re-experiencing the Event
- Emotional Numbness & Avoidance of Places, People, and Activities (Trauma Triggers)
- Negative Changes in Beliefs & Feelings
- Hyperarousal (feeling “keyed up” in response to environmental stimuli)
How Can Cannabis Help PTSD?
There are two key ways cannabis can help individuals with PTSD:
Cannabis Can Relieve PTSD Symptoms:
Most commonly prescribed drugs don’t treat the underlying physiological causes of PTSD. For example, most people who are afflicted with PTSD have a clinical deficiency. They are deficient in “anandamide.” In fact, when patients with PTSD were compared to controls, patients who suffered from PTSD had over a 50% reduction in their anandamide levels
Anandamide is an important neurotransmitter, that’s also considered to be the “body’s own THC.” In fact, as it’s a source of joy and happiness, it’s often called the body’s “bliss molecule.” Cannabis can help correct this clinical deficiency. Interestingly, other activities including exercise or eating dark chocolate, stimulate production of anandamide. You’ve heard of the “runner’s high?” Accumulating evidence suggests anandamide is responsible for creating this “natural high.”
Another way cannabis helps with PTSD is through a mechanism called “aversive memory extinction.” PTSD patients frequently complain of recurrent memories of traumatic events. THC actually helps patients “forget” these memories to a point where they are far less painful.
Cannabis Treatment Provides a Safer Alternative to Other Drugs & Alcohol
It’s estimated that between 70 and 80 percent of individuals suffering from PTSD develop substance abuse problems. Given that many PTSD sufferers abuse (or are at risk) for developing substance use disorders (SUDs), cannabis can be an effective pathway to get off or significantly reduce reliance on more dangerous drugs.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014, there were 18,893 overdose deaths from Rx opioid medications (i.e. OxyContin), and 10,574 fatal heroin overdoses. Further, alcohol — a popular form of self-medication — is a depressant that significantly put users at risk for suicidal ideation and completion of plans to commit suicide. You’ve probably heard, 22 veterans commit suicide everyday. When including drug and alcohol-related deaths by veterans, some estimate the number to be as high as 50 per day.
PTSD doesn’t affect only soldiers. Many men and women who’ve experienced significant trauma in their lives — such as physical and sexual abuse — experience PTSD.
When comparing cannabis to other substances, cannabis clearly has a better safety profile and is less addictive than alcohol and other drugs. However, it’s important to keep in mind that given the fact individuals who have PTSD are at higher risk for developing substance dependency problems, they should closely monitor their cannabis use and supplement treatment with complementary natural treatments including psychotherapy, lifestyle changes (healthy diet and exercise), and participating in a support group.
Dr. Michael Hart, the head physician at Marijuana for Trauma in Canada and one of the foremost experts on PTSD & cannabis in North America explains: “Cannabis can be an extremely effective treatment for PTSD. We’ve seen countless situations where patients had become dependent on opioids, alcohol or antianxiety medications and were seeing their symptoms worsen,” said Dr. Hart. “Cannabis, as an adjunct to other forms of therapy, can be highly effective and relatively safe. But, to achieve the highest potential for success, it’s critical for patients to supplement treatment with regular exercise program and healthy dietary changes.”