Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a condition that develops after a traumatic period in a person’s life. This condition is characterised by flashbacks or nightmares reliving the traumatic moment the person faced, which may cause sleep avoidance. Other symptoms include panic attacks, hypervigilance, social withdrawal, self-harming behaviours and overwhelming emotions.
PTSD is often misunderstood as a condition that only affects veterans, but statistics reveal that 1 in every 10 people in the UK are expected to experience PTSD at some point in their lives. There are a number of reasons why someone may develop PTSD, but the most common are:
- Physical assault
- Sexual assault
- Serious accident or injury
- Sudden, unexpected death of a loved one
- Witnessing or being a victim of a shooting or stabbing
- Child’s life-threatening illness
- Natural disaster.
Common treatment methods include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, exposure therapy, eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) and medication like antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. Unfortunately, these treatments and therapies do not work for everyone, and we find that many PTSD sufferers turn to alcohol or drug abuse to relieve their symptoms, or even taking their own lives.
In recent years, the use of medical cannabis as a PTSD treatment method has been brought to the forefront. Although patients with PTSD have repeatedly reported that using cannabis has helped them cope with their symptoms far better than any medication did, it is only now that we are starting to understand why this may be so.
The role of medical cannabis in the endocannabinoid system
The body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) is an intricate system of cell-signalling which plays a role in regulating body functions like:
- appetite and digestion
- inflammation and other immune system responses
- liver function
- reproduction and fertility, and
- memory and learning.
The endocannabinoid system has three main elements: endocannabinoids, receptors and enzymes. Endocannabinoids are molecules made by the body which help your body’s internal functions to run smoothly. Receptors, on the other hand, bind with the endocannabinoids produced by the body to signal to your endocannabinoid system that it needs to take action. FInally, enzymes break down the endocannabinoids once they have completed their function.
Medical cannabis contains two major compounds that interact differently with the endocannabinoid system to produce different results. THC or tetrahydrocannabinol binds with the two types of receptors in the body to signal to the ECS to take appropriate action. These receptors are:
- CB1 receptors, commonly found in the central nervous system,
- CB2 receptors, commonly found in your peripheral nervous system.
Cannabidiol or CBD, the other compound in medical cannabis, on the other hand, is believed to prevent the breakdown of endocannabinoids, allowing them to have a greater effect on the body. THC is the compound that contributes to the “high” that comes with taking cannabis-based products.
Medical Cannabis and PTSD
Now that we understand what the body’s endocannabinoid system is and how medical cannabis interacts with it, let’s take a look at the efficacy of using medical cannabis to help relieve symptoms of PTSD.
It is important to remember that medical cannabis itself may not be able to treat PTSD, but it may be able to help manage the negative emotions, suppress the traumatic flashbacks and panic attacks that come with PTSD. This can help you sleep better and respond better to your treatment. Medical cannabis is used in conjunction with other treatments and therapies for best results.
An endocannabinoid present in the body called Anandamide is often known as the “bliss molecule” because it can help create positive emotions in the body. The molecules present in medical cannabis stimulate the same receptors as Anandamide, causing a reduction in feelings related to fear and anxiety, boosting mood and may bring the body back to homeostasis from a state of hyperarousal and hyperstimulation caused by traumatic flashbacks.
- CBD as a PTSD treatment:
Cannabis products containing only CBD can help with some of the symptoms associated with PTSD, such as reducing anxiety, suppressing fear memories and improving REM sleep. CBD also works with the serotonin and dopamine receptors in the brain, in addition to anandamide, to promote regulation and production.
- THC as a PTSD treatment:
THC, on the other hand, works very much like anandamide and has a similar molecular structure. Because anandamide works on the areas of the brain responsible for memory, pleasure, concentration and coordination, THC may have a direct link to lowering anxiety, improving sleep, increasing relaxation and decreasing emotional and physical response to traumatic flashbacks.
Although the use of medical cannabis as a PTSD treatment has remained controversial over the years, recent research is starting to reveal that there may be some truth to it, after all. A study funded by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment carried out by researchers at a number of universities showed that PTSD sufferers who used medical cannabis not only saw a greater reduction in PTSD symptoms, but were also 2.57 times more likely to recover from their PTSD when compared to a control group.
In the UK, medical cannabis can only be prescribed by a registered specialist. It is also unable to be used as a “first-line treatment”, which means that the patient must have used at least two other treatments and therapies without success before being eligible for a medical marijuana prescription.