Cannabis as a Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

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As long as people have gone to war, the warriors and victims have suffered horrors to their bodies and minds. Their bodies have often proven more resilient than their psyches.

War has not monopoly on trauma. The loss of loved ones, the loss of property in a natural disaster, the affliction with pain and suffering – all leave brutally deep pain.

Cannabis is proving a successful option for people seeking relief from this post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD in simple terms

The staff at the Mayo Clinic defines PTSD as follows: “a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”

In terms of everyday life, people who experience traumatic events often have trouble adjusting for a while. But, continued suffering marks PTSD for months and years.

PTSD Symptoms

PTSD symptoms occur in different people to different degrees. But, per the National Center for PTSD at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, symptomatic behaviors include:

  1. Reliving the event in nightmares or flashbacks.
  2. Avoiding situations or people that remind of the event.
  3. Feeling generally negative, guilty, or shameful about things.
  4. Losing trust and faith in people and circumstances.
  5. Experiencing hyperarousal, a sharp anxiety, jitteriness, and anger.

These experiences too often combine in number and intensity and take the form of self-destructive behaviors including suicide.

PTSD Treatment

The National Institute of Mental Health cites value in psychotherapy and medications.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps sufferers to identify triggers and management skills. It might include Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) that slowly exposes the victim to the trauma from a safe position. It fosters coping and fear management,

It may also include Cognitive Restructuring or Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) to help victims to make sense of what happened. Therapist and patient look at the event from a more realistic perspective to relieve guilt and shame.

Medications emphasize Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs). They work on the neurotransmitters that are linked to fear and anxiety, and the pharmaceutical industry is competing for solutions. This brain circuitry us the same area targeted by cannabis.

The Reality of the Cannabis Option

As long as people have suffered such continuing pain, they have sought ways to self-medicate. If they do not seek professional help, they may turn to alcohol, violence, addictive drugs, and other options to escape the stress. 

Without justifying or recommending those options, some relief mechanism is at work in these negative behaviors. The same inference can be made from when considering how marijuana has become the go-to treatment for many military veterans.

An article in Newsweek (08/02/2015) quotes cannabis research pioneer Sue Sisley, “There is no doubt that marijuana is a drug. It has benefits, risks and side effects. Anybody who tells you marijuana has no side effects, well that’s not true. We are trying to do a study where both efficacy and benefits are addressed.” 

Admitting that caution, there are issues that deserve accelerated research on treatment of PTSD with cannabis or derivatives:

  1. Heavy reliance on the currently prescribed anti-depressants is burdened with side-effects.
  2. Anti-psychotic medications are addictive and last resort solutions.
  3. Current research on cannabis is obsessed with the dangers in cannabis use.
  4. Research has shown a significant 75% reduction in Clinician Administered PTSD Metrics (CAPS) when patients use cannabis.
  5. Researchers think that marijuana may soothe excessive neuronal activity in amygdala and hippocampus where the fright and flight response originates.
  6. Research on rats and mice continue, but funded research on human patients has been limited.

Cannabis Strains for PTSD

Research is well away from looking at the efficacy of specific cannabis strains. But, available research favors strains with high enough CBD content to offset the THC.

Given that Sativas create a risk to sleeping, patients should avoid anything aggravating their insomnia or an excited brain activity that might trigger problems. And, Indica plants with short-flowering histories tend to produce product with high THC and low CBD balance.

(Note: The strains listed here are descriptive of cannabis strains offered for consideration only. Their chemical makeup indicates potential values in treatment of the anxiety, apprehension, depression, insomnia, and panic attacks associated with PTSD.)

  • Chocolate Chunk is 100% Indica. The name comes from the wisp of chocolate amid earthy and forest aromas. Despite its very intense high, it leads to a stress-free body high that last for 2-3 hours or a good night’s sleep. Users warn of its very high potency.
  • Pot of Gold is a Indica dominant hybrid. It releases a black hash aroma and flavor with some fruit. It’s heavy cerebral high comes early with a 15% THC content that relieves pain and stress.  Users warn of super potency, but rate it A++ for its long lasting high.
  • OG Kush makes everyone’s list for its earthy, specie, and lemony tastes, not to mention its super high. A strong hybrid with 24% THC and 0.23% CBD, it produces a quick euphoric impact some find debilitating. A deep body effect relieves migraines, bipolar disorders, PTSD, ADD, and other health problems.
  • ICE (Indica Crystal Extreme) is Indica dominant with 18% THC. It leaves users couch-locked. The high lasts up to three hours and helps insomnia, anxiety, and migraines. Users also report euphoria and creative energy.
  • Northern Lights is the ancestor of many influential strains. Undistinguished in taste or aroma, Northern Lights provides a heavy punch. Indica heavy (95/5%), it leaves smokers inactive and sedated. An old-school favorite, Norther Lights has proven effective for anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, nervousness, and more.

Cannabis Edibles for PTSD

Dr. Marcel Bonn-Miller is directing approved research studies of cannabis edibles at the Denver’s Institute for Research on Cannabinoids. As the studies begin using human consumers, he is cautious about outcomes, “Emerging data has highlighted the benefits of THC for nightmares among individuals with PTSD, and the benefits of CBD for sleep, fear extinction, and anxiety.”

He confirms expectations of positive effects on PTSD, but his immediate concern is with dosage. Bonn-Miller continued, “the greatest challenge in terms of the research on edibles is understanding exactly what cannabinoids each edible product contains. A study by our group last year highlighted that labels of many edible products inaccurately reflect their actual content.”

Indications are that, while THC-dominant edibles may be beneficial for PTSD patients, quality control, efficacy, and dosage remain untested and undefined.

The relevant conclusion

To paraphrase the Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, the pioneering research of Hebrew University’s Raphael Mechoulam matching the psychoactive THC with the brain’s endocannabinoid neurotransmitter system. While his focus was on the potential for treating Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Diseases, the chance that cannabis could extinguish memory could reduce or eliminate the association between stimuli and the past trauma.

As with so many things related to cannabis and PTSD, funding the research, considering government, political, and social restrictions, presents unnecessary and damaging delays.